I decided long ago that I was not going to be a fast runner. I don’t think it was an actual choice, though, since I really couldn’t make myself run faster. I started running after spending a few years smoking and being a couch potato, so running at all was a feat. When I look back at my race photos from my first few races, it looks like I’m simply walking sweatily.
Now that I have a couple years of running experience, and have successfully completed my first marathon, I’m wondering what’s next. I haven’t run a 5k in over a year, and I haven’t timed myself for a one mile PR since I first started. To stay motivated and have fun doing new things, I’m going to improve my running speed.
For a lot of distance runners, getting faster is a fun way to set a new goal for an old distance. When you’re going for a PR, here are some ways to improve your running speed.
1. Speed Work
Speed work is sort of a nebulous term many of us use for any type or combination of things to make us faster. In a general sense, speed work can just mean making yourself run faster. Without any particular strategy (like some of the strategies below), speed work gives you the goal to push yourself to run faster than you normally would, without setting a specific plan ahead of time.
Next time you’re doing a shorter weekday run in your training, see if you get knock a few minutes off your normal time. Not every training run is going to be fast, and a lot of success in training comes from varying your pace, distance, and terrain, so get the most benefit out of speed work by working one speed run into your training every week as part of a whole plan.
Fartleks are fun to say and fun to do, but the real benefit is that they can make you run faster and better adapt to varying paces you’ll need during a run. Some people start with fartleks by using easy markers. One good strategy is to go by blocks or telephone poles and alternate between running faster than your normally would and slower than you normally would.
Unlike a run/walk interval to help you increase your distance, fartleks get your body accustomed to increasing your speed comfortably, and decreasing speed to recover and pace yourself. These are a nice way to break into the world of speed work because the intervals are whatever works best for you, and you don’t have to fully exert yourself to feel the benefits of fartleks.
Unlike fartleks, sprints are done on their own and not with any jogging. When you run sprints, you really want to push yourself harder than you can maintain for any period of time. When I wanted to improve my half marathon time and started dabbling in speed work, I chose a quiet circular street in my neighborhood and used it as a track to go from zero to one hundred.
I would start at a certain sign and run my absolute fastest. Running at top speed tires you out quickly, and most runners can’t keep it up for very long. Once you lose your strength to run fast, you can slow down to a walk. Feel for your heart rate to come down and get ready to do it again. Even if you’re used to running for longer periods of time, keep these sprint sessions short and gauge how you feel after your first session. You will feel more sore after sprints because you’re not used to using these muscles in this manner.
You’ve been warned!
4. Run Hills
Even when you’re training for a flat course, throwing hill training into your plan is beneficial. Running hills helps you increase your speed and endurance for runs because it challenges your body and helps you achieve bigger fitness gains with the increased work involved. According to Competitor, running uphill “develops aerobic capacity and leg strength, while running downhill improves leg “stiffness” and running economy.”
5. Step Cycles
The idea with step cycles is similar to what you can do on a daily basis with varying your running speed. Step cycles are when you ramp up your training from one week to the next, with some weeks being easier and having fewer miles as you recover. If you’ve ever followed a training plan (like a Hal Higdon), chances are you’ve done step cycles.
It’s the reason that some weeks in your training plan will have several more miles than the week that follows. This ramping up and then cooling down from week to week helps your body get used to harder runs.
6. Do Other Workouts
There are many sources that explain exercises you can do to help increase your speed. On top of general strength in your legs, and building core strength, Active.com suggests the heel raise, hip joint flexion, hip joint extension, and lunges. Runner’s World has a similar list of exercises. Other sources suggest jumping rope, or even resistance training like pool running to increase your running speed.
7. Always Rest and Recover
This is common sense, but it’s also backed up by science. When you’re not rested and getting your recovery time, your muscles are not going to have their full potential available for you to hit your speed goals. Make sure that you’re getting enough sleep, that you’re taking recovery days after hard workouts to let your muscles repair, and that you’re varying your weeks (like mentioned above with step cycles) in order to keep from being in a perpetual state of fatigue. Fatigue will zap your speed no matter what else you’re doing to get faster.
