Someone asked a fairly straightforward question: How do I improve my run speed?
Great question, one that gets asked a lot, and so I wrote up a response. For anyone looking for something that has workouts, or paces, or structure to follow, you will be sorely disappointed. However, the following is pretty much how I see things when it comes to improving your running (whatever that might mean to you).
The best practice for improving your running speed is this:
Run lots, mostly easy, sometimes hard.
There are four keys to running:
You need to run often to get better at running. It is just like any
other skill that you are trying to improve; the more often you practice,
the better your body and mind will develop the necessary adaptations to
This is tied to frequency, but goes beyond just running as often as
possible. You have to follow this pattern for a long time to really get
to your best. In other words, there's a reason why most of the elite
runners are in their 30s, and why the 30-50+ age groups can be some of
the most competitive at a race. These are the people who have years of
consistent running behind them.
In order to improve as a distance athlete, you need to improve your
endurance. Endurance is developed by running many miles at a time.
Volume can be measured in weeks, months, and years. There's a reason
why the best runners, regardless of race distance, generally follow
similar mileage amounts.
Simply put, intensity is how hard you run. There are various ways to measure intensity, namely Heart Rate (HR), Pace, and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).
How These Keys Relate:
All of these keys work in conjunction with each other, so you need to be aware of the interplay between them all.
Volume and Intensity are the most conjoined, and often the hardest to
really manage well, especially for someone starting out. In order to
build your body's adaptations for running more miles, you need to give
it time to recover. Recovery is affected by how hard and how long you
run: the harder you run and the longer you run at that intensity, the
longer it takes to fully recover from the effort, and the longer it
takes to build those adaptations. Additionally, by putting too much
stress on the body for extended periods of time without adequate periods
of recovery and adaptation between them, your body will eventually
break down; it simply cannot keep up with the repairs it needs to do.
So, that means that there are always going to be limits on how much and
how hard you run. However, those limits are constantly moving, due to
those adaptations. When starting out, a person may not be able to run 1
mile, but after a period of time, he can run that mile with no problem,
and eventually even starts to run it faster. These are the adaptations
Now, as with every other skill, there is only so much running "practice" the body can absorb at a time (which is basically the effects listed above).
So, how to increase the rate of adaptation? By running shorter,
easier runs at a high rate of frequency. By running lots of shorter
runs at an easier effort, the recovery time is minimal, and can allow a
person to get in more runs in a period of time because less time is
spent trying to recover from previous efforts. By maintaining this
pattern consistently over a period of months and years, the changes can
be remarkable, and have been demonstrated on this site and others.
The Role of Specific Workouts:
The above does not address race-specific workouts that a person should
do. There needs to be runs of varying lengths and intensities to fully
realize one's ability at a given point in time. In other words, you
shouldn't just run 2 miles at an easy pace and expect to run a sub-3
marathon. In order to really improve, additional workouts need to be
integrated into the weeks and months to further develop specific
adaptations to maximize race ability.
Putting it all together:
At this point, we are now talking about more training plan - specific
topics, namely how one should mix things up in a given week or month. I
will not give exact times, distances, efforts, or even a schedule;
those things are entirely based on the individual.
In order to really improve, you need to run short, run long, run hard,
and run easy. None of these types of workouts should be completely
ignored, but they do need to be managed properly to allow the body to
fully develop and adapt to the training. So, from this, here are some
general rules of thumb:
- The longest run in a given period of time should not exceed
approximately 1/3 of total miles within that period. This time period
is best measured by going from long run to long run.
- The day after a harder effort should almost always be an easy effort. The body needs time to recover, but you need to keep running, so be sure
to make it light, and not too long.
- The only "junk miles" are those miles that are done with either no
purpose, or are counter to the proposed purpose of the workout. In
other words, if today should be an easy day, don't go out and turn it
into a harder effort; you've counteracted the purpose of the workout.
- Be critically honest, and realistic, with yourself. The biggest
offense people make is convincing themselves that a run was "easy", when
the reality is that it was not. Some of this is due to lack of really
understanding the body, but a big part of it is simply looking in the
wrong place for the indicators, and not being realistic and honest about
where they are in training and their fitness.
- You have to mix it up. Don't run the same pace or effort or heart
rate all the time; at least once a week, go out and see how you feel and
let things roll. Unleash the hidden runner inside, the one that craves
the wind in the face and the feel of burning legs and lungs, the
sensation of flying over the ground. The experience is fun, it's
educational, and it provides a respite from the monotony of training.
- Focus on your body. Keep track of your breathing, and how you feel.
You want to always try to run relaxed, feeling loose and fluid and
smooth. Breathing is a good way to monitor effort; find a consistent
pattern and try to stick with it for a while and see how you feel. If
it's too hard, then ease back and find a new pattern. Listen to your
feet and the sound they make. You want soft thuds, not loud slaps or
scuffs or thuds. Focus on trying to have "quiet" feet. Learn the
signals your body is sending out, like aches, pains, burning sensations,
whatever. These are warning signs, and you need to know what they are,
what they signify, and how to deal with them.
That's really all there is to it. Remember, this is running, not rocket
science. Everyone is different, so exact workouts and effort levels
and mixes of training won't work for all. There are few universal
truths when it comes to training, and we are each an experiment of one.
However, I do believe that there are some universal truths, and I have
attempted to outline what I believe them to be.
Hope this helps.