Focus on these strategies to take your running to the next level.
It’s one thing to dream of that momentous breakthrough—and another to create it. At some point you need to ask: What elements are missing from my training? What bad habits have I let sneak in? What have I resisted changing in my lifestyle?
If you’re looking to take a big leap too, here’s how to run faster and get serious about your running.
About fifteen years ago, transitioning to the marathon was seen as the death knell for speed. Then runners like Paula Radcliffe, Deena Kastor, and Dathan Ritzenhein returned to the track faster than ever in the months after racing 42kms.
Goodman believes preparing for the California International Marathon six months before her 10,000-meter race at Stanford made all the difference.
“I was running longer long runs and doing workouts within long runs,” says Goodman, who topped out at 210 km’s per week during marathon training, 40 more than usual.
Increasing your K’s comes with a host of benefits: increased capillary density, greater numbers of mitochondria, better usage of fat as fuel while running fast, muscle fiber adaptations, and higher glycogen storage. These cellular-level changes allow you to maintain a desired pace for a longer time by making your body more efficient with oxygen usage and energy production.
“Years ago, I started running over 160 Kms per week,” says Camille Herron, U.S. 100K record holder who owns a marathon best of 2:39. “That seemed to impact everything. Building that aerobic base translated to being able to sustain my speed for longer periods of time.”
Increasing your K’s takes time. To make a 25-percent increase in volume, a person accustomed to running eight hours a week would now be running 10 hours, but eventually it will help you run faster.
Frankie Adkins of Asheville, North Carolina, competed at a local level for almost 20 years before becoming an elite masters runner. In March of 2015, Adkins ran a 10K PR of 32:38 at the age of 41. For him the biggest challenge was finding a way to adapt his more rigorous training around the time constraints of family life and a sales-rep job that had him traveling several hours almost every day.
“I fit my training around work and family, not the other way around,” he says. “There were certainly weeks where I looked at my training plan and my [work] schedule and thought there was no way I’d get it all in, but more often than not, I did it.”
Adkins credits his coach, Peyton Hoyal, with helping him sort out his tricky scheduling. “I think having a training plan was crucial,” he says. “It kept me thinking of small 30- to 60-minute windows where I could get the training in.”
Adding volume does increase the risk of overuse injuries such as IT band syndrome and tendinitis. To lower the risk, Ben Rosario, the head coach of Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite, has two recommendations: “First, make sure you’re running on soft surfaces for the majority of your K’s,” he says. “Second would be to put an even bigger premium on postrun recovery; foam rolling, flexibility exercises, and massage are three big ones.”
Rosario also says that when trying to develop the aerobic system, patience is a virtue. You may not get faster for a while, but workouts will get easier over time. “Sometimes it’s just about trusting what you’re doing,” he says.
What to Change: Run more K’s, even if you’re training for the 5K.
Why: Upping your K’s safely is the best-known way to improve your aerobic capacity, which increases speed endurance or how long you can sustain a pace during a race.
The Challenge: Making a jump in K’s requires patience in order to avoid injury.
Make Recovery a Priority
When Mike Caldwell, Greenville track club-elite head coach, brings recruits to the club’s South Carolina campus, he discovers they’re not worried about adjusting to life in a small Southeastern city or leaving the comfort zone of college to train in a professional group. Their biggest worry? It’s the recovery days. Twice a week, they run 45 minutes total. That’s it. For elite college runners used to averaging 20 to 25 K’s per day, this sounds downright crazy.
The key to Caldwell’s system is a strong delineation between workout days and recovery days. During hard interval sessions around 5K pace, for example, his athletes will cover 8 to 10 K’s in volume, as opposed to the more traditional 20 or 25 K’s. In order for his runners to handle that volume of quality, Caldwell believes they need to be fresh heading into the sessions. Here’s how that can help you run faster.
“I think a lot of people just don’t understand recovery,” Caldwell says. “Our recovery days are vital to our system. We’re able to run hard on our hard days [because] we only ran 45 minutes on [recovery days].”
Lowering your K’s on easy days can be difficult mentally, as higher K’s spells higher fitness. Training volume is certainly a big factor in performance, and lowering it too much on your recovery days can be detrimental if the total aerobic stimulus is too low. Runners who are hesitant to lower their recovery-day mileage significantly should consider slowing the pace. This reduces stress on the body while allowing for more volume, Rosario says. Because all fitness gains occur during recovery, it’s critical to find a personal balance between the volume and intensity of hard days and easy days.
Some groups may opt to go longer or run twice a day on their easy days. Some research says doing two runs on your easy days will increase growth hormone production and thus speed recovery. There’s no one answer that works for all.
