If you're trying to become a better runner—whether on the treadmill, jogging outside, or training for a 5K or marathon—adding more distance or time is not enough to improve. The secret is adding in a mix of techniques like sprints, tempo runs, and fartleks to help increase your power and endurance, while preparing your body to maintain a faster pace for a longer period of time.
No matter the distance you run, there’s a good chance that you have the same two thoughts as everyone else when they cross the finish line or plop down on your couch at home.
1) Awesome, but I’m glad it’s over, and
2) Where's my beer?
There’s also a good chance—whether you run for fun, to collect medals, or to be with your tribe—that there’s one question that lingers each time you finish running: How can I get faster?
It’s just the natural evolution of anyone who trains: Higher mountains, more weight, faster speeds, what’s next? It doesn’t matter your regular pace or preferred distance—and it doesn’t matter whether you’re just starting out or you’ve hit a plateau; you can integrate one or two high-intensity sessions a week to see increases in your normal or race pace, says Stephanie Howe Violett, Ph.D., a coach, professional trail runner and former winner of the Western States 100.
“The first thing to run faster is that you have to train faster,” says Violett. Here are some proven techniques for how to get you there.
Add Speed Training
If you want to get faster, you'll want to include, at least, one day per week where you focus on speed. There are many ways to speed train—and they all have different benefits. Your best bet: use a variety of different speed training options to mix up what you do on your scheduled speed day and build Some options:
Funny name, effective technique. With fartleks, you vary your speeds during a run—say 3 minutes at a higher pace, followed by a minute off— and you continually change up the times throughout the run. For example, you can follow that 3:1 pace with 2 minutes at a higher pace followed by 2 minutes at a slower pace.
If it feels random then you're doing it right because that's the idea. You learn to kick up your speed a notch and then pull it back down. It also allows you to "go by feel" when you train. If you have more energy, you can push, whereas if you're fatigued then your speed bursts can be shorter and less intense.
“When you’re first starting doing speed work, fartleks are a really great way to get your body into it—you’re not going for distance but going for time,” Violett says
With running, like any other skill, you're not going to get better overnight. But, the only way to reach your goal is to push the boundaries of your comfort level. With tempo runs, you begin to expand what you're capable of achieving by selecting a fixed period of time or distance to run faster.
Here's how you can do it: in the middle of your run, pick about 8 to 15 minutes and run at a faster pace than normal, and hold it for the entire time. “It’s really effective for giving confidence for sustaining that pace,” Violett says.
If you're a beginner, start on the lower end of time or distance, and then with each week try to push the distance a little bit longer while still maintaining a faster pace.
Pick a prescribed distance—such as 800 meters or twice around a track—and do several sets of that distance at a harder pace than your normal pace. Rest (walk or jog) for the same amount of time it takes you to run the distance. Do several sets. If you’re starting out, try two to four—more if you’re more experienced.
Or, you can do "Yasso 800s," which are designed for longer run training. This is a simple way to convert your marathon goals into an 800-meter pace. If you wanted to run a 4-hour marathon, then your goal for the 800s would be 4 minutes (just convert the hours into minutes). After your warmup, do a few rounds of 800s and call it a day.
Practice for Power
Hills are a great way to build speed without having the impact on your body that can come with the intensity of traditional speed workouts, Violett says. The strength you build in your “run” muscles—glutes and hamstrings—will translate to race day.
Pick a hill that’s not too flat and not too steep (6 to 8 percent grade is a good target, she says). Run the hill anywhere from 15 to 90 seconds, doing several sets. You can isolate the hill sets as an entire workout, or run to a hill, do several sets, and then run back.
Don't Forget Short Sprints
It’s not a traditional workout for distance runners, but the short sprint—think 60 meters—can provide benefits to endurance athletes, says Mike Young, Ph.D., director of Athletic Lab, which focuses on speed development and athletic performance.
The reason: Sprints help with "running economy," allowing you to run at the same pace with less oxygen consumption—or to run faster with the same oxygen consumption. Translation: You can do more but feel it less.
“These benefits are pretty steep,” Young says. “You can improve your running economy by 7 percent with just a little bit of sprinting and plyometric exercises [explosive moments like jumping].”
You can see benefits just by doing 3 to 6 reps of sprints one day a week. Young recommends doing them at the start of a training run (after warming up) rather than the end, so you’re not fatigued when you do the sprints. You can also do them as a separate workout, of course. The key is to take enough rest time so that each spring is without the constraints of feeling tired, Young says.
Trust Your Body
In a data-driven world, you will look at watches and apps to see your progress, but there’s some benefit in ignoring the data mid-run and just playing with your intensity levels based on how you feel, Violett says. “People try to use heart rate or pace, but that’s so variable,” she says.
Whatever speed workout you pick (see above), make the first rep about 80 percent intensity and then build to higher (rather than doing the first one all-out). Always aim to go faster over the workout, rather than slowing your paces as you get more fatigued. “That’s what teaches you packing,” she says. “You learn about your effort levels and how that feels.”
Don't Forget to Rest
After a speed workout, you need to focus on nutrition and prioritizing recovery days to allow your muscles to repair and rebuild. For nutrition, make sure that you're taking in enough protein (like Ladder Plant or Ladder Whey). While most people associate protein with building muscle, one of its key responsibilities is with helping your muscles recover after a hard workout.
In terms of training days, you can take a full recovery day or make it a low-intensity active day, like a swim, stretching, or even a light run. “The key is that it needs to be an easy effort,” Violett says. “It just gets the blood moving, which can help get rid of the soreness and help with recovery.”