In our old house (we moved last year) we lived on a fairly busy road that was a popular route for runners (or at least a starting point for many runners!). Since I’ve worked from home for 5+ years and my office looked out onto the street, I definitely recognized the regular runners. And since the summer of 2020 when the gyms closed, I started seeing a LOT of new faces pounding the pavement and many of those faces are still out there running. It makes me happy to see others discovering a love of the sport I love so much.
Whether you’re new to running or have been logging miles for a while, there is always something you can focus on with running, whether it’s running faster, running longer or training for a race. The key to a lifelong love of running is to enjoy the process as much as results.
How do you focus on the process?
You get the point: the options to mix up your running and still enjoy it are endless. Before we dive all the way into this post, if you’re interested in a much more in depth running course, join The Rookie Runner Program! It’s my online course and training program for people who are ready to make running a consistent habit in their life and feel better physically, emotionally and mentally.
Okay, let’s get into some tips to run faster. Let me share a little bit about my running experience, and how I increased my running speed over the years.
The first ever race I ever ran was the Moab Half Marathon in 2005, which I ran in 1 hour, 57 minutes.
My next race was a Ragnar Relay and then a 5K, which I ran in 25:56.
When I ran my first marathon in 2009, took me 4 hours, 6 minutes.
Now 16 years after my first race and 50+ races later, my current PRs are:
I wrote in my journal when I was 20 that I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon but never remotely believed I actually could, and I’ve since run it twice. I’ve placed in my age group at multiple races, won a couple in the women’s division and even outright won a race once, beating all the men. (Gotta love small races! 🙂 )
Remember, speed is ALL relative. My times may look slow to some yet impossible to others. And remember that people feel the same way about YOUR running speed, regardless of what it is.
I wouldn’t say I was born naturally fast. When I started running around age 14, my training runs were in the 10-11 minute mile range and it wasn’t until I was about 25 that I started to focus on running faster. Over the last 10+ years, I’ve worked very hard to improve my race times, followed many training plans and even hired my first running coach one year which led to a huge PR in the marathon (at Boston, no less, a notoriously hard course).
I often get asked by new and seasoned runners, “How can I increase my running speed?” There isn’t one thing you can do to run faster but rather it takes a combinations of things.
It’s not completely unreasonable to expect some improvements in speed right away, especially if you’re a new runner. But it’s also not reasonable to expect huge improvements after just a couple months.
Huge improvements in running speed take years to discover. And what’s especially exciting about that is that you really don’t know how much faster you’ll get over time. If you cut 15 seconds per mile off in your first 3 months of running, that’s awesome. But you may end up cutting 2 minutes off per mile after years of work. There is so much untapped potential when you’re new since you just don’t really know your body yet. And again, this is where focusing on the process is so important because that’s where the real work — and results — happen.
Learning to love the process and identifying progress in training will help you enjoy race day even more, regardless of whether you meet your goal or not. I always think of race day as a celebration of my work. Yes, I set race day goals but the majority of joy that running gives me comes from the day to day miles and workouts, not solely a finish line.
And yes, at some point, you’ll eventually slow down. But more and more runners are continuing to tap into faster speeds later in life, both in the recreational and elite runner populations.
So, let’s dive into some ways to help you run faster.
So what if you’ve been running for years and don’t feel like you’re getting faster? I would ask you to evaluate a few things:
Go through that list, honestly answer each and evaluate it. Yes, there will be periods where an injury or life causes a setback or limits your training. Factor that into your goals as well. But a long, healthy running career is consistent, even through life’s inconsistencies.
Sometimes consistency is being really diligent with PT to recover from an injury. Other times, it’s recognizing that you’re in a period of life where it’s not reasonable to put in consistent training and manage your own expectations.
Okay, now keeping the answers to those questions above in mind, here are seven tips to improve on each point.
You won’t get faster if you don’t practice running faster and really push yourself (more on that in #3). I first started running intervals on the treadmill mostly because I kept getting bored on the treadmill. And then I noticed how much my “fast” speed on the treadmill started improving and it motivated me to keep pushing the pace.
