By: Brentney Hamilton
A simple Google search will return innumerable listicles, coaching videos, and sample workouts that address the common question, “How can I run faster?”
From legendary coaches such as Arthur Lydiard and Jack Daniels to dime-a-dozen YouTube trainers, countless qualified professionals have offered scientific and psychological insight – not to mention some less-than-accurate advice — into training methods that help increase running speed.
But, knowing how to get faster is just part of the equation. For workouts to be effective one has to … well, actually do them. Completely and consistently. That takes commitment rooted in a strong sense of purpose.
Ever find yourself asking, “Why am I so slow?” First, ask why it matters.
Some common motivation(s) for getting faster:
- To keep up with friends or family
- Want to run with and get to know people with healthy lifestyles
- Inspired by an acquaintance’s hard work and want to challenge yourself
- Sense of accomplishment (age group awards, P.R.s)
- Finishing long distances was fun, but you’ve been there / done that
- Need an appropriate outlet for a … competitive spirit
- Desire to run World Majors (via qualifying standards)
Once you’ve targeted one or two “whys,” focus on “hows” that best meet your needs. Here are new spins on traditional methods for improving running speed.
Get a fast friend: If the idea of doing tempo runs on your own isn’t all that appealing, buddy up with a speedster. I discovered this method accidentally; back in 2012, I began attending social runs once per week and found myself running harder than usual to keep the lead pack in sight. Not only did I become part of a close-knit group of friends, I inadvertently incorporated a harder effort tempo run into each week. Years later, I still run with these faster friends when our easy/tempo days align.
Join a track club: It’s easy to be intimated by track workouts. Perhaps they even seem like something a grown-ass adult should leave behind in junior high. But, runners of all abilities can benefit. RRCA coach Matthew Kingore writes:
“[R]egardless of pace, the relatively short circle of a 400m track helps keep a group of mixed abilities together. Don’t be afraid to join other runners even if they seem faster than you. Track nights make great social runs. Everyone works at his or her own pace, and the group stays generally in unison. The exposure to more experienced runners and faster paces is a great way for runners trying to build fitness to advance in their training.”
Read his full post here: https://www.runproject.org/blog/speedwork-is-not-as-intimidating-as-you-think
Conditioning drills: If you’re familiar with Cross Country, soccer or football practices, you’ve likely heard of or suffered through this one. Gather a group of friends and begin running at an easy pace in a single-file line. The person at the end sprints to the front of the group and becomes the leader. Rotate until everyone has gone through the drill and repeat. It can be a fun way to incorporate strides into a group run.
Cadence and form: The fastest runners are often the most efficient runners. Do you know your natural running cadence? If not, consider running with a metronome set to 180 beats per minute. Running stores and coaches, both online and IRL, also offer workshops for anyone who might benefit from tightening up his or her form.
HILL WORKOUTS / STRENGTH
Friendly Repeats: Hills are sometimes called “speed work in disguise.” Similar to track workouts, hill repeats can be a good way for runners of varying abilities to train together. The concept is simple: Find a steep hill and run it up-and-down many, many times. Because no one is leaving the main hill, it’s a good way to stay motivated with a fun group.
Workouts can vary from individual to individual – some may want to sprint the ups and coast the downs while others maintain a steady effort throughout – but, everyone will feel like a warrior at the end.
Meditative trails: Because of its varied terrain and surprising challenges, trail running requires every runner to slow down, at least a little. Doing so can reap a number of benefits, and while increased speed on roads isn’t necessarily one of them, trail running often strengthens muscles – specifically core ones – that make runners more stable and efficient, both positives for speed.
This one seems obvious, but that doesn’t make it easy or less problematic. Eating disorders are prevalent among young endurance athletes and disordered habits – from obsessive calorie counting to “earned” binges — likewise affect recreational runners. Weight loss, whether it is for health or appearance, is not an easy endeavor, and it should always be guided by a healthcare professional.
With sensitivity to that, let’s start with the science. According to Runner’s World, weight loss of 5 pounds can translate to 31 seconds off of a 5K performance and up to 4 minutes 22 seconds off of a marathon. Ten or 20 pounds can mean 8:44 or 17:28 off of a marathon time, respectively.
Let’s reframe it:
Gain Nutrients: Rather than focusing on what you need to lose, consider what you can gain from increasing vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins in your diet. Trade calorie restriction for daily vitamin goals. According to Stack Magazine, Vitamin D (found in fatty fish and sunshine), salt, bananas, beets, and caffeine have all been shown to increase endurance athletes’ performances. But, don’t take our word for it: Check with a doctor or registered dietician to ensure you’re getting the right balance; if not, double down on those efforts before cutting intake
Beef Up to Slim Down: While it is true that losing even a small amount of weight can positively affect race performance, there are always limits. Too much weight reduction can also mean a loss of muscle and strength. Incorporate a day or two in the weight room. Lean muscle mass both increases resting metabolism and helps runners battle through fatigue, hills, and other challenges a race course can throw at you.
TRAIN SLOWER AND SMARTER
Heart Rate Based Training: Perhaps the most counterintuitive suggestion on this list, Coach Matt Fitzgerald wrote the book, quite literally, on how slower runs translate to faster races.
His approach, detailed in 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower, uses biofeedback to ensure that runners are training at the correct balance of truly easy to truly hard efforts.
Fitzgerald maintains that many (if not most) runners at all levels run too fast on easy days, which leads to injury and burnout. Conversely, they are too tired or unmotivated to put in max effort on hard days.
Boring as it may sound, running slower most of the time nets several benefits: Your body makes specific physiological adaptions that 1) burn fat and help 2) increase endurance. You’ll be stronger physically and mentally.
To get started, you’ll need a heart rate monitor and determination to reset your notions of “slow” and “fast” paces by being willing to meet your body where it is in this given moment. You’ll also have to perform a Lactate Threshold Field Test, which may take a few attempts to perform accurately.
I’m evangelical for this method. If you stick through difficult early days, you’ll know your body better, and your race times will likely reflect big dividends.
Let me don a whistle and awkwardly tight coach’s shorts as I take on the persona of a crusty junior high gym teacher: Getting faster is often more about your head than your heart, lungs, or legs.
Some people are born fast but those genetically gifted gazelles aren’t necessarily the ones who win races. Part of the process of distance running – at any speed – involves learning to not fear discomfort. Through practice and determination, you’ll begin to recognize the difference between work and pain, a mentality you can apply to countless other areas of life.
Then the question becomes:
Who needs mere speed when you’re an all-out force.