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How to Be a Faster Runner, According to a Running Coach

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How to Be a Faster Runner, According to a Running Coach

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Besides the fact that it helps us feel happier, sleep better, and go about our lives with more energy and less pain, one major thing that gets people hooked on exercise is that it’s so easy to track progress. In running, that can look like watching your weekly mileage creep up or watching your average pace creep down — but many people find learning how to get faster at running is the harder of the two goals.

As a USA Track and Field (USATF) Level 1-certified run coach, an avid runner myself, and a writer who covers all facets of the sport, I often hear from recreational runners seeking advice to help them achieve their next goal, which very often includes the question, “What do I have to do to be a faster runner?”

At the surface level, the answer to how to increase running speed is to give it time and patience, as getting to that next level, whatever it may be, will always require continued work and dedication.

However, there are certainly steps you can take to ensure your journey to becoming a faster runner is productive and, more importantly, injury-free. Read on for seven tips to help you eventually get faster at running.

How to Be a Faster Runner

Run more often

Running once or twice a week will likely get you to the start and finish of a 5K or 10K with no injuries or other issues. But once your goal is to become faster, increased volume — meaning, the number of days per week you run, along with the number of miles per week you cover — will be key for building both endurance and speed.

This doesn’t mean you need to be a high-mileage runner in terms of overall weekly volume – many runners do just fine with three to four days a week of running, paired with cross- and strength training workouts. I personally run much lower volume than most runners at my level, peaking at 45 to 50 miles in a week in a marathon training cycle, but keeping it at 30 to 40 miles over five days of running in the off-season.

All that being said, it’s key to increase mileage sparingly, especially in the beginning. While you’re increasing your running volume, don’t add more than 10 percent to your previous weekly total mileage. So if you hit 20 miles total one week, don’t add more than two extra miles the next.

At first, aim to increase mileage by lengthening existing runs, rather than adding in new days of running. At the end of each week, pay attention to how you feel and whether you’ve experienced any aches and pains. If you’re feeling good for a month or two straight, you can experiment with adding an extra day of running until you’re up to four or five days per week.

But always give yourself a cutback week about once a month. During this week, scale back your long run and total mileage to give your body a chance to recover.

Slow down — a lot

This tip may be counterintuitive, but it’s arguably the most important step for increasing speed — and one that most runners learn the hard way. If you’re training for a marathon or half marathon and do the majority of runs at the pace you hope to average for your race, you’ll not only likely injure yourself along the way, but most likely will show up overcooked and not recovered on race day, leading you to underperform. And who would want to end up racing even slower than they’ve trained?

Even if you’re not trying to increase your running speed for a race, pushing your pace too often will lead to injuries and burnout.

Slowing down on your easy or aerobic runs serves to build endurance while also allowing you to recover. That way, you can tap into your speed for specific workouts — such as speed intervals, track workouts, tempo runs (more on these later) — and your eventual race, if you’re training for one.

So how much should you slow down? While there’s no hard and fast rule on this, as a coach, I advise that your true easy pace should be no less than a minute slower per mile than your goal race pace.

I personally go even slower. I’ve run a 1:37:10 half-marathon (an average pace of 7 minutes 25 seconds per mile) and a 3:30:14 marathon (an average pace of 8 minutes per mile), and my easy runs pace is usually around 9 minutes 20 seconds per mile. In fact, I often slow down even more, since I live in a hot and humid climate.

Another way to think of it is that you should be able to easily hold a conversation if you’re running with someone. If you find yourself needing to stop to take walk breaks to catch your breath, take it as a sign to slow down even more.

Incorporate speed workouts

If you’re brand-new to running, you’ll likely start to see your pace drop simply from running more, even at a super-easy pace. But eventually, your pace will plateau. At that point, incorporating one or two speed sessions into your week is key for seeing consistent improvement.

It’s important to sandwich speed work between a warm-up and cool down: typically around 10 to 30 minutes, or one to three miles of easy jogging for each. But if you’re crunched for time, I suggest prioritizing the warm-up. Having looser, more warmed-up legs will not only help the faster paces come more easily, but will also help in terms of preventing injury.

To familiarize your legs with running faster, start with a fartlek (which is a Swedish word meaning “speed play”) on a road or non-technical trail surface: run “on” (fast) for one to two minutes, then “off” (an easy jog to recover) for one to two minutes, and repeat 10 to 20 times.

Once you’re comfortable with fartleks, you can try adding a longer interval workout to your week, such as 400-meter, one-mile, or two-mile repeats. To do repeats, run your prescribed distance at your goal pace, then recover for at least one to three minutes, and repeat. If possible, run these workouts on a rubberized track, which are easier on the joints.

Another form of speed work is the tempo run, which involve running a distance — often three to five miles — at your goal pace. Tempo runs can be done on the street or treadmill.

Seriously — slow down

One of the biggest ways I see runners sabotage their speed workouts is by doing their recovery intervals too fast. These should be significantly slower than the hard interval, and even your warm-up. Think: 11- to 13-minute pace or slower.

Taking your rest intervals super slow will help you recover enough to be able to hit your intended paces and possibly get faster toward the end. If you find you’re slowing down on your intervals, it’s possibly because you’re not truly recovering on the rest segments.

Plus, it’s helpful to learn how it feels to run different paces. Knowing what everything from a push pace to a recovery pace feels like allows you to run smarter on race days, since you’ll know when you need to hold back and when you have more gas in the tank.

Use a GPS watch

Many coaches will warn against being overly dependent on GPS technology, and with good reason: if you’re trying to increase your speed by constantly pushing yourself to see a higher pace, you’ll likely burn out before you net real results.

But a GPS watch, such as those by Garmin or COROS, can be a useful tool. For one, it can help you keep track of how many miles you’re really logging, and since increasing running volume is so important for increasing running speed, that’s a key metric.

A GPS watch is also important to ensure you’re consistently hitting prescribed workout paces (including the slower recovery ones), since most people will not be able to guess exactly how fast or slow they’re running.

The bottom line: a GPS watch isn’t a necessity, but if you’re serious about building speed, it can be a useful tool.

When in doubt, rest

If something hurts, never run through it. This is another mistake a lot of runners learn the hard way — but running on a small ache is an easy way to turn it into a real injury, and it’s better to take a few days off now than to be sidelined for months because you’re seriously hurt.

If you’re surprised that so many tips for learning to run faster are about slowing down and resting, think of it this way: running is a high-impact sport. It’s hard on the body, so it’s important to take recovery very seriously.

Consider hiring a coach

Many people do fine just pulling a training plan from the internet. But if you have big, long-term goals — like breaking two hours in the half marathon or qualifying for the Boston Marathon — a coach can be a worthwhile investment to help you navigate your training.

A good running coach will analyze key metrics like injury history and heart rate during activity to determine if you need to slow down and if your goals are realistic. They can also help take the overwhelm and guesswork out of goal speed paces and counsel you on an effective strategy to execute your goal on race day. Lastly, a coach can be the firm voice you need when you’re questioning whether to push through pain or taking a necessary day off.

Emilia Benton is a freelance health and wellness journalist who is particularly passionate about sharing diverse stories and elevating underrepresented voices. In addition to PS, her work has been published by Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Self, Outside, and the Houston Chronicle, among others. Emilia is also a 13-time marathoner and a USATF Level 1-certified run coach.

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