You’ve recently picked up running, and now you’ve set your next goal: get faster. The desire to get quicker isn’t a new notion for anyone who starts endurance sports. The hunger to get from point A to point B faster than before is an inevitable feeling we all encounter at one point or another.
The big question is: how do you get faster at running? The most obvious answer that may spring to mind would be: run more, but this isn’t always the best option. Running poses a larger degree of injury incidence since it has a high impact on your lower limbs. This injury risk is magnified even more if you are a newcomer to the sport.
So before you lace up your shoes and head out the door to stack more miles under your legs, check out some of the tips below from our experts on how to get faster at running, while building safely into a program:
Consistency is Key!
If you are new to running, one of the biggest concepts to understand is going to be the demand that running places on your ligaments and tendons. Tendon and ligament strength takes longer to increase than aerobic fitness or your muscular strength. Depending on your current cardiovascular shape, especially if coming from a previous endurance sport background (cycling, swimming, etc.) you may feel as if you can go from not running at all to running 5k a day, but you will be setting yourself up for injury.
When experts suggest increasing your mileage by 10% each week, this is not for the purpose of holding back on aerobic training that we would typically consider for cycling, but to hold back progressing your tendon and ligament strength too quickly in order to safely build up their resiliency to run a 5k.
In addition to tendon/ligament strength, consistency in running is incredibly important. For example, it is better to run a little bit every day (5-10 minutes), than to run longer one day per week (45-60 minutes.) Your tendons and ligaments are the slowest tissues to adapt to this new stress. Over the course of a year, this difference in tendon and ligament strength is just as important as improving your cardiovascular fitness. If you have the engine to run a 25min 5k, but the strain on tendons/ligaments for that effort is so severe that you won’t be able to run for 6-10 days afterward, this strain won’t help you towards long term gains.
If you are worried about losing cardiovascular fitness or not improving your cardiovascular fitness in the beginning stages of running, adding in cross-training such as cycling or swimming can be beneficial in maintaining or improving your engine. As you begin to increase mileage and neuromuscular coordination with running you can slowly start to cut back on supplemental cross-training.
Running is in its simplest form putting one foot in front of the other, but it is much more than a simple form of locomotion if you want to achieve results. Learning movement skills is critical in running just like it is in hand-eye coordinated sports like baseball, tennis, etc. Highly efficient runners have also mastered the skill of running, and so can you.
The force running places on your body with each stride, adds an additional 40-50% of your body weight. Each stride requires your body to respond to the mechanical forces you are undergoing: vertical and lateral forces.1 No wonder running can feel so hard sometimes! When you are building into a run program try to remember the following:
- Economy: the energy required to run a certain speed. If you can improve your economy you can improve on energy expenditure at a given rate which can be stored for later use!
- Reducing Stress: reducing the overall stress on your system lies in two factors:
- Loading Rate: bringing the foot to a point of contact closer to the body and decreasing the time of contact on the ground. (Think cadence)
- Instability: being able to control all forces acting upon your body during running and not allowing things to get wobbly! We want to decrease having too much variability across our bodies and learning to control the movement properly.
- Symmetry: Running is a gross motor task that requires both of your legs (and arms!) to show up and produce equal movements. You wouldn’t run with a limp, right? (The answer is no!) If you find your body cannot move symmetrically, then most likely you will not run symmetrically and this can cause issues down the road.
Core Stability is key to running and often overlooked especially in novice runners. Having poor posture can cost you energy. Proper posture when running is a large and one of the most important aspects of running. Being able to find a neutral spine position is key to maintaining spine and hip health (which are very crucial to overall running health!) We all can spend an unhealthy amount of time every day in poor positions: sitting in an office chair, computing by car, slouched over the computer or phone, etc. Going from poor positioning straight to running puts up in poor alignment and then we add all the mechanical load….not good! Poor postural alignment shifts the load of running from your larger efficient muscles (glutes) to smaller, less efficient muscles like your muscles surround the knee.
Improving your posture includes movements that help improve thoracic mobility, as well as exercises that stabilize the core. For example: using a peanut (two tennis balls or lacrosse balls taped together) and rolling this along your paraspinal muscles can help release tension. *the groove where the tennis balls connect will be where your spinal column fits in, do not roll directly on your spine!
To help with stabilizing the core, try exercises such as the bird dog exercise where you focus on moving the opposing arm/leg while maintaining a neutral spine. This exercise places a large focus on strong hip/core stability in order to not extend through the lower back! Always keep a place of focus on your own pelvic tilt. You may come across in your reading to avoid things such as, “dumping your pelvis.” This means that you have an anterior (forward) tilt to your pelvis that places increased load on your hip flexors/stabilizers and decreases your ability to utilize your larger powerful muscles, your glutes! Working on increasing anterior flexibility (aka your quad/hip flexors) and strengthening your posterior chain (glutes/hamstrings) can help you avoid having an anterior tilt.
