“The most effective path to faster running is to run faster.” — P. Mark Taylor
No, I’m not kidding. It is possible to gradually get faster by running longer, but that is more effective for the newbie runner. Once you reach a certain fitness level, the increases in speed that you get from increased mileage begin to dwindle. When this happens you have only one choice: run faster.
To some this will sound like a catch 22 situation; I can’t run as fast as I want to but you are telling me to just start running faster. Well, it is more complicated than that, but for the sake of learning I will simplify my explanation. I am telling you to run faster but we will change how far you run so that you will be able to run that fast. Still seem like a puzzle?
The thing that allows you to run faster than you have been running recently, is that some of your runs should be in a series of runs at shorter distances. If you can run 4 miles at a 10 minute pace, then you can probably already run 400 meters much faster than that pace. That is the key.
Key Idea: Doing runs at a variety of distances and paces will prepare your body to handle running faster and move you towards your goals.
If you thought of running as just going out and putting one foot in front of the other, you are right. That is true with all types of runs. Each type of run, however, has a specific goal & purpose. If you want to get faster, the best way to do it is to do a little bit of each type. The ideas in this article are true for runners at all levels and at all distances. I use this way of thinking whether my goal is the 5 minute mile, which I plan to conquer in a few months, or the marathon. If you are thinking about 5Ks or 10Ks, this advice will work for you as well.
Safety Warnings: Before I go on to the details, I want to say three things about safety when it comes to getting faster.
1) You should be relaxed & comfortable at any speed. Yes, I said relaxed. You can work really hard and still be relaxed. By relaxed, I don’t mean loose and free-flowing, just that you should not feel tense while you run. If you tense part of your body, then your form will suffer. If your form suffers, then you are on the road to injury. Nobody gets faster by getting injured. Stay both focused & relaxed as you do your speed work.
2) Too fast, too soon is hazardous for your health. Exceeding the guidelines leads to injury… and nobody gets faster by getting injured.
3) You can’t do speed work every day. It is not safe & your muscles need to recover. The newbie runner can do one speed workout each week. More seasoned runners can do 2 hardcore workouts each week. See the section on easy runs & rest days for details.
With these important safety notes in mind, let’s talk about different types of runs done at different distances: Repeats, Intervals, Tempo Runs, Race-pace Runs, & Easy runs. Not everyone would agree on these as the types, but that is what I am going with for today’s blog. Within these categories there are dozens of styles and specialized types of training, each with their own suggested guidelines.
Repeats are the fastest of the runs, done at the shortest distances. If you are running for more than 2 minutes, then you are running too far to do repeats. Yes, they are that short. Any distance that is under two minutes could be a repeat. If you are training for long distance, this might be 400 meters (1/4 mile).
- Run your repeats at race pace or a little faster. Race pace is the pace at which you could run a 5K now, NOT the pace that you hope to achieve later.
- Be sure that you are fully recovered from the first 400 meter run before you start the second. Walk it off. Carefully stretch. Get a small drink. When you feel ready and relaxed, then start the next one.
- You don’t have to do 10 to get faster from doing repeats. Some people do 4 repeats. Some people do 10. Do what you can do while still maintaining your relaxed form.
If your pace will not allow you to complete 400 meters in 2 minutes, then you might not be ready for repeats just yet. You can start with Intervals.
Intervals are a lot like repeats, but have a different goal in mind. While repeats are about increasing raw speed, intervals are more about maintaining your new speed over a distance. Because of this, intervals should be at a little bit longer distance. Aim for a distance that you could complete in less than 5 minutes. 800 meters (1/2 mile) is a common distance for interval training.
- Run your intervals at race pace, but no faster. Remember: Race pace is the pace at which you could run a 5K now, NOT the pace that you hope to achieve later.
- Instead of being fully rested as you did in repeats, interval training does not allow for full rest. The time between intervals should be about the same time as you took to run the last interval. Unlike repeats, you jog during the recovery time between intervals.
- Since the distances are longer than the distance for repeats, the number of intervals that you complete in one workout should be less. You can do 3-8 intervals as long as you continue to maintain your relaxed form.
If you are racing longer distances, then you will want to practice running faster for even longer periods of time. This is the goal of a tempo run.
- Run your tempo miles a little slower than race pace, about 80-90% of the full effort that you would use in a 5k race now.
- Tempo runs can be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on your fitness and goals.
- You can choose to do one or more tempo runs as part of a longer run or have it as a stand-alone workout. In either case, make sure that you run a warmup and a cooldown in addition to the tempo miles.
- To get faster, seek the combination of distance & speed that pushes you consistently near the limit of what you can maintain. If you can’t maintain relaxed form, you are pushing too fast or too long.
Easy Runs & Rest Days
Will easy runs & rest days make you faster? Probably not.
Are easy runs and rest days important for building speed? Absolutely critical!
How does that make sense? Easy! If you work the same muscle group hard every day, the muscles will get weaker. The muscles need time to heal. Easy runs exercise your muscles as they recover from the stress of the speed workouts. It gets your blood flowing & speeds healing, especially the day after the speed work.
Easy days are the runs in which you ease up and get in the rest of your miles for the week. I define the “easy” pace as being around 2 minutes per mile slower than how fast you would run a 5K today.
As for rest days, some runners can run every day. Most runners cannot. I recommend at least one day of full rest for your legs each week. As for me, I am 44 years old and moving closer to the next age group. As my workouts have become increasingly challenging, I have increased my rest days from 1 per week to 2 per week. Listen to your body. Rest enough to heal quickly and prepare for more speed work!
Enjoying running is more important than being the fastest runner in the park. I want you to enjoy the challenge of getting faster while maintaining your health. If you haven’t done speed work before or it has been a long time, then go into it carefully and slowly. Stick to the guidelines. Rest up. Maintain relaxed form. You will gradually get faster.
**The ideas in this blog post are my oversimplified understanding of the kinds of workouts suggested by a number of experts in running. If you are serious about running faster, then I suggest doing a lot of reading. The last book I read was Daniels’ Running Formula, 2nd Edition. It is fairly technical, but incredibly informative.
“Train hard, race easy, & enjoy the run!” — P. Mark Taylor