Want to know how to run faster? Get seven tips to increase your running speed and evaluate where you may be limiting your potential.
We live on a fairly busy road that is a popular route for runners (or at least a starting point for many runners!). Since I’ve worked from home for 5+ years and my office looks out onto the street, I definitely recognize the regular runners. And since all the gyms are now closed due to the coronavirus, I’ve seen a LOT of new faces pounding the pavement. It makes me happy to see others (hopefully) discovering a love of the sport I love so much. On the flip side, I know there are many dedicated runners who are devastated and frustrated by cancelled races. It’s completely understandable to be upset, when though it’s the right decision that race directors made. But it’s a good opportunity to shift your focus.
Whether you’re new to running or unsure of what to do with your training now, there is always something you can focus on with running. The key is to focus on the process and less on the outcome of race day.
How do you focus on the process?
- Focus on base building
- Improve your endurance and run longer.
- Focus on recovery.
- Try out a new running app to help you train and stay motivated.
- Listen to a new playlist.
- Remember why you started running and why you love it.
- Run technology free, run easy, run hard, run short, run long. You get the point: the options to mix up your running and still enjoy it are endless.
I’ll keep sharing content over the next few weeks to help you on your running journey, and I’ll even be launching an online running course where I’ll go in depth on a LOT of running topics and answer your questions so be sure to get on the waitlist for that here. In the meantime, let’s talk about increasing your running speed!
My running journey and race times
The first ever race I ever ran was the Moab Half Marathon in 2005, which I ran in 1 hour, 57 minutes.
My next race was a Ragnar Relay and then a 5K, which I ran in 25:56.
When I ran my first marathon in 2009, took me 4 hours, 6 minutes.
Now 14 years after my first race and 50+ races later, my current PRs are:
- 1:30:38 half marathon (race recap here)
- 3:17:50 marathon (at the 2019 Boston Marathon, recap here)
- 20:12.9 5K
That means, I’ve cut the following time off my races:
- 27 minutes in the half
- 49 minutes in the marathon
- 5+ minutes in the 5K
I wrote in my journal when I was 20 that I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon but never remotely believed I actually could, and I’ve since run it twice. I’ve placed in my age group at multiple races, won a couple in the women’s division and even outright won a race once, beating all the men. (Gotta love small races! 🙂 )
Remember, speed is ALL relative. My times may look slow to some and impossible to others. And remember that people feel the same way about YOUR running speed, regardless of what it is.
I wouldn’t say I was born naturally fast. When I started running around age 14, my training runs were in the 10-11 minute mile range and it wasn’t until I was about 25 that I started to focus on running faster. Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked very hard to reduce my race times, followed many training plans and even hired my first running coach last year which led to a huge PR in the marathon (at Boston, no less, a notoriously hard course).
How to run faster
I often get asked by new and seasoned runners, “How can I increase my running speed?” But there isn’t one thing you can do to run faster but rather it takes a combinations of things.
The best answer I have is to keep putting in the work consistently, for years.
It’s not completely unreasonable to expect some improvements in speed right away, especially if you’re a new runner. But it’s also not reasonable to expect huge improvements after just a couple months.
Huge improvements in running speed take years to discover. And what’s especially exciting about that is that you really don’t know how much faster you’ll get over time. If you cut 15 seconds per mile off in your first 3 months of running, that’s awesome. But you may end up cutting 2 minutes off per mile after years of work. There is so much untapped potential when you’re new since you just don’t really know your body yet. And again, this is where focusing on the process is so important because that’s where the real work — and results — happen.
Learning to love the process and identifying progress in training will help you enjoy race day even more, regardless of whether you meet your goal or not. I always think of race day as a celebration of my work. Yes, I set race day goals but the majority of joy that running gives me comes from the day to day miles and workouts, not solely a finish line.
And yes, at some point, you’ll eventually slow down. But more and more runners are continuing to tap into faster speeds later in life, both in the recreational and elite runner populations.
So, let’s dive into some ways to help you run faster.
First, evaluate your training.
So what if you’ve been running for years and don’t feel like you’re getting faster? I would ask you to evaluate a few things:
- Do you run only steady pace miles?
- Are all your speed workouts the same distance and pace?
- How hard do you really push in your workouts?
- Do you prioritize recovery? How many hours do you sleep each night?
- What does your diet look like? What about alcohol intake?
