If you’ve managed to master the basics of running and have completed a race or two along the way, but haven’t yet satisfied your greed for glory, it might be time to turn your attention to ways in which you can increase your running speed.
Indeed, from conditioning your strength to hiking up hills there are a number of different techniques championed by professionals that have been proven to help you pick up the pace and achieve that all-important new PB.
We talked to female fitness expert Rich Sturla to get his expert opinion on the matter. Here are his top five tips for giving your pace the push it deserves.
1. Establish your baseline
“You need to measure your key performance indicators - things like your body weight, body fat percentage, lean body mass, best time for your target running distance, heart rate and even resistance training progression (more on this later). Doing this allows you to establish a baseline from which you can track your progress and see tangible evidence of your success over time. Seeing those improvements gives a great emotional boost, especially when you may not otherwise be noticing the results from all your hard training.”
2. Improve soft-tissue quality
Runners are often fighting through pain. Be it plantar fasciitis, shin-splints, sore knees, tight IT bands, an aching lower back or a host of other common ailments, eliminating the chronic pain that many runners needlessly embrace as part of their training will produce immediate and gratifying results.
Target common sore spots and soft-tissue trigger points in your muscles with self-myofascial release (SMR) – a fancy way of saying ‘self-massage’. Getting a decent foam roller will be one of the most cost-effective investments you’ll ever make in helping to alleviate knots and restrictions all over your body.”
To see how best to use a foam roller take a look at Rich’s detailed video demonstration here .
3. Move well and move often
One of the best ways to improve your running speed and reduce your risk of repetitive strain injury is to retrain your body to move as efficiently as possible. If you improve the balance of mobility and stability in the right areas of your body, you’ll be a more efficient athlete capable of producing greater output at a given level of energy expenditure, translating into improved running performance.
Running is a highly skilled endeavour so make sure you have enough range of motion in the joints and enough elongation in your muscles before you attempt to strengthen them with a repetitive movement (i.e. running a lot). Otherwise, you are just reinforcing an inefficient movement pattern. Ultimately, this causes more strain in the joints, which not only reduces performance but can also lead to injury. One of the best ways to do this is to incorporate dynamic mobility training into your workout regime, ideally as part of your warm up along with foam rolling pre-workout. Click here to see a simple and targeted dynamic mobility circuit from Rich. This will activate and strengthen classically weak muscles and lengthen typically tight muscles. You’ll fire up your nervous system, feel more mobile and supple, not to mention fix aches, pains and postural issues - leaving you primed to train.
4. Embrace strength training
Lifting weights and using resistance training will improve your running performance in a number of ways:
- Increased force production - getting stronger decreases the relative intensity of submaximal muscle contractions, such as those performed during running. If you’re stronger, every running stride is easier than it would be if you were weaker. You’ll also consume less oxygen to do a given amount of work, which improves running.
- Better glycogen storage - more lean muscle means more glycogen, which is your body’s favourite fuel for intense exercise. Glycogen is a stored form of carbohydrate that is easily burned for energy and running out of glycogen during a long race is a runner’s nightmare. Building lean muscle gives you a bigger ‘gas tank’.
- Fast twitch muscle fibre development - our fast twitch muscle fibres are responsible for intense, powerful movements, such as climbing a steep hill or the kick at the end of race. These fibres are best developed with weight training - the more intense, the better. So lifting weights with explosive intent (i.e. trying to move the weight quickly) or lifting close to concentric failure (i.e. until you can’t move the weight anymore) develops these fibres to help you run harder and faster.
Here are three things runners should focus on when strength training:
Improved muscular endurance
Endurance athletes need muscular endurance (i.e. the ability to perform repeated muscle contractions at a submaximal load). However, there’s more to building endurance than just running. Targeting specific muscles, especially those in the lower body, with high reps and lots of time under tension can improve your running performance by allowing lots of lactate to accumulate in the working muscles. Your muscles will burn like crazy and over time as you push through with repeated exposure to lactate, your body will learn to tolerate. To improve muscular endurance, perform sets of 15-20 reps with a slow tempo. Pick a weight that leaves you close to failure when you finish the set.
Running is a ‘low amplitude’ activity, meaning that you use a very small range of motion when you run. The hips don’t flex and extend much when you jog, nor do the arms swing very far. Over time, this can cause muscles to become short or stiff, so pick exercises that take you through a full range of motion to improve mobility (as outlined earlier). Lower body exercises like squats, split-squats and lunges involve flexion and extension of the hip and knee through a large range of motion, so you’ll improve strength and mobility simultaneously.
Emphasise your posterior chain
According to a study that looked at the biomechanics of running , the ankles, knees and hip flexors do most of the work. The muscles of your posterior chain like your glutes and hamstrings don’t contribute as much, which puts even more stress on your knees. Your lifting should prioritise these areas to stay balanced. Exercises like deadlifts, kettlebell swings and glute bridges strengthen your backside, take stress off your knees and help you put more force into the ground when you run.
5. Specific speed work
Whether you want to get that 5k done a little quicker or shave minutes off a marathon, the fastest way to improve your speed is by acclimatising your body to the feeling and demands of a faster pace. In sports training, the SAID principle asserts that the human body adapts specifically to imposed demands. In a nutshell this means that to run faster, ultimately, you’ll need to, well, run faster! Here are some of the best running specific training drills you can use to do so.
- Interval Training - Intervals are short, intense bursts of speed with rest between. Run the same distance repeatedly with rests in between. Interchange between doing pyramids, shorter sprints working to longer ones, then back to shorter, or ladders, gradually increasing the distance of each sprint. Use a measured space and intervals like 200 meters.
- Vary interval speed - Run each interval a bit faster, then taper back down to your starting speed. Rest between each interval.
- Fartlek - This is a Swedish phrase meaning ‘speed play’. It consists of interjecting bursts of short, fast runs into a regular run, but unstructured, without a fixed speed or distance. You can vary a fartlek run from 15 seconds to 3 minutes to train your body to run faster. Start with short fartleks and gradually increase the length as you build speed and endurance.
- Tempo Runs - Tempo runs are similar to high-intensity intervals, but with this strategy - you don't sprint as fast as you can. Instead, you hold at a fast (but not too fast) pace for a longer time period, like 10 minutes, before slowing down. This helps your muscles get past your lactate threshold, which will help you improve your endurance and speed. Remember that to be effective, your tempo run should challenge your body: you should be able to answer short questions but unable to hold a conversation.
- Hills - Running hills builds leg and lung strength, and gives you the foundation of fitness you need to get faster. Once a week, incorporate a variety of hills into your run that take 30 to 60 seconds to climb. As you go uphill, try to stay relaxed. Keep your gaze straight ahead, your shoulders down, and envision your feet pushing up and off the leg and the floor rising to meet you. On the way down, don’t let your feet slap the pavement and avoid leaning back and braking with the quads, which can put you at risk for injury. Try to maintain an even level of effort as you’re climbing up the hill and as you’re making your descent. Avoid trying to charge the hill; you don’t want to be spent by the time you get to the top. As you get fitter, add more challenging hills with a variety of gradients and lengths. As an added bonus, the incline gradient on hill runs is a more joint friendly way of training than pounding away on long flat runs for a nice change of pace.
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