8. 2 Mile Repeats
Definitely not for beginners but worth considering and adding to your training program. 2 mile repeats are very similar to fartleks but require more effort. Running at this intensity level will improve your lactate threshold (the point of where your body is ready to give in). This interval workout specifically targets faster running for longer distances. I’ve noticed a rise is the use of this method from professional runners looking to hit a goal time or qualify for Boston.
During the workout you will need to run at a pace that is slower (10 -20 seconds) than your previous 10k pace. you will run faster than normal. The key thing to remember is that this is not sprinting. For 2 miles you will run at a comfortably hard pace where you you won’t be able to talk but can keep a steady breathing patterns. Then you will take a five minute resting time. You these five to recover properly and get ready for round two. New runners will not be able to complete the second rep until they have done the first a handful of times and built good baseline mileage.
9. Dynamic Drilling
An essential, yet often overlooked, part of improving your speed takes a good 5 minutes of your time. Dynamic Warm up drills lets your body experience a full range of motion, making your body more flexible which is important for your total body health. Muscles tend to tire more quickly and put the workload on other parts of the body when they are not flexible enough.
A study on dynamic stretching at Utah State University, concluded that “Dynamic stretching has been suggested as the main technique of stretching in the prevent warm-up before high speed, and power activities”. Dynamic drills will get your body prepared for the activity it is going to perform. Runners should consider using knee lifts, leg swings, and lateral squats which strengthens the hip adductor. The hip muscles are a great source of power for sports and exercises.
10. Plyometric Power
Trying to break through the speed barrier is a difficult feat for runners.
However, plyometrics, also known as “Jump Training”, can aid in your ability to accelerate early and late. Using your body’s maximum force, in short periods of time, to increase the strength of your fast twitch muscle fibers, results in gaining explosive speed.
To be completely honest I have been doing this type of exercise since I was kid...well technically, since I was skipping, jumping and hopping up until a certain age. While you might be considering using this type of technique to improve your speed, it’s not a core workout I would recommend for beginners. However, a runner will have a boost in muscle power and come off the starting line a bit quicker.
11. Build Base Mileage
One of the easiest, and slowest, ways to run faster for longer distances is to add consistent miles during your long runs.
What I like most about this approach is that it is not supposed to be fast. I know what your thinking and yes, this article is about improving speed, but this type of conditioning will not make you slower.
In fact, you will be improving the way muscles get oxygen from your blood and reducing lactate build up. Reaching your lactate threshold too quickly causes your body to “call it quits”. This is a process that will take some time to build up, but the end result is worth the wait. you can do this by adding increasing your average weekly miles by 10% over the course of 4-6 weeks.
12. Improve Stride Length
If think we think about it in terms of distance, running faster mean we want to cover more ground- in a shorter period of time. It doesn't matter how long or short legs are, performing specific stride drills will allow you to develop length in your stride and become faster as a result.
It is not the longer step that increases speed, but the push off power on the backside of your stride that improves. Your hip muscles are a very important when it comes building stride length. Most runners, including myself, have weak hip muscles that lack the power for a better stride. A great way to develop that power is skipping, using the push off to propel you forward.
13. Running Cadence
Since we are on the topic of developing strides (steps), it is definitely worth mentioning that your running cadence can also have influence on improving speed.
Strides can be measured in length, as I described above, and frequency. A runners cadence is how many times (the frequency) the foot strikes the ground per minute.
Jack Daniels observed and mentored this technique after a study he performed revealed that the some of the worlds fastest runners had a running cadence of 180 spm (steps per minute). Average runners should be hitting the 160 mark. In short, step it up!
Finally, my last tip is to make sure that you’re warming up before you start running in order to make sure your body is ready to push for speed. Dynamic stretches and warm-up runs get your blood flowing and literally warm your muscles so that you can really pop right from the starting line.