Increasing running speed can often leave runners frustrated and burnt out. That’s because so many are set in their ways of completing long slow distance runs, without intermixing other strategies that truly impact running speed.
When approaching the question, “How do I get faster,” there are several different pieces to the puzzle. On one end of the spectrum, we have running-specific strategies such as: tempo runs, track workouts, and hill repeats. Each of these can be meticulously programmed within your training plan to increase running speed and reduce overall running time.
On the other hand, we have specific characteristics within the human body which can be addressed with movement-specific strategies, such as: strength training, power training, and plyometrics. These are ways to improve the body’s ability to function effectively at higher running speeds. But, they need to be combined with running-specific strategies for the most reliable results.
Since I’m a big believer that we should stay in our lane and not dispense information outside of our expertise, I have teamed up with local running coach Jenny Clayton, of Clayton Performance Coaching, to provide you with the running-specific strategies. Combining both of our approaches and putting in the work should allow you to finally increase your running speed and achieve that P.R. you have been chasing.
But before we dive in, let’s take a second and introduce running coach, Jenny Clayton…
“In junior high and high school, I enjoyed running on both the track and cross country teams, but I didn’t truly invest in the sport until much later in life. In 2010, well after becoming a pharmacist, wife, and mother, I ran my first half marathon. At the finish line I thought to myself “I think I could be kind of good at this!”
Eight years, five Boston marathons, many miles, and an RRCA coaching certification later, I love running more than I ever have. I’ve certainly had my share of performance ups and downs, but the sport has brought me so many great friendships and experiences along the way. I also discovered that helping other people achieve big goals is more rewarding than I ever thought possible. Because the Boston Marathon is such a special race to me, helping clients achieve their Boston qualifying time has become my niche, and by far, my most favorite area of my coaching practice.”
“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” – Thomas Jefferson
Many new runners, particularly new marathoners, approach their training with a “just run” attitude. Each training run might be of varying distance, but the speed and intensity are essentially the same from one run to the next. This absence of more speed-directed training could be due to a number of factors, including a lack of experience, knowledge, and/or running foundation. Athletes miss out on such a huge potential for speed improvement by not including specific workouts of higher/varying intensity into their training. Three important strategies that have become the cornerstones of speed development in distance runners are track workouts, tempo runs, and hill repeats. Keep reading for a more detailed description of each of these strategies.
In very general terms, track workouts that include regular interval work at prescribed paces are reserved for more serious, goal-oriented runners. The natural progression for new half marathoners or marathoners is to go from running all of their training runs at about the same “easy pace”, to adding in a weekly speed session to include a workout of faster, shorter repetitions. Typically, runners who are willing to commit to this addition to their training will see dramatic performance improvements.
Speed training conditions the intermediate fibers of working muscles to be able to shoulder some of the burden when slow twitch muscle fibers become fatigued over long distances. This leads to improved coordination, resulting in enhanced running economy. Multiple bouts of high intensity repetitions also trigger important physiologic adaptations, such as increased myoglobin production (important for the transport of oxygen to working muscles) and initiating increased glycogen storage. No less important is the mental aspect of speed training. The focus and mental toughness that develops with regular speed work will be invaluable on race day.
A speed workout progression over the course of a training cycle depends largely on the event for which the athlete is training. A runner training to gain speed for a shorter event, such as a mile race or a 5K would benefit from speed workouts that include shorter, faster repetitions, like 100 and 200 meter repeats at near maximal effort with a pre-determined recovery interval to follow each (i.e. 30-60 seconds). Half and full marathoners would more likely begin their speed workouts with longer repetitions in the 400-600 meter range. One commonly prescribed beginning workout for marathoners is 10-12 x 400 meters followed by an easy-paced 400 meters after each repetition for recovery.
The term “tempo run” is growing more and more difficult to specifically define. One athlete might define it as a long, sustained effort at/around marathon race pace. Another might argue that the pace is significantly faster, approaching 10K race pace, but the distance of the run is not intended to be quite as long.
Common themes are that tempo runs are run at a pace faster than “easy pace”, but much more sustainable than “all out”. Also, tempo runs are generally performed at steady state for the duration of the run, with little (if any) pace variations. Athletes training for longer distance events (15K and above) will get the greatest benefit from these longer, sustained efforts.
The reason for this is an improvement in lactate threshold which is not as important an adaptation for shorter, faster events such as the 5K. A common approach to incorporating tempo runs into marathon training is to begin with a distance of 3-4 miles at a pre-determined “tempo pace”, and increase that distance weekly as race day approaches.
Hill repeats have often been called “speed work in disguise.” Athletes will obviously not be able to target the same fast paces that they would during a track workout, but these workouts still provide a huge potential for strength and power development. The short, intense bursts of intense effort create a significant stimulus for improved running economy. Further, running uphill tends to encourage a desirable running form, since the natural inclination is to lean slightly forward from the ankle (rather than the hip) during the climb. As with track workout, hill repeats offer a mental benefit. If a runner becomes accustomed to working hard on hills, his/her perception of the flat portions of a workout or race will be that they require significantly less effort.