I didn’t do anything formal in the beginning: just warmed up for about a mile and then started alternating between running fast for 30-60 seconds and running a slower pace for 30-90 seconds. I also tried I increase my speed one notch with each fast interval. My faster pace was anywhere from 5:45 – 6:30 min/mile and recovery around 8:30-8:45 min/mile.
Fartleks and strides are another way to break up steady running pace without doing formal intervals. Adding in fartleks mid-run or strides at the end of your runs a few times a week will improve your running form (even your posture!). And good form will improve your running economy, which will also help with speed. Fartleks simply means “speed play”, where you vary your pace throughout the run and strides are 4-6 bursts of fast running for about 100 meters. (If you’re not familiar with “fartleks”, “strides” or other running terms, you’ll find the Running Dictionary in my running course helpful!)
Now my speed training is much more structured and much more specific for whatever goal race is next on the calendar. I may do some short intervals, tempo runs, long runs with pace changes. Lots of variety creates different stimulus, which drives change and improvement.
Your workouts – both in distance and pace – should be tailored to your goals. If you’re trying to break your 5K PR, that will look dramatically different than a marathon training plan. A good training plan should incorporate speed workouts specific to your race distance. And once you’re more experienced, putting in more miles each week, including some longer distances, will benefit you a lot to improve your base fitness.
And don’t forget about strength workouts. Increasing strength in both your upper body and lower body will make you a more efficient and more powerful runner, which translates to speed. I really like the Strength for Runners workouts in the Peloton app.
Practice perfecting your workout schedule to include a variety of workouts, easy runs, strength training, and rest. Changing up your running routine will help you in more ways than one!
I never really set out to improve my running speed or race times. It was fun when it happened, but when I started seeing big improvements in pace and race times was when I started running with people much faster than me.
And yes, a lot of the time, it sucked running with them. I was frustrated that their “easy” pace was killer for me and embarrassed when I had to ask them to slow down or just go on without me.
But my ego is such that I worked my butt off to keep up as best I could and, eventually, my easy pace re-calibrated. My easy pace used to be a 9:30 – 11:00 min/mile and now my easy pace for longer runs is around 8:15-8:45 min/mile. (If I’m marathon training, my recovery runs will still tip into 9 and 10 minute miles.)
If you are constantly battling an injury, it’s going to be hard to push yourself while running. And if you can’t push yourself, it’ll be hard to make improvements. While I still struggle with injuries from time to time (a torn posterior tibial tendon most recently), I’ve learned to address aches/pains from overuse injuries sooner than later.
To help with injury prevention, I try to be proactive and somewhat regular with yoga or cross training, dry needling, chiropractic adjustments, strength training (particularly core and hip work, with focus on some upper body muscles too!), and massage. If you aren’t doing strength training weekly, I highly recommend it. It’s beneficial for all runners, but especially runners who are trying to get faster. Strengthening your leg muscles (glutes, hamstrings, core muscles, etc) will make you stronger AND faster. I have a friend with an amazing runner’s core program, which I highly recommend since core strength is so important as a runner. Tack a small amount of strength work (a few squats, lunges, heel calf raises, and plank holds) onto the end of your run if you have time. This is a great way to work on your stability.
Double check that your shoes aren’t too old, since this can lead to a multitude of injuries, especially in your feet and knees. If you need to get a new pair of shoes, do it. It will be cheaper than having to see a physical therapist ;). I try to make my running shoes last as long as possible with these tips, but when I know it’s time for a new pair, I don’t hesitate. Read more tips for how I keep injuries at bay here. And read how to come back from a running injury here.
Runners need 7-9 hours per night. More and more research is showing that sleep is the MOST important recovery tool out there. And make sure your easy days are TRULY easy. Keeping an eye on your heart rate is a good way to do this. Aim for 65-70% of your max heart rate. You can also run with a slower friend and talk the whole time to keep your slow runs slow. Conversational pace is a good gauge for an easy run.
