No matter how successful you are, change is always good. There can never be a status quo. - Billy Beane
We are runners. Clarifying that fact and avoiding labels, in my opinion, opens more doors for success. We aren't a marathon runner. A 5k runner. A miler. An ultra runner. We run races, and we train to run races to our best ability, whether that race is five minutes long or five hours. To be a runner requires a range of skills, and the courage to address weaknesses and make those weaknesses better. It's scary to work on weaknesses because it might mean failing, being out of our comfort zone, or struggling in a way we might deem foreign, but it will help you improve and become a better runner.
The most often over-looked piece of the running puzzle, at least based on my anecdotal experiences from Impala to Impala, is maximizing basic speed and optimizing our finishing kick. All the aforementioned races benefit from some kick, and training for one should never be neglected.
"But Pete, at the end of a race I always get out-kicked. Doesn't that mean I have no speed?" No, person I made up for this article, it doesn't. Perhaps you have no kick because you've never worked on one, but there is always room to improve and maximize our own personal ability.
Why might a kick be important?
There are a few ways to see a value in the kick, but for clarity, there is zero value to kicking hard if you can't get through the majority of the race at a strong pace (in other words, kicks don't matter if you don't have race fitness), but if your aerobic strength is dialed in, you've done a healthy dose of LT runs, long runs, and all things Impala Tuesday, you can get to the closing meters of a race and maximize your race with a nasty Nancy Thomas like kick. That is assuming that in addition to your overall fitness as listed above, you've also trained yourself to kick. A strong kick can swing your overall place by several spots, but it can also swing team scores. The NCAA Division I Women's Cross Country Championships, for example, was determined by one point this year. The fifth runner for Oregon out-kicked the fifth runner for Michigan, swinging the score two points in Oregon's favor. (Maybe if you had worked a little harder, I wouldn't have to do this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0E7EaRLmSI&feature=youtu.be&t=163 )
It can also make a big difference in race time. Let's say you have a goal of running 6 minute pace for a 5k on the track - 18:45. You run 11 and half laps at 90, but if you can kick, say, a 38 for your last 200, you've likely moved up places, but you've also run 18:38 instead. That's a dramatic shift in finish time.
Okay, I'll buy in. How do I Improve my Kick?
Your kick can improve, and here are some ideas to integrate into your training to maximize ability.
First, there are things we already do, now and again, at Tuesday practice, and we will continue to do these things. Have confidence that these are helping you kick, but also see how you can integrate the hill sprints and strides into your week on non-workout days.
1. Michigan Miles. Those final reps, especially the 400, are intended to run at a high end speed while suffering from a substantial amount of workout fatigue. While it's not exactly like a race (in races you can't rest before kicking), there is some simulation. It's an aid in improving your kick to learn how to run fast while fatigued.
2. Ethiopian Miles. Like a race, a kick is shifting down pace while already running fast. This is my favorite element of the Ethiopian mile. While you're running fast, switch gears and finish faster. That's one of the intentions of this workout.
3. Golden Gate Park hill sprints. A major advantage of these hill sprints (ideally about 15-25 second bursts) is that it reduces the risk of injury because you aren't going as all out as you can on the track, you're generally on a softer surface, and despite the lower speed you're mimicking a sprint because, according to Steve Magness, sprinting uphill results in an increase of muscle fiber recruitment. These are ideal in the early stages of a training cycle. As we get back into the swing of things over the next couple of weeks it would be worth working these back into your training regimen.
1st week: 2 sets of 3 x hill sprint
2nd week: 3 sets of 3 x hill sprint
3rd week: 2 sets of 4 x hill sprint
4th week: 2 sets of 5 x hill sprint
You can do these on your own during some other day of the week as part of an aerobic condition run. (translation: do these on your own!!!)
4. Strides. It's easy to mail these in, but they are a useful tool in developing basic speed. Do them often, and take them seriously. Do them before workouts (6 x 100 meters at a relaxed but fast pace). Do them after an easy run (4-6 x 100 meters (or 20-25 seconds) at a fast but relaxed pace). Here are some other more challenging options:
200 meter floaters: Spend the first 100 meters building up speed, starting closer to 5k pace and work down to mile race pace. As you approach 100 meters to go, nearing that mile race pace, accelerate down to 400 race pace (you know, like the gear you find when you have to run down a Muni that's about to drive away from the curb) and hold for about 50 meters. Wind down with about 50 meters to go and float over the line close to the pace you started.
200 meter accelerations: Similar to the floaters, start at a fast but relaxed pace, though closer to 1500 pace. At 100 meters to go, accelerate down and run faster through the last 100 meters. The intention of this is to both train yourself running fast, but to also practice that gear shift you'll need to make in a race.
To be a complete runner you need to be able to switch gears and kick at a race. It will only help. Don't neglect this part of training because it's out of your comfort zone, or it's not an element of training you enjoy as much. Make the effort to get out of your comfort zone and improve your basic speed, improve your kick. I'll allow the Fife Dog (RIP) to draw a conclusion from this post: "Can I kick it? Yes you can." Though like most things, it won't be easy. You'll have to work for it. If you like running (I'm guessing you do), then it's certain you won't have a problem with that.