Ensuring adequate recovery comes down to more than just distance and pace. Eating a nutrient-rich diet, training on a multitude of surfaces, and wearing proper shoes can all reduce the wear and tear on the body and speed your recovery from harder sessions. Rosario says there’s one other ingredient that runners of all levels neglect. “Sleep, sleep, sleep,” he says.
It’s not just tired muscles that need sleep, either. According to a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that participants who got less than less than seven hours of shut-eye per night also reported increased injuries.
Lack of sleep also affects your ability to thermoregulate, making it more difficult to perform well in adverse conditions, and increases cardiac effort. In this state your central nervous system is too depleted to produce the effort needed to run fast. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can also hinder your recovery. Generally if you’re not getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night, you’ll be hard-pressed to run your best.
What to Change: Lower your recovery day K’s and/or slow your recovery pace, and get more sleep.
Why: Failing to recover sets you up for injury and burnout.
The Challenge: Sport is rife with messages that say to get better you have to work harder. Cutting back on recovery day K’s seems counterintuitive to getting faster.
Become a Complete Athlete
In the 1970s and ‘80s, runners rarely thought about strength: The weight room was a scary torture chamber where hulking football players worked out. In the last decade, if you wanted to sound like an informed member of the running world, you threw out one simple word about strength: core. Developing those magical muscles in your abdomen, trunk, and lower back was touted as the most vital ancillary work you could do.
Core stabilising muscles are certainly important, but so are the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the lower and upper body. Several studies have found evidence that lifting heavy weights, especially with the lower body, improved race times for well-trained distance runners.
Attention in the strength and conditioning world has moved away from raw strength and more toward reducing the discrepancy in strength and flexibility between paired muscles. “Functional movement is really the buzzword,” Rosario says. “We make sure to address any biomechanical inefficiencies. We make sure their strength is equal on each side.”
While exercises targeting the abs, obliques, lower back, and hips are still included in this program, so are exercises that work on the quads, hamstrings, calves, Achilles tendons, shoulders, and chest muscles. Rosario’s athletes use mostly kettlebells and their own body weight. Other coaches add in balance boards, medicine balls, and elastic bands. The goal is addressing strength imbalances and applying them in a running-specific manner. To lower the risk of injury, Rosario’s athletes are not permitted to move on to heavier weights until they have mastered good form.
Another option to develop strength and power is to train on steep hills. One recent study found that hill runs developed stronger hip flexors, which could be related to better form, efficiency, and faster times. John Goodridge, former Eastern Michigan University coach, says hills sprints are just as effective as lunges or squats.
“As an [older] coach, I’m assuredly in the minority old-school club and do not emphasize weight training, core, or running drills,” he says. “[Instead] I make use of hills throughout the year.”
Many coaches find that explosive hill reps of seven to 10 seconds on a steep grade (20 to 30 percent) are equally as effective as squats and lunges in building lower-body power.
What to Change: Strength train your whole body, not just your legs or midsection.
Why: You need full-body strength to run with your best possible form, using your full range of motion and power. Strength also reduces injury risk. You can’t get all the strength you need just by running more.
The Challenge: Strength training takes extra time and energy on top of running. It tends to be a tedious discipline with none of the joy or clearly visible progress of running.
Switch to High Octane Fuel
Let’s be honest: Runners have a strange relationship with food. Running double-digit K’d each week can make you as ravenous as a 14-year-old boy during a growth spurt. But what’s good to eat? Every day batches of articles circulate the internet extolling the virtues of eating like a caveman, abstaining from sugar, eating more fat, eating less fat, going raw, and everything in between.
Emily Brown, vice president at the Language Banc and former registered dietitian at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program and a former elite runner, says it would be better if runners looked at the performance-enhancing qualities a food brings to the table rather than how it can hurt them. “I always try to address nutrition from the standpoint of the positive influence it can have on health and performance, versus focusing on the negative,” she says. “An optimal diet can benefit an athlete by increasing energy, both for training and everyday activities, as well as enhancing recovery from exercise.”
One small way to start getting better fuel for performance is by packing your own snacks, Brown says. Healthy and convenient snacks that provide quick energy include whole-wheat crackers with nut butter, trail mix with dried fruit and seeds, and fruit smoothies. Minimal processing is good, because the additives found in many commercially-produced foods can negatively impact your performance. Simple sugars increase the production of cortisol, a hormone that can inhibit recovery from workouts if it’s constantly flowing through the bloodstream. Man-made fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), have been linked to increased inflammation, high cholesterol levels, and poor cardiovascular health—definitely not the side effects you want if you’re in serious training.
For reasons such as these, Goodman has tried to increase the amount of fresh food she consumes. Almost every night she makes a large vegetable salad the centerpiece of her dinner, and she tries to eat as much natural food as possible throughout the day. At the same time, those good choices make her small indulgences guilt-free.