- Are you comfortable with being uncomfortable?
- Are you consistent day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year? Do you take large chunks of time off?
Go through that list, honestly answer each and evaluate it. Yes, there will be periods where an injury or life causes a setback or limits your training. Factor that into your goals as well. But a long, healthy running career is consistent, even through life’s inconsistencies.
Sometimes consistency is being really diligent with PT to recover from an injury. Other times, it’s recognizing that you’re in a period of life where it’s not reasonable to put in consistent training and manage your own expectations.
Okay, now keeping the answers to those questions above in mind, here are seven tips to improve on each point.
7 tips to run faster
1. Do you run only steady pace miles? –> Do interval training
You won’t get faster if you don’t practice running faster and really push yourself (more on that in #3). I first started running intervals on the treadmill mostly because I kept getting bored on the treadmill. And then I noticed how much my “fast” speed on the treadmill started improving and it motivated me to keep pushing the pace.
I don’t do anything formal in the beginning: just warmed up for about a mile and then started alternating between running fast for 30-60 seconds and running slower for 30-90 seconds. I also tried I increase my speed one notch with each fast interval. My fast pace was anywhere from 5:45 – 6:30 min/mile and recovery around 8:30-8:45 min/mile.
Fartleks and strides are another way to break up steady pace running without doing formal intervals. Adding in fartleks mid-run or strides at the end of your runs a few times a week will improve your running form. And good form will improve your running economy, which will also help with speed. Fartleks simply means speed play, where you vary your pace throughout the run and strides are 4-6 bursts of fast running for about 100 meters. (If you’re not familiar with “fartleks”, “strides” or other running terms, you’ll find the Running Dictionary in my running course helpful!)
Adidas running shoes (review here)
2. Are all your speed workouts the same distance and pace? –> Vary your workouts
Now my speed work is much more structured and much more specific for whatever goal race is next on the calendar. I may do some short intervals, tempo runs, long runs with pace changes. Lots of variety creates different stimulus, which drives change and improvement.
Your workouts – both in distance and pace – should be tailored to your goals. If you’re trying to break your 5K PR, that will look dramatically different than a marathon training plan. A good training plan should incorporate speed workouts specific to your race distance. And once you’re more experience, putting in more miles each week, including some longer distances, will benefit you a lot to improve your base fitness.
3. How hard do you really push? –> Run with runners who are faster than you.
I never really set out to improve my running speed or race times. It was fun when it happened, but when I started seeing big improvements in pace and race times is when I started running with people much faster than me.
And yes, a lot of the time, it sucked running with them. I was frustrated that their “easy” pace was killer for me and embarrassed when I had to ask them to slow down or just go on without me.
But my ego is such that I worked my butt off to keep up as best I could and, eventually, my easy pace re-calibrated. My easy pace used to be a 9:30 – 11:00 min/mile and now my easy pace for longer runs is around 8:15-8:45 min/mile. (If I’m marathon training, my recovery runs will still tip into 9 and 10 minute miles.)
4. How well do you recover? –> Stop getting injured
If you are constantly battling an injury, it’s going to be hard to push yourself while running. And if you can’t push yourself, it’ll be hard to make improvements. While I still struggle with injuries from time to time (a torn posterior tibial tendon most recently), I’ve learned to address aches/pains from overuse injuries sooner than later.
To help with injury prevention, I try to be proactive and somewhat regular with yoga, dry needling, chiropractic adjustments, strength training (particularly core and hip work), and massage. Read more tips for how I keep injuries at bay here. And read how to come back from a running injury here.
And don’t forget to prioritize sleep. Runners need 7-9 hours per night. More and more research is showing that sleep is the MOST important recovery tool out there. And make sure your easy days are TRULY easy. Keeping an eye on your heart rate is a good way to do this. Aim for 65-70% of your max heart rate.
Also, do NOT try to run faster AND longer. Trying to increase your speed and your distance at the same time will significantly increase your risk of injury. Focus first on building up a solid base of mileage, with easy miles. Then ease into speed work with some short strides (4-12x of 30 second pick-ups at the end of a run followed by 30-60 seconds easy jogging or walking). Once you are running your base weekly distance for 4-6 weeks, then you can start to add in more structured speed work.
