Our first competition of the 2008/2009 season left me musing the relationship that athletes have with speed.
As athletes we spend our time training to run our preferred distances as fast as we can, but this isn't always possible. Our bodies: our muscles, our nervous system, and our minds all have to be functioning at 100% to give us the maximum speed that we're chasing. In order to reach this speed we need to train for it, practising the skill of running fast until it becomes second nature to us.
Obviously the distance that we're going to be running will have a big impact on how fast we need to run, and therefore how we're going to train for that event. The way that a 3000m runner trains is going to need different sorts of sessions to an 800m athlete.
For a bunch of reasons athletes do not train at 100% speed all year round. This means that there will be times when your body is not yet ready to run as fast as you'd have otherwise wanted. It requires time and focus to bring yourself to the point where you can take the fitness and strength you've built up over the Winter and apply it to a race at full pace.
The key reason we don't train at 100% speed all year around is that this places an unacceptable degree of stress on your bodies. You are attempting to demand that your body far exceeds its factory specifications, be it in terms of speed alone, or speed combined with endurance. An athlete who runs nothing but PB's all year round is flirting with disaster in the form of either an injury or simply burning out. We need to back away from our maximum capacity to allow ourselves time to recover and rebuild for the next big peak.
Another reason we don't train at 100% all the time is that the longer less intense training that we do in Winter lets us train harder and recover faster in Summer. A set of 5 x 200's that we might have only been able to run on 32 seconds, and required 3 minutes rest, might become a set of 8 x 200's on 30 seconds with just 1 minute of rest. This improved intensity in training then translates into improved performances on the track.
Obviously the longer distance runners require a lesser focus on speed, so it follows that they will come out of their Winter training already equipped to run (comparatively) faster times than the sprinters and the middle distance runners. This is not to say that longer distance runners should ignore speed training, rather that they require less of it.
The challenge of training middle distance athletes has always been about balancing the development of speed with the development of fitness. It is my experience that speed drops away faster than aerobic fitness as your body "forgets" how to run fast. This means that athletes who have missed a week or two of training due to illness or injury will return to their peak aerobic fitness levels faster than their speed endurance fitness levels. This usually makes for a frustrating return to competition when you run races that do not tire you out simply because you're not yet capable of running at the speeds you desire. You need more time to train at race pace and faster to "remind" your body how to run at the pace you want.
You should never underestimate the effect that your mental preparation for speed will have on your race results though. If you go into a race with the intention of taking the pace out conservatively, not expecting to run a fast time, you should expect a time that reflects this. Pushing yourself beyond your normal physical limitations takes a huge degree of focus and mental effort. What we do at training and in competition is NOT normal. In fact it's pretty incredible! The minute you start a race with your head full of doubt or confusion, you are setting yourself up for a lesser performance. I would always advise you to line up to race with the intention of running as fast as you possibly can, we can dissect the race and the performance in the context of your training and preparation afterwards. But you do yourself no favours if you line up with the intention of running the race slowly, it eats away your ability to push yourself when the race invariably becomes tough.