I’ve had a few questions about how to improve running speed, so I thought I’d take a stab at it for today’s post. I certainly don’t consider myself a “fast” runner, but it’s all relative, and I’ve shown some great improvement over my running journey (I’ve shaved 39 minutes off of my half marathon time since my first one!). So, hopefully you’ll enjoy these tips, and feel free to contribute your own in the comments!
- Be patient. When I started running, I was anxious to see improvement in every single race. Actually, I wanted to see improvement on every single RUN! But, pushing yourself too hard to improve on every single run can quickly lead to burn out, injury, or discouragement. I had to learn that improvement happens gradually, and that some runs just “click” but others don’t. Rather than get upset at myself for a single run that didn’t go as quickly as I planned, I shifted my goals to improve pace over time.
- Be consistent. The most helpful tip (for me) is to maintain consistency of training over time. You can’t expect to run once per month, and set a PR (personal record) at every race. It just doesn’t work that way! Instead, develop a schedule that you can maintain, and stick to it – whether it’s a few times per week or an almost daily habit, a consistent running routine will make you more comfortable and familiar with running, and more likely to improve. Of course, a week off here or there, or a missed run during the week will NOT destroy your progress, and it’s often best to listen to your body if it’s telling you it needs a break. What I mean is far more long term – I’ve been running at least a little bit since 2003, and have been running more consistently since 2008. At this point, my body isn’t trying to figure out how to get through the standard mileage anymore, and give more energy and focus to the tougher workouts that help increase my speed.
- Speedwork. I will save a full run-down about the various types of speedwork for a different post, since it’s a hefty topic – the right speedwork for you depends on your goals, your race distance, and your previous experience. But for almost everyone, some type of speedwork (where you’re pushing yourself to run for short intervals at a faster-than-comfortable speed) can vastly improve race performance and speed. Speedwork is also a “great” way to get injured if you do it too frequently, so my recommendation (at least for non-elite athletes) is no more than once per week. (picture source)
- Tempo runs. I admit that I’m not as consistent with tempo runs as I’d like to be, but I think they’re critical for performing your best on race day. Simply put, if you expect your body to run at a fast pace on race day, you have to get used to running at that fast pace during training so it knows how. Tempo runs help your goal race pace feel familiar and doable. Whereas speedwork generally challenges you to run even faster than the pace of the race you’re training for, tempo runs are usually an unbroken stretch of running at around your race effort. For non-elite athletes, most tempo runs include a warm-up, a stretch of about half the distance of the race at race pace, and a cool-down; however, like speedwork, this varies a lot based on your ability level, your goals, and your previous training.
- Race. This one comes very close to #2 as my favorite tip. For me, the key to success is competing in as many races as possible. Not only do I LOVE the race experience (it brings me so much energy and keeps me motivated), but it also teaches me how to deal with the adrenaline rush and anxiety (and crowds!) that are bound to happen on race day. I perform my best when I have several races during a season, and I think some of this is that it takes the pressure off of each race. For example, as soon as I hit “publish,” I’m out the door to run a half marathon, and while of course I will try to do well, I am considering it more of a “fun race.” I have two half marathons later in the season (one in two weeks!) that are my “goal” races, or the ones that I will try to do my very best. I think that setting up your race calendar to have some races you really care about, and some that you’re just going to enjoy, get the experience, and improve yourself, is the best way to go. (picture source)
- Embrace a little pain. Don’t get me wrong – I do NOT think you should injure yourself, run through serious injury-related pain, or anything like that. But if you’re really pushing yourself to do your best in a race, it’s not going to feel comfortable the whole time. Embracing a little bit of pain is a good thing! You’ll want to quit, you’ll want to slow down … but you’ll be stronger in the end. (picture source)
- But know when you shouldn’t feel pain. Not every run should be uncomfortable! In fact, the majority of your runs should be done at a comfortable pace that does NOT hurt. Running at a conversational pace to build up your mileage, strength, and endurance is a good thing. So when you don’t have a race, speedwork, or a tempo run on your schedule, you should be ENJOYING it, not pushing yourself to the max. Even if it seems counterproductive, this will help prevent injury and get you to the starting line much stronger! (picture source)
So tell me in the comments … What are your best tips for increasing your speed? If you’re not a runner, tell me something healthy you’re doing this weekend!
I was recommended this web site by my cousin kanadiy. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my trouble. You’re wonderful! Thanks!
Great tips. I’m always reminding myself during a race that it’s not supposed to feel good, it’s a race! I like to add hill repeats in my training to improve my speed. It’s nice in a race to be able to maintain your speed on a hill and pass other runners instead of having them passing you.
Thanks, Jackie! You’re totally right that it’s not “supposed” to feel good (although the bad feeling like an injury is another story, of course). Sometimes it’s hard to remind yourself of that, but I tell myself over and over :).
Very good stuff! I think that embracing pain – and knowing the difference between good and bad pain – is key. Also as you say, patience. Try to go form 0 – to – 60 ends up more like 0 – to – injury 🙁
Unfortunately, I think you’re right on the 0-to-injury line. Running is just so addictive, and improvement is so invigorating, that we can push ourselves too hard too fast (and, to your other point, as new runners we often don’t know the difference between good pain and bad pain). Actually, I think that’s one of the largest unspoken benefits of running – getting to know your body really well, and being in tune with every little nagging pain.
Thanks for this post, Meg! I know I was one of those peeps who asked for advice on this very topic – so thank you very much! I think tempo runs are what I am missing. I do intervals and speed work once or twice a week, but I have rarely tackled a tempo run.
Laurie, you and me both! I don’t do tempo runs as much as I would like, but I think they are HUGELY helpful. For me, speedwork is great to push myself, but I always know that I can rest (or at least jog) in a few minutes. Tempo runs are that unique blend of speed AND endurance (because you shouldn’t stop in the middle) that is the most challenging for me. Want to commit to a mutual goal and each try a tempo run within the next week? I’m game if you are!
Sure! I am game 🙂
After I get a few more half marathon races under my belt, I really need to focus on “embracing a little pain!” Since I am a new runner, I haven’t really pushed myself too hard because I am still figuring out my comfort zone. However, I see more interval training in my future. Love this post! Thanks for the advice Megan!
Jillienne, you’re obviously doing something right since you rocked that half marathon this weekend! You’re right though, that once you complete more races, you’ll learn to test yourself with a little bit of pain (in a non-dangerous way). I think that’s a huge part of my improvement over the years – just learning what pain is OK during a race and when to keep pushing vs. hold back. It’s (unfortunately) not something you can read or hear one time and implement automatically, but rather it has to happen over time. Congrats again!
Very helpful. Number 1 is sooooo helpful. I definitely expect improvement too quickly and frequently!
Really looking forward to your deep dive on speed training. I have done come research but am still a bit lost.
Dave, you’re too much like me – too hard on yourself, and always setting goals for yourself. I think that you might fail to see the HUGE improvements you’ve made over the past year … remember when you used to be proud of yourself for getting out for a mile, and now you’re consistently running far, far more than that, plus achieving speedy race times? Improvement IS happening – it just can’t happen on every single run :). Happy to chat offline about speed training, and/ or will have the in-depth post coming relatively soon.