And while you’re prioritizing sleep, make sure to check your nutrition out as well. As a runner, you already know how vital proper nutrition is, so be cognizant of getting enough calories in your diet. This is what I eat before a run, and here’s what I eat afterwards.
Also, do NOT try to run faster AND longer. Trying to increase your speed and your distance at the same time will significantly increase your risk of injury. Focus first on building up a solid base of mileage, with easy miles. Then ease into speed work with some short strides (4-12x of 30 second pick-ups at the end of a run followed by 30-60 seconds easy jogging or walking). Once you are running your base weekly distance for 4-6 weeks, then you can start to add in more structured speed work.
I used to not think much about what I ate before and after a run. I always had something, but I wasn’t very intentional about it. While I try not to obsess over food, I am very intentional with my diet to fuel my running goals — particularly right before and after a run. In order to run your best, you MUST be properly fueled. And carbs should be a large portion of your diet. Read this post for more details on the importance of carbs and how the amount you eat should change as your training increases in volume and/or intensity.
When I was training for the 2019 Boston Marathon, I had my diet analyzed by a registered dietician who specializes in sports performance. He identified that I was under-fueling. While my protein intake was adequate, I wasn’t getting enough carbs to support the mileage and high intensity I was putting in. Read what he suggested I change here.
Even when I’m not in training mode, I rarely have more than 1-2 glasses a week. If I drink more than that (in terms of number of days or glasses at one time), I really feel it on my runs, and I’m significantly more tired throughout the day. So it’s just not worth it to me.
Over the years my body weight has fluctuated. But being lighter does NOT always equal faster. I set my marathon PR at one of my heaviest weights. But, the moral of the story is if you aren’t at a healthy weight — either too heavy or too thin — it may limit your potential. Find a healthy weight where you feel good and makes sense for your body type. That may mean you need to lose weight or gain weight. Being too light can also lead to injuries and more serious problems as it relates to your relationship with food.
I used to have the motto that I run because I enjoy it and if I push too hard, I won’t enjoy it. And that motto was fine for a time.
But then I wanted to get faster and that motto can’t apply when working on speed. I had to learn to deal with discomfort from pushing the pace and also know the difference between discomfort and pain. Now, I almost always prefer a workout to a steady state run.
Running a race will also help you learn to embrace discomfort. You’ll push yourself harder in a race than you will on a regular training run so this is especially helpful if you just don’t like pushing yourself. Plus, you’ll be energized by the running community, which helps you stay motivated and excited about running. It’s usually a very good thing to get out of your comfort zone.
My favorite training mantra is “This is what you’re here for.” For race day, I like “I trained for this feeling.” and “The faster I run, the sooner I’m done.”
If you aren’t consistent, it’s going to be hard to see those big breakthroughs. Yes, rest days are important and some time off may be forced due to an injury. But if you only train in spurts, with more time off than on, you’re unlikely to make meaningful improvements in speed.
So what if you ARE consistent? It can be hard to see that you are actually working towards a big breakthrough. But it really is the day to day things built over weeks, months and years that lead to big improvements in speed.
That’s where having a long-term perspective can be helpful and where recognizing improvements along the way will help you stay motivated before those big throughs.
You may drop big chunks of time off your races in the beginning. Or your may not. You may be at the point where even 3 seconds faster is a win. Or maybe the win on any given day is remembering to stretch after every workout. You may run significantly slower in the heat but you still get out there and run in it. (And you WILL run slower in the heat – don’t let it discourage you!)
Part of the key to staying motivated long-term is to remember WHY you started running in the first place and celebrating along the way, not only at big breakthroughs. Again, process over outcome.
I got older. I’ve read before that women reach their peak in running from about 28-38. It might be a coincidence since I’ve also starting training harder as I’ve gotten older, but it seems to be happening.
But more importantly, I’ve gotten wiser (most of the time) and listen to my body when it really needs more recovery or more fuel — or to be pushed a little harder.
It’s taken years of hard work but I still believe I have more speed in me. And that’s exciting. And you probably have more in you too.
What have you done to increase your speed? Which of these seven things do you think you could work on? Let me know if you have other running tips for increasing your speed in the comments below.
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