How to Become a Faster Runner

Goodbye, comfort zoneSince taking 17 minutes off of my half marathon time this year, one question I get asked a lot is how to become a faster runner.  It’s actually very hard, butt-kicking, exhausting, rewarding easy! Well, it’s not really “easy” – not physically or mentally – I worked my @$$ off.  The concept of how to improve your speed is easy.

To get faster, you have to run faster!

Ok…so there’s definitely more to it that that, but in essence, if you want to become a faster runner you really have to practice running faster.  Now, this doesn’t mean every single run you do should be at ludicrous speed, but at least one of your runs every week should be dedicated to speedwork of some kind.  Here are a few types of runs that should help you become faster when you line up at that starting line.

Run Intervals – on my training plans, this usually looks like Yasso 8oos.  Basically, take your marathon goal time (such as 4 hrs, 30 min) and convert this minutes and seconds (4 min, 30 sec).  Then, head to a track or plot out a 1/2 mile route.  Try to run this route in that converted time. Recover by walking or jogging for the same amount of time (jogging is more of a challenge).  Start out with a 1/2 mile or mile warm up (5 to 10 minutes or so), then 4 x 800s with the rest breaks in between.  Cool down with a 1/2 mile walk or slow jog.  Each week (or every other week if you are mixing in other speedwork), try to increase your intervals by 1 (so the next week you would do 5, then 6, etc) until you get up to 8 or 10 Yasso’s. According to Bart Yasso, the idea is to do these at about 95% effort.  If you can get up to 10 at your goal interval, then you can run a marathon in the corresponding time. Bart Yasso is very active on Twitter.  If you tweet @BartYasso about your workouts he will likely respond.  Talk about a huge boost to your motivation!   Another interval option is to run 1 to 1 run to rest intervals, with the distances being 200, 400, 800, the mile or 2 miles depending on your goal race distance.

Fartleks – You can also run fartleks.  Besides being a funny word to say, they are also fun to run.  Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play” and that’s exactly what this is.  Play around with different intervals during the run where you pick up the pace for a few minutes and then run slower for a few.  Sprint between trees or telephone poles.  If you are running with a friend, take turns being the leader.

Practice Tempo Runs – basically this just means to practice running a little faster than you usually run.  I’m sure there is some sort of science for figuring out what pace you should run each tempo but I really don’t know what it is.  I shoot for something a little faster than my 10k pace to start and then try to get closer to my 5k pace eventually.  I’ve also heard it described as being a pace “just outside your comfort zone”.  Again, start with an easy warm-up, then pick up the pace for a mile, then run a mile cool down.  Each week (or alternate with Yasso’s and go every other week), add a bit of distance.  I think with my half training, I got up to 6 mile tempo runs, with 4 miles of that at “tempo” pace.  It’s not supposed to be easy – so don’t wimp out.  Tempo runs should be at the edge of the “anaerobic threshold” (look it up) – comfortably hard to where you really can’t talk through them.  Be careful not to go too fast.  The goal isn’t to hit race pace.  Going too fast could be the fast track ticket to injury.

Head for the Hills – where I live, there aren’t a ton of monster hills, which is both good and bad.  It means if I want to do any hill work, I need to drive (or run) to a hill to find it.  But, the fact is, hills will make you stronger.  Think of them like weights for runners :) When you are running uphill, you will be using many of the same muscles engaged when sprinting and it really works on your endurance.  Go find a hill that’s at most 200 yards or so long (about an 1/8 a mile).  You can also pick much shorter hills if you are just starting out.  Warm up with some easy (and flat) running and then do 2 or 3 repeats where you sprint up the hill at about your 5k pace and then walk or jog back down.  Each week, increase the number of repeats – but don’t do hill work more than once a week.  For more info on how to run hill repeats, check out this article.  Long runs on rolling hills will serve a similar purpose.  (In reality, you should vary your routes so you aren’t running on the same terrain every time anyway.)

Run Long –  there is some information online regarding the use of very long runs (15 miles +) to engage different muscle types and in turn increase speed at shorter distances. I’m looking more into this technique – so stay tuned.  If I can find enough information, I’ll devote a separate post to this topic.

After you’ve started incorporating one of these types of runs into your training program, you should start to see some results.  It certainly won’t happen overnight and you are going to need to be willing to get uncomfortable and work outside of your comfort zone.  Like I’ve been told, “there is always time to breathe when you’re done.”

There are other habits you can get into that will help on race day as well. I’ve started to always run a warm-up and then do some stretching right before a race so I’m not spending the first mile warming up.  Also, if you’re going for a PR, don’t be afraid to line up closer to the front.  Running around people will do you no good.  I also carry my own water if I know I’m not going to want to walk through the aide stations.  I think racing experience certainly helps, too.  The more races you run, the better you’ll get.

A word of caution: you need to have a good running base before incorporating speed work into your program.  Beginning runners will benefit most from consistent training rather than advance techniques as described here.  Make sure you are healthy enough to start speed training. Rest days after speed days are very important.  You can get hurt if you go too hard or too fast, so listen to your body and back off if you experience anything outside the range of “normal” muscle soreness.

Do you have any other tips for improving your speed?

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