As with other strategies for speed development, the programming for hill repeats depends greatly on the goal distance to be run. A typical example of a hill workout for early in a training cycle would be 8-10 reps of 30 seconds uphill @ 5K effort, followed by a walk or very slow jog back down the same hill to recover. The length of the repeats can be gradually increased over the course of the cycle. Sometimes, the biggest challenge is finding a hill that is steep and long enough to accommodate the duration of the repeat.
Now you should have a better understanding of ways to target speed within your running plan. Next, let’s look at how to improve the body’s capacity to tolerate the higher intensity training and faster running speeds with the following movement-based strategies.
Strength training is always a worthwhile and rewarding strategy for runners in order to be faster, speed up recovery between runs, and increase resilience to injury. But, unless you are lifting a heavy load, “traditional” strength training of 3 sets of 10 repetitions has limited carryover to running speed.
To better understand what is needed to become a faster runner, it all comes down to motor unit recruitment. A motor unit refers to a nerve and the muscle fibers that it innervates. Therefore, it’s essential to complete a movement or exercise that recruits as many motor units as possible to best translate over to running speed.
How do you do this when it comes to strength training? You either lift a very heavy load for low repetitions. Or, you lift a light load very quickly (explained more in the power development section). Too often do people stay away from these strategies in order to build strength and endurance. These characteristics are still needed to be a successful runner, but heavy and explosive lifting will more reliably make you faster.
Some strength training exercises which would be valuable are the back squat, front squat, romanian deadlift, deadlift, and rack pull. More important than the exercise itself is the repetition scheme. The load has to be heavy and completed for a recommended 4-6 sets of 2-6 repetitions. This rep scheme should be modified depending on where you are in relation to your goal race, as running mileage needs to be considered. Also, beginners in the world of strength training might benefit from learning form and technique in the 8-12 repetition range before implementing a heavier or more explosive lifting style.
As quickly introduced above, power development is a style of resistance training that moves a light to moderate load very rapidly. The goal is to recruit a large amount of muscle fibers to move the resistance quickly throughout a desired range of motion. This targets the same faster twitch fibers that provide the speed and elasticity during running.
Because our primary goal is explosiveness and acceleration, you cannot sacrifice speed for load. This means the load needs to be monitored closely to determine the point where the rate of acceleration starts to plateau or decline. If you are no longer being explosive because the load is too heavy, than you lose the ability to target the fast twitch muscle fibers.
Power development can be instrumental in creating that “kick” to push up a hill or pass a competitor. It also has a dramatic impact on running economy. When you incorporate strategies that improve elasticity and tension within the musculotendinous unit, their ability to recoil increases thus leading to better running economy.
Various examples of exercises that fit within the power development category are hang cleans, hang high pulls, power shrugs, snatch, and dumbbell snatch. Similarly to the strength training recommendations provided above, it’s important to keep repetitions low in order to maintain the integrity and explosiveness of the lift.
Despite being a great way to become a faster runner, these movements are more technique-intensive and take time to master. That is why I often utilize heavy strength training and plyometrics, while teaching the basics of power training over an extended period of time.
Last, but certainly not least, we have plyometrics. Plyometrics are more easily accepted in the world of distance running. That’s usually because they can be incorporated as a prep before your run or in a gym-setting, and are more readily found in running magazines.
Similar to power development, the goal of plyometrics is to move a relatively lighter load (your bodyweight) as quickly as possible. I always recommend learning the basics of landing-based plyometrics first, which emphasize shock absorption. Because who wants a fast car with no brakes?
There are several different kinds of plyometrics that I will explain below:
- Landing-based plyometrics
- These consist of an explosive jump and stick landing. Although a great addition to any program, they are not the best for improving running speed. But, they can provide strong improvements in terms of shock absorption, stability, balance, and tendon/joint health.
- Plyometrics with no countermovement
- These consist of an explosive one effort jump with no pre-load or pre-tension on the musculotendinous unit. Therefore, your body must be ready to jump without loading prior.
- Plyometrics with countermovement
- These consist of an explosive movement where you quickly load the muscles prior to jumping. This quick action utilizes the stretch reflex and usually leads to a more powerful subsequent jump.
Throughout the years, I have seen runners completely overlook the benefits of plyometrics. Simply adding them after your warm-up and before your run is a great way to reap the benefits. Some of my favorite plyometric drills are: single leg jump & stick, bounds, ankle hops, and squat jumps. When incorporating these, your main goal should be to increase the explosive nature of the movement with a quick transition from landing to jump.
Once again, fatigue can be your enemy! Incorporate plyometrics in low repetitions and with ample rest between bouts. Once your body fatigues, it greatly diminishes the explosiveness of the movement and is therefore less targeted to fast twitch fibers.
Now that you understand the various running and movement-based strategies, its important to decide which will be the easiest first step to becoming a faster runner. Start by making a few small changes that require the least effort and greatest likelihood of success. In the end, it’s about doing the small things very well and consistently that will provide the best results.
Questions about the running-based strategies or want more individualized running coaching? Use the contact information below to contact Coach Clayton:
Questions about the movement-based strategies or want more individualized movement coaching? Use the contact information below to contact Garrett:
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