5. What does your diet look like? What about alcohol intake? –> Evaluate your diet.
I used to not think much about what I ate before and after a run. I always had something, but I wasn’t very intentional about it. While I try not to obsess over food, I am very intentional with my diet to fuel my running goals — particularly right before and after a run. In order to run your best, you MUST be properly fueled. And carbs should be a large portion of your diet. Read this post for more details on the importance of carbs and how the amount you eat should change as your training increases in volume and/or intensity.
When I was training for the 2019 Boston Marathon, I had my diet analyzed by a registered dietician who specializes in sports performance. He identified that I was under-fueling. While my protein intake was adequate, I wasn’t getting enough carbs to support the mileage and intensity I was putting in. Read what he suggested I change here.
When I’m training for a big goal, I don’t drink alcohol.
You can read more about how I balance alcohol with living life and marathon training here. Even when I’m not in training mode, I rarely have more than 1-2 glasses a week. If I drink more than that (in terms of number of days or glasses at one time), I really feel it on my runs and I’m significantly more tired throughout the day. So it’s just not worth it to me.
Over the years my body weight has fluctuated. But being lighter does NOT always equal faster. I set my marathon PR at one of my heaviest weights. But, the moral of the story is if you aren’t at a healthy weight — either too heavy or too thin — it may limit your potential. Find a healthy weight where you feel good and makes sense for your body type. That may mean you need to lose weight or gain weight. Being too light can also lead to injuries and more serious problems as it relates to your relationship with food.
6. Are you comfortable with being uncomfortable? –> Learn to embrace discomfort
I used to have the motto that I run because I enjoy it and if I push too hard, I won’t enjoy it. And that motto was fine for a time.
But then I wanted to get faster and that motto can’t apply when working on speed. I had to learn to deal with discomfort from pushing the pace and also know the difference between discomfort and pain. Now, I almost always prefer a workout to a steady state run.
Running a race will also help you learn to embrace discomfort. You’ll push yourself harder in a race than you will on a regular training run so this is especially helpful if you just don’t like pushing yourself. Plus, you’ll be energized by the running community, which helps you stay motivated and excited about running.
Since we can’t race now, try a virtual race. The Rambling Runner virtual races are free. Think of these as tune-up races leading up to your next goal race. (Update: these races are over, but check out his page for a great podcast!) You can practice race logistics (your gear, fueling, etc.), practice pushing when you’re tired and use the day before your virtual race to think through logistics before the big race, which helps with nerves on your actual race day.
And when I inevitably start to fatigue during extra hard workouts or races, here’s what helps me cope:
- visualizing how good it feels when I beat my PR
- channeling any stress I have into the discomfort
- reminding myself that it SHOULD feel hard, that the paces should NOT come easily
- repeating mantras
- counting how often my foot hits the ground – this helps me focus on my cadence, which improves running economy
My favorite training mantra is “This is what you’re here for.” For race day, I like “I trained for this feeling.” and “The faster I run, the sooner I’m done.”
7. Are you consistent? –> Recognize and celebrate improvements along the way
If you aren’t consistent, it’s going to be hard to see those big breakthroughs. Yes, rest days are important and some time off may be forced due to an injury. But if you only train in spurts, with more time off than on, you’re unlikely to make meaningful improvements in speed.
So what if you ARE consistent? It can be hard to see that you are actually working towards a big breakthrough. But it really is the day to day things built over weeks, months and years that lead to big improvements in speed.
That’s where having a long-term perspective can be helpful and where recognizing improvements along the way will help you stay motivated before those big throughs.
You may drop big chunks of time off your races in the beginning. Or your may not. You may be at the point where even 3 seconds faster is a win. Or maybe the win on any given day is remembering to stretch after every workout. You may run significantly slower in the heat but you still get out there and run in it. (And you WILL run slower in the heat – don’t let it discourage you! Read more about that here.)
Part of the key to staying motivated long-term is to remember WHY you started running in the first place and celebrating along the way, not only at big breakthroughs. Again, process over outcome.
A final thought on what else has helped my speed: age + wisdom
I got older. I’ve read before that women reach their peak in running from about 28-38. It might be a coincidence since I’ve also starting training harder as I’ve gotten older, but it seems to be happening.
But more importantly, I’ve gotten wiser (most of the time) and listen to my body when it really needs more recovery or more fuel — or to be pushed a little harder.
It’s taken years of hard work but I still believe I have more speed in me. And that’s exciting. And you probably have more in you too.
What have you done to increase your speed? Which of these seven things do you could work on?