So you want to increase your running speed. This is one of the most common topics I get from runners who’ve been running consistently and are ready to take it to the next level. And heck, it’s a common question from new runners too! I really like getting this question because it generally means that the runner loves running enough to want to push for bigger goals in their training.
Whether you’re training for a 5K, 10K, half marathon or marathon, wanting to run faster is a normal and natural desire for many, and it’s also a great indication that you’re progressing your running. A quicker pace and the strength to incorporate speed increases your overall running performance, so it’s a great goal to strive towards. I’ve dramatically increased my running speed over the years. And when I have gotten injured, I usually wasn’t following my own advice.
And yes, one of the downfalls of speed work is that it increases the risk of getting injured. Speed work puts more stress on the bones, joints, and muscles, and therefore, puts you at a higher risk of injury. So today I’m sharing how to introduce speed training into your training without injuries. These five tips are tried and tested, and while they aren’t the only thing that will keep you injury free, they’ll definitely help.
Let’s talk about how to run faster without injuries.
Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But hear me out. When you introduce speed work into your training plan, do NOT ramp up your pace for every single run. Trying to run faster on every single run won’t allow enough time to recover (which can cause injuries) and won’t allow your body to run to its full potential on speed work days (more on that below).
Hans Selye, a groundbreaking scientist in the mid 21st-century, discovered this: When the body is continually challenged in the same way, over and over again, it soon becomes exhausted, unable to perform at normal levels. (Source) Sports medicine doctors all agree that incorporating speed training gradually is best.
Increasing your speed everyday is likely to cause injury — and an injured runner usually runs slower. Plus, you are more likely to get burned out and discouraged if you’re always trying to run hard and/or you are hurt. You should spend about 70% of your training cycle working on endurance at slower paces, and the rest can be spent on speed work. This typically looks like adding in speedwork 4-8 weeks before your race day. (My marathon training plan breaks up training into mesocycles that follow this approach.) I recommend 1-2 speed days a week (MAX!) during those weeks. Building base mileage before adding in speed is crucial.
Make sure to evaluate your training plan so that you don’t push yourself so hard that you get hurt or start to dread your runs. I talk about evaluating your training plans in my online running course.
Speed and endurance are not mutually exclusive. In order to get faster, you have to maintain your level of stamina as well. This mean building up a strong base before you start adding in speed work, and continuing to maintain that base throughout your training. This means you still have to do your long runs and don’t do them too fast.
One easy way to test that your long run pace isn’t too fast doing a talk-test. To make sure you aren’t going too fast when you should be working on your endurance, check to see if you’re able to talk in full sentences. If you can only say a few words at a time while gasping for breath, you’re going too fast. You should be able to talk in full sentences at your endurance pace and feel pretty good.
While some intense, specific speed workouts should be left until 4-8 weeks before your race, there is something you can do year-round to help increase speed and improve your running economy without burning out: Strides. Strides are simply 4-6 repeats of 15-30 seconds of running fast. Followed by 30-90 seconds of very very easy running (or walking!). Add these to the end of an easy run.
This informal type of interval training will improve leg turnover, which improves running economy, fires up fast-twitch muscles and gently helps your body learn to run faster. These are fine to incorporate one or two times per week all year, whether you are training for a race or not. Just remember to keep them short and the effort should build up to about a 7-8 (on a scale of 1-10) before slowing down to recover. Don’t shoot out of the gate from 0 to 7-8… think about building speed to a 7-8, hitting each effort along the way.
During a run, your body produces lactate. And when you’re running an easy pace, your body converts the lactate to glycogen to be used as energy because it’s able to keep up with the lactate production. However, as you increase your speed, you create more lactate than your body can handle, approaching your lactate threshold. By continuing to work on intervals and speed work, your body learns, over time, to adapt and better handle the stress and thereby increase your lactate threshold.
This photo is from a V02 max test I took a few years ago to measure my anaerobic threshold. So I would have a better sense of the paces I should be running for each type of interval session. But, you definitely don’t need a V02 max test to improve your lactate threshold! Using the right training plan will help you make a lot of improvements.
By incorporating speed work gradually, you are able to increase your lactate threshold so that you’re able to train faster without burning out or getting injured. Are you noticing a trend? Gradual speed work is key.
Depending on what race distance your training for will impact the types of intervals you include. But, expect anything from 200 meters to 1 mile repeats, followed by recovery. Other great workouts to include in your speed training (but not every week if you’re not training for something specific) are tempo runs and hills. I have a running dictionary in my online running course to help with this lingo if your plan lists those out but you aren’t sure what they mean.
Increasing your lower body strength training is a great way to increase your speed. I suggest lifting on your hard running days so you get all the hard stuff done on one day. And you can truly recover on your recovery days. I really like the Peloton Strength for Runners classes that can be done at home with a few dumbbells. And 1-2x a week, I head to the gym to lift heavier. While I no longer do Crossfit, I really appreciate everything I learned to feel more confident in the gym. If you aren’t sure where to begin with strength training, it may be worth hiring a personal trainer (who understands runners’ needs) for a few sessions.
This goes with the tip above and the tip below. Cross training so another helpful way to reduce your risk of injury. Adding variety into your workouts makes your body work in different ways, instead of pounding out your joints and muscles in the exact same way everyday. I love the Peloton for my non-running days. This post talks more about the best types of cross-training.
You NEED recovery days and complete rest days in order to run faster without getting injured. Remember, the fastest runner is a healthy runner. And one of the best ways to stay healthy is to take recovery seriously. Resting your body allows time for it to repair from the previous hard workout, whether that was an interval sessions, lifting or both.
You can still stay active on days where you’re completely resting. If you get antsy on rest days, try foam rolling, using a massage gun, get a sports massage, catch up on sleep , and/or stretch (preferably after you warm your muscles a bit with a short walk). Enjoying in a hot bath with CBD mineral soak also works wonders when I’m super sore. I also love walking with my son on rest days!
Recovery days are different from rest days. Rest days involve no running. Recovery days involve running (or cross-training, depending on your training plan) done a VERY easy pace. This helps improve endurance without further breaking down the body. This post talks more about recovery days and how slow to go.
Keep in mind that recovery runs may feel challenging, even if the pace is dramatically slower. You’re likely to be sore or tired and your body is working to move out the lactic acid built up from the previous hard workout(s). Resist the urge to push the pace. By the end of a recovery run, you should feel a little bit better and you should feel better the next time you run.
As a runner, adding speed work into your training plan is an exciting part of your progress. Increasing my running speed and setting PRs along the way has been such a motivating and rewarding experience. It’s fun to compare my progress over time (Strava is great for this!). Right now, I’m working on rebuilding speed since returning to running after pregnancy, and I’m following each of the five things in this post.
I’d love to hear your tips to improve running speed while avoiding injuries so leave a comment and share!
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