So You Want to Run Faster? Do This!
When someone asks me, “How can I run faster?” my typical response is a list of questions:
- At what? Recreational running or racing? If racing, what event?
- What is your current training like?
- What is your training and injury history?
- In terms of running, what are your strengths and weaknesses? What kinds of training do you have experience with and/or enjoy?
- How much time do you have to train? (Meaning both hours per day and the number of weeks to the event, if racing)
This is probably one of the most commonly asked questions to which runners want to find an answer. Despite the plethora of answers available on the web and the thousands of pages in books devoted to answering this question. The sheer volume of information available has simply caused information overload, analysis paralysis. We all live busy lives with family, friends, work, and hopefully a few miles here and there and most of us don’t have the time, energy, or desire to distill all of this information to find the one answer to rule them all (Lord of the Rings reference - check!). We just want a simple answer to a seemingly simple question: How do I run faster?
Well, there is a good reason why we cannot find this simple answer. The reason is simple enough:
There isn’t one, simple, easy answer
That’s it. There is no one answer, one workout, that will work for every runner 100% of the time. Believe me, if there was, you would see me traveling with Josh Dedering to line up next to Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenhein in Los Angeles for the Olympic Trials.
Don’t worry — there are a few simple, broad rules that can be applied to all runners
Vary Your Training
Many new and recreational runners run the same workout, distance or time, in the same shoes, on the same route, session after session, day after day. This is not a good idea for many reasons, most obvious of which is that it is boring! Sure, any active time can be good, but this is a sure fire way to get burnt out, leading to you hanging up the laces for an extended period of time, or dreading the workout instead of looking forward to it as a break from a hectic day.
Not only can this lead to burnout, but the repetitive nature of running and this regimen can lead to injuries since you are using the same muscles in the same way day after day and not allowing for recovery.
Varying different aspects of your training from day to day will not only keep things interesting, but when you change things up you recruit and strengthen more of your running muscles. Obviously distance and pace are the easiest aspects to alter between each run, but when it comes to pace, you can (and should on some occasions) vary the pace within the workout. Changing your pace is especially important if you are training for a specific event, you will want your training to closely mimic the stress you will face during that race. This leads very well into my next point… [Even changing up your shoes between workouts to add a slightly different stress which can at least help avoid injury.]
Make your Training Specific to your Goals
In his books Daniels Running Formula, Coach Jack Daniels outlines the 10 principles of training. The second among these is the Principle of Specificity:
The system which is stressed is the one which stands to benefit from the stress
If you want to get better at an activity, you must practice that activity. To get better at running, you must run. You have to run fast to get fast. All else equal, running the same eight minutes per mile pace every run will make you really good at that pace, but it won’t make running a seven minutes pace any easier. You must practice running at a seven minutes pace, but not all at once!
Adding a sudden increase in intensity or mileage (or any aspect, really) is a recipe for an injury which could sideline you for weeks. Changing up your pace and making your training specific to your goals will get you started down the road to running faster; however, another crucial aspect is making sure you recover properly from workout to workout, season to season.
Recovery is when muscles are rebuilt and adapt to the applied stress, which makes us stronger. Let that sink in for a bit. It is recovery that makes us stronger.
Recovery is extremely important, often neglected, and it is more complex than simply taking a day off, although that is certainly one option to be utilized. Another option is “active” recovery. With active recovery, you’re still training in one form or another. Typically these are runs, or cross training, done at an easy intensity the day or two following a hard workout. The key here is “easy”, this means that you are doing very little extra damage to your tired muscles, but also promoting blood flow which delivers oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, aiding the recovery process. Many runners think you need to run fast, ALL the time. That’s not the case and is in fact the very opposite of what you should do!
Recovery is very complex and affected by many things. Proper nutrition and getting enough sleep are two big factors as well, both of which are unique to everyone.
One to Rule them All…
Okay, I may have lied when I said there in not one simple answer to the question of how to get faster. If there is, this is it:
Consistency is King
To get faster you need to consistently train at a faster speed and consistently recover properly. By consistently varying your workouts, you allow for hard training days, easy training days, and rest days in a consistent cycle.
This does not mean that each cycle must fall in a seven day period with every Monday must be speed work and every Wednesday must be threshold training. Depending on your goals, your training cycles may be ten days, or five days. Life will get in the way, so Monday’s speed work may need to be moved to later in the week. As long as you do the workouts and allow for sufficient recovery you will get faster. It’s what you do 90% of the time that matters most. Missing one workout will not derail your training. However, consistently missing the workouts specific to your goals will.
Moving Forward to Run Faster
I know what you’re thinking, I haven’t given any specific workouts for you to use. But that’s the point! First and foremost, it is important to make sure you have time to train consistently. This is too complex of a topic with too many variables to answer in one post. The plan is to cover strategies for runners of all abilities f to get faster for each of the most popular racing distances - 5k, 10k, half-marathon, and the marathon.
If you are new to running, your focus should solely be making running a habit, consistently running three or four days a week for the next three to four weeks, at least. When you understand how it fits into your schedule, how your body reacts to training, and you start to love the process (believe me, you will!), you can think about adding some mileage (or time) to runs or adding in an extra day or adding in some of the following work.
If you have been running for a while, implementing strides and hill repeats into some of your weekly runs will help build strength and prepare you to run harder. I’ll cover the details of these in a post to come.