“I’m all about a glass of red wine,” she says, “and I will have my dark chocolate peanut butter cups for dessert and not feel bad about it. But that’s because it’s in moderation with lots of fresh, healthy, organic food.”
What to Change: Increase your intake of healthy, nutrient-rich foods to improve your performance.
Why: Food is more than calories to burn for energy. Real foods contain nutrients that can improve cardiovascular health, speed recovery, protect you from disease, provide more consistent energy, and result in prolonged periods of better health.
The challenge: Processed foods are convenient, inexpensive, and well-marketed. Eating habits are tied to lifestyles and emotions. Runners may feel immune from the need to monitor their intake.
“Run joyfully.” It is Goodman’s mantra, her website’s name, and what she tries to personify when she opens the door every morning to put in her K’s. What does running joyfully entail?
“One, it’s really living off those endorphins,” she says. “I mean, how many runs do you ever regret going on? Nine out of 10 times, you feel better, happier, and have a clearer head for having spent a few minutes out in nature—or the urban jungle. The other half comes from a place of gratitude. Just appreciate the opportunity that you have to be out there.”
Tim Catalano, coauthor with Adam Goucher of Running the Edge, ran for the University of Colorado before getting advanced degrees in psychology and education. He says this approach is a good example of self-determinism. You can choose to focus on the positive or the negative in any endeavor and create your own experience. When Catalano tackled the six-day, 190 Km TransRockies Run stage race in 2015, he put that approach to the test.
“There are going to be some terrible times when you run 80 Km in a day or 190 Km in a week,” he says. “But what I chose to remember later—and what I chose to remember in the moment—was, ‘Holy crap, this is an amazing gift that I have a body that can do this. I’m in the middle of the Rocky Mountains with no one around, experiencing Colorado in a way that very few people get to.’ And when you hold on to those notions while running, you’re just happier.”
Controlling your mental outlook is no New Age gimmick, nor a call to abandon concrete goals. This is one reason why experiencing running as an autotelic experience (one that’s enjoyed for its own sake) may be the key to running faster. Putting in more K’s, doing quality work, and experimenting with different workouts become rewards, not chores, when pleasure is found in the act itself. That doesn’t mean every Km will be wonderful, Goodman says. But if you take a moment, even in the middle of a raging nor’easter or a tough workout, to remind yourself how fortunate you are to be running in the first place, then you’re more likely to appreciate the process.
“We don’t have the power to change an experience—an experience is what it is,” Catalano says. “But we do have the power to change how we experience that experience. You can let those dark voices [in your head] overwhelm you and have a bad day, or you can make the voices focus on all the good stuff, and it turns out to be a pretty amazing day. And the thing is, it’s the same damn day.”
What to Change: Enjoy running for running’s sake, not just for its outcomes.
Why: A happy, positive runner performs better and feels more satisfaction.
The challenge: Runners are competitive—we use the numbers to convince ourselves of our worth. It is difficult to accept the relativity of our performances and reframe our perspective. Plus, some days running just doesn’t feel good, and positive psychology can feel like a load of you-know-what.
Be Persistent and Consistent
Tolstoy said, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Distance runners understand this, but can be lulled into forgetting it when life gets busy and goals feel distant, perhaps unattainable.
During the bleak year after she failed to qualify for the Olympic Trials, Goodman often reflected on something Olympian and fellow Californian Magdalena Boulet had told her a few years earlier. “She just counseled me to stay in the sport,” Goodman says. “ ‘Don’t give up,’ Magda said. ‘Whether it means you’re balancing it around full-time work or juggling it around other priorities, stay in the sport and it will pay off.’ ”
Year-in and year-out consistency can make all the difference in the world when it comes to making a big jump in performance. “Distance running takes patience,” says Art Siemers, head cross-country coach at Colorado State University. “My main focus is finding athletes with the desire, commitment, and patience to slowly build an aerobic base over their early college years, aiming toward a big breakthrough once the body adapts to the stress of higher K’s. This can be a challenge in the age of instant gratification, but those athletes who possess patience and a strong work ethic usually succeed.”
This same type of patience applies to noncollegians as well. It can be hard to keep training when it seems like you’ve plateaued, but staying consistent creates the changes that lead to new levels of performance down the road.
What to Change: Make running a default part of your life: every day, week, month, and season.
Why: Big leaps in running come about by focusing on strength and nutrition, and those transformations occur over time.
The Challenge: It’s hard to measure the progress of one day and too easy to convince yourself it doesn’t make a difference. It’s also easier to negotiate the time and find the willpower for a hard, short-term push than to adopt a long-term lifestyle change.