How do I run faster?
Has this been a question you’ve asked yourself at some point? If so, you’re not alone. I think eventually most people who start running and those who have been running for a while want to improve and run faster. It may be to chase a title, set a record, or beat your personal PR.
If you’re new to running and haven’t been at it long, you will probably find your times steadily improving for some time, just from doing a three to five mile run, three to five times a week. However, at some point you will stop improving and eventually plateau. For those who have been running a long time and do nothing more than a regular run, of whatever distance, will stop seeing improvement to their times.
Some runners may not care about times and improving and are just fine running for the joy of it - that’s completely okay! For other runners who want to improve but find themselves plateaued and don’t know how to break through, it can be frustrating. I believe I’ve seen or heard a definition of frustration as “Doing the same thing the same way and expecting change.” In order to improve and run faster as a runner, you have to change what you’re currently doing and add speed and strength training into your weekly workouts. “Speed” work consists of Fartleks, Intervals and Tempo runs.
Before beginning speed work, you need a solid base of miles. For new and beginning runners I recommend having at least two to three months of nothing but long slow runs of three to ten miles, three to five times per week. Long runs are essential for distance runners who are training for races and want to improve - you should continue doing at least one a week throughout your training. During this phase of building base miles, throw in four to six 30 second sprints at the end of three of your weekly runs. These sprints will help introduce your body to speed and help improve leg turnover.
During your weeks of building base miles and as you begin adding in speed, I would recommend adding in strength training one to two times per week. Whether you use weights or bodyweight, focus on the main muscles used in running: shoulders, core, quads, hamstrings, and calves.
Fartleks, also known as “speed play” in Swedish, are periods of quicker running with periods of easy running. Fartleks do not have to be structured, they can be done during a regular run where you intermittently pick up the pace. It’s as easy as running hard from one telephone pole to the next then going slow to the next pole and repeating the process five or six times. Or, it could be picking out a landmark or sign and running hard to it, then jogging slow for a period of time while looking for another point or object to run hard to. If you listen to music while you run, you could run hard for one song then jog for the next and repeat. Run fairly hard on the longer periods, then run faster on the shorter periods. In the beginning try to get four to five minutes of hard running in. Gradually increase the amount of hard running to fifteen then twenty minutes. Have fun with these runs. Change up the terrain and places you do fartleks. Grab a friend and have them join you.
Intervals are more structured than Fartleks and are run with a bit more intensity. Intervals should be run at a high rate of effort (if 100% was a sprint, most intervals should be done in the 85-95% effort range) followed by a recovery period. For example, after a proper warm up, you could do a one minute interval followed by a two minute recovery jog and repeat that five or more times. Or, you could do a 30 second interval followed by a 30 second recovery jog and repeat that twenty times. The key with intervals is to do each one at the 85-95% effort range; so, you have to play with the amount of recovery time so that you are rested just enough to be able to give each interval the right amount of effort.
Most interval workouts are probably done on a track; but, they can be done on a road, path or trail. Some benefits to doing intervals on a track are: the track is a set distance (400m) allowing you to be consistent with each interval; no traffic, dogs, stop signs or stop lights to worry about; easy to have a water bottle placed to hydrate during recovery periods. However, with the help of a GPS watch, it’s easy to know how far you’ve gone, the pace your running and time per interval.
Tempo runs are longer than fartleks and intervals but are not run with as much intensity. Tempo runs begin with an easy warm up jog followed by a period of time or distance. This is run at a “comfortably hard” effort, followed by a cool down. “Comfortably hard” is not an all out effort and it’s not an easy effort. It should be an effort you feel you can sustain for 20-30 minutes but requires effort to do so. A good way to judge if you’re running at the correct effort is by speaking. If you can talk in full sentences while running, you’re not going fast enough. If you can hardly say a word or two, you’re going too fast. You want to be right in the middle, only being able to speak a few words at a time. This will probably be around 70-75% effort. Have fun with tempo runs as well. Change up the terrain, add in some hills and run with a friend. Tempo runs can be done separately or as part of your long run. If you do them as part of your long run, put in at least a mile or so before beginning the tempo portion and then allow for at least a mile cool down jog at the end.
How often should you do speed work? For new and beginning runners, start off by adding in fartleks once a week for three to four weeks and let your body get used to the quicker efforts. Then, change and start doing intervals once a week for three to four plus weeks. Also, start adding a tempo run in as part of your long run each week varying the time of the harder effort. For more experienced runners, who have already been doing some speed work, try doing a fartlek and interval workout in the same week with at least one easy day in between - do the tempo run every other week as part of your long run.
Don’t be surprised when after a few weeks of doing speed work you feel the pace of your normal runs start to pick up and your race times improve - it means you’re getting faster. Hitting new PRs and feeling fast is a great motivation to keep doing speed work; however, with anything run at a high intensity for a long period of time, things can break down and burn out. Eventually you’ll need to give your body a break and a recovery period. See my "Training Cycle for Runners" blog to learn more about when do do speed work and when to recover.