Include a Drills/Skills Focused Run
Almost every runner at any level can/will benefit from incorporating a drills-focused run into your training schedule each week. In fact, many can benefit from removing a standard run and swapping it with a skills-focused session to improve their efficiency with running. A drill/skill-focused run is a technique-focused session designed to develop your agility, stability, range of motion, and foot speed. There is no focus on heart rate zones so you may choose to leave yours at home for these sessions. Between sets of each drill, you should easy jog/walk to fully recover between the efforts. While these efforts shouldn’t be too taxing on you, the key is perfect form, so you want to be hitting each one rested enough that you can maintain great form for the duration. You should take a bit of extra rest between techniques, again to ensure you are rested and can nail the form. Before starting the workout, familiarise yourself with the format for high knees, butt kicks, skipping, Carioca and strides. Try finding a flat track or field with 50-100m of open space (football and soccer fields are great for this).
Session Example: Here’s what you need to do in order to complete this workout.
Start off with 5 minutes of easy jogging/walking.
High Knees: 2-3 sets of 75m high knees. Easy jog/walk for 30-60 seconds between.
Butt Kicks: 2-3 sets of 100m butt kicks. Easy jog/walk for 30-60 seconds between.
Skipping: 3-4 sets of 50m skipping. Easy jog/walk for 30-60 seconds between.
Carioca (grape-vines): 4 sets of 30m Carioca in each direction (8 total). Rest for 20 seconds between direction changes (at your discretion).
Strides: 2-3 sets of 60m strides. Easy jog/walk for 30-60 seconds between.
High Knees + Butt Kicks: Finish these drills with one set each of 50m high knees and butt kicks.
Walk or jog for 5 minutes to cool down.
Run Slower to Get Faster
If you are new to running, or even if you are a seasoned veteran returning to running from injury: you quickly realize that running at any pace can feel difficult. The urge to push harder during runs creeps into your mind as a solution to getting faster at a quicker rate. Avoid this urge! Even when you are gaining fitness and running begins to feel easier, save the hard and fast running for the days when you need it: workout days, races, etc.
Pace control for running is incredibly important. The very small differences in speeds relative to your efforts are far more pronounced in running as compared to cycling. For example: Running at Zone 2 pace for longer durations can be critical for improving fitness, but if you are running above Zone 3 pace because your Zone 2 pace “feels slow,” then you are sabotaging your training! Fear not, there is nothing wrong with a slow walk between run efforts if you are new to the sport (and even if running isn’t your first rodeo!) Always be mindful that it takes a high amount of fitness to be able to do a “recovery jog,” so don’t feel bad or freak out when you may need to drop to a walking pace when the workout calls for it.
One important distinction to cover will be understanding your body’s own pain signals. While many runners may already know the difference between taxing your system cardiovascularly and muscle/bone/tissue injury, this is not true for all. Being new to running you can experience a multitude of different signals when starting out. Your muscles will be more sore and fatigued compared to someone who has been running for years.
There is a difference between exercise-induced pain, and pain associated with running-related injuries (achilles issues, knee issues, hip issues, shin issues, etc.). If you are running for the first time, you really need to pay attention to where “that pain” is coming from. If it isn’t directly coming from your working muscles, or from your lungs, then you should ease off and should likely see a physical therapist or running coach. Shin splints, micro-tears in your achilles, ankle issues, etc. will hold your training (and improvement back) much more than pulling the plug early on workouts because the wrong things start to hurt. *Remember consistency is key!
1. Dicharry, J. (2017). Running Rewired: reinvent your run for stability, strength, and speed. Velopress.
Suzie is a Wahoo Sports Science Coaching Specialist, with a focus on expanding the resources and offerings for multi-sport and off-road athletes. Suzie earned a Master’s Degree from Springfield College in Exercise Science and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Cycling Level 3, USA Triathlon Level 1, and USA Track and Field Level 1 Certified Coach. Over the years, Suzie has coached an array of age group athletes as well as elite groups such as the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, Colorado Springs SWAT Team and K9 Unit, and the US Army 10th Special Forces Group.
In addition to training others, Suzie is a professional triathlete with a full Xterra race schedule. As an amateur, she won multiple National and World Championship titles, and since turning professional in 2010, she has won 3 Xterra Elite National Championships, 14 International Xterra races, and finished in the Top 5 at five World Championship events, with her best finishes being 3rd at both the 2016 Xterra and ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships.