I have a secret to tell you and you’re not going to like it, especially after everything you’ve read in running magazines. You know, the articles that promise new speed if you add a tempo workout, fartlek, interval or other type of run. They make you believe you’ll lower your PRs if you lift weights, do yoga, eat chia seeds, never eat bread, change your shoes, drink milk, don’t drink milk, skip heavy lifting, add mileage, stretch, skip the stretching, land mid-foot er… um forefoot and lower your mileage. I’m sure you’ve read some of these articles right? Well, I hate to break it to you, but these articles fail to mention the secret, which is THERE IS NO SECRET, but most of us have not reached our running potential. Why? With all the information AND misinformation out there, we have no idea how to reach it or we maybe we just don’t want to do the work. Don’t get me wrong, the above methods work, but maybe not for you. I’ve worked with and studied athletes of all backgrounds and abilities and there are certain characteristics of a fast runner. Lucky for you I’ve put it all together in this article and you will now have the knowledge to run a 2:30 marathon. Well…….. maybe not, but you can certainly run faster than you do now if you take a little of this advice. Don’t want to run faster? Don’t read any further.
-FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU-
You’re not like any other runner, ever. Not in your stride, landing pattern, arm swing, nutrition, family commitments, mileage and sleep needs or flexibility. So why are you following Shalane Flanagan’s training plan that you read about in Runner’s World when you haven’t even studied your own gait? In order to reach your potential, you should have a carefully designed training plan based on your specific needs. If you’re a runner who gets injured often, maybe 80 mile weeks aren’t for you and you need to cross-train more. If you can bend over backwards and put your head between your legs, you probably don’t need to spend a lot of time on flexibility, being more mobile might even make you run slower. If you can’t even touch your shins with your legs locked, you could probably use a flexibility routine. If your arms flail wildly to the side like a Pterodactyl when you run, you might use some core activation work. My point? Just because your running buddy does 25-mile tempo runs leading up to his 10K doesn’t mean you necessarily need to follow suit. Find out exactly what you need then work really hard at it.
-DON’T RUN SO HARD-
I work with a runner who we’ll call Beth. She’s a great athlete. She regularly places high in her age group or overall in the events she completes. Beth always completes her assigned workouts, eats well, recovers well, and used to run really HARD….. all the time, which many of you also do, which might also be why you’re not getting any faster and why Beth started to have problems! No joke. If you’re always running hard, it can be very difficult to recover between workouts. It can also make it difficult to run hard when you really need to. Most runners have a mentality that in order to be fast, they have to run fast, which is true, but you can’t run all of your training mileage at race pace and expect to perform well in an actual race. Two things: (1) You don’t get faster during your workouts, you get faster during your recovery time. (2) Hard workouts should be carefully planned and spaced to make room for recovery. Every workout that isn’t hard should be easy. How easy? So easy you think it’s too easy. Deena Kastor, the US record holder for the women’s marathon, ran that record at a 5:12/mile pace but was known to regularly complete her easier efforts closer to the 9:00/mile range. If she was feeling particularly tired, she might even replace her run with a walk.
-……or RUN HARDER-
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the athlete who does all of his runs at a leisurely pace, taking care not to tax his body to the point of breathing hard or sweating, enjoying the run and smelling the flowers, content with his daily 5 miler at the same pace over the same terrain. Sound familiar? I’m not knocking the routine, it’s actually very healthy but if you actually want to improve your run fitness and run fast, you’re going to have to occasionally RUN FAST. Hard running improves your cardiovascular fitness and works your muscles in a way that easy running just won’t. I tell my athletes this, “hate the workout because if you go any slower you’ll be dead OR hate it because you feel like you’re going to die of exhaustion. Pick one or the other, nothing in between.”
Let me give you a scenario. Runner approaches coach to inquire about training, coach asks runner what he’d like to train for, runner says he’d like to train for a big marathon PR and qualify for Boston and he’s ready to begin training, coach asks when the event is, runner says 6 weeks, coach slaps his head in frustration and out comes a big sigh. Sound silly? It happens to me ALL THE TIME. We want to run faster, right now, but run fitness takes time. Years in fact to build to our potential, and months if you want to train for an event in the right way. So set long-term goals and be willing to commit long-term. After you’ve found your weaknesses, be patient with yourself and learn to enjoy the journey. You have the rest of your life.
They say it takes about 7 years to build to your running potential. You can’t train 6 weeks for a ½ marathon then take 6 months off and expect to be faster when you return. On the other hand, those of you who are constantly injured because you want it now, who refuse to listen to your body and/or fix deficiencies in your form/flexibility/nutrition etc, it’s very difficult to be consistent when you’re sidelined. You know who you are! You’re the person who runs 18 milers with a patellar knee strap, limping the entire way, running until you’ve compensated so much you wind up with another injury you can’t run through. Have knee/IT/back/whatever pain? Guess what? It doesn’t have to be that way but you need to do your homework to find out exactly what’s causing that pain, then work diligently to fix it, not just put a band-aid on it. Sometimes it’s not obvious (ie knee pain caused by weak glutes). Some things can’t be fixed without surgery, like arthritis or torn tendons, but most running injuries can be taken care of in a fairly simple way if you take the time to figure it out.
For such a simple sport, distance running is bio-mechanically complicated. Get a coach, if not a coach, at least a good friend who has a solid background in running who can help motivate, instruct, fix your deficiencies and offer advice. This motivator doesn’t have to have a doctorate or even be a certified coach. I’ve learned that there are some people with a lot of knowledge who make terrible coaches. Find someone you respect, who works with you in a way that makes you a better athlete and be willing to take direction. Most of the best runners (and athletes in most other sports) in the world have coaches. What makes you think you don’t need one?
-BECOME A STUDENT OF THE SPORT-
The fastest runners generally know exactly what makes a fast runner. Have you ever watched video of an efficient runner? Have you ever videotaped yourself running? What’s the difference? Now, how are you going to find your efficiency? Have you looked at the commonalities of great distance runners? If you don’t know what’s going to make you better, how will you ever get better? Hint: It’s not all about running harder/faster/longer. Know the area where you could use the most improvement, then focus.
-FIX YOUR FORM-
The best runners in the world don’t necessarily work harder than you, they’re just more efficient. Their strides look effortless because they almost are. Their legs, glutes, core, ankles and arms have learned to work so efficiently and fire so rapidly and precisely it can seem as if they’re floating. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to fix everything. Women’s marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe has a very distinct, very inefficient head-bob when she’s tired, but If your running style resembles more donkey than gazelle, there are lots of things you can do to make it better, but it will take time, consistency and A LOT of effort. COMMIT!
-FUEL TO TRAIN-
Meb Keflezighi, the fastest US marathoner ever, runs 100+ mile weeks and enjoys a single snack-size Snickers bar after particularly hard efforts during training. Why do you think you can get away with chowing down half a birthday cake after a 5K? Begin to think of your food as fuel for your next workout. I’m not a dietitian and don’t pretend to know all there is about nutrition and I’m definitely not a food saint. In fact, those of you who know me also know I indulge in the occasional donut, but there is a simple fact I’d like to share with you: most of us eat way too much of the wrong thing and weigh more than we need to for fast running. You don’t need to eat like a rabbit, but you do need to pay attention. There is also a definite correlation between body weight and running times. Bottom line: If you want to be a faster runner, fuel better and weigh less.
-GET MORE REST-
You can follow the above advice and run until you’ve chafed yourself into runner’s bliss, run so hard you’re going to puke and so many miles you go through a pair of Kinvaras every week, but if you don’t take down time, you will not reach your potential. The exercise is the stimulus, the down time is when you get faster.
-BELIEVE IN YOURSELF-
Generally, if you really want it, you can have it. Believe that you are not too slow, old, young, fat or weak. You’re not. Whatever you don’t have, you probably just haven’t been willing to go get. Decide you actually want to be faster, then go after it with a passion and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have it. Am I promising that you can run a four minute mile if you work really, really hard? Well, no, but I am promising that you can be a lot closer to it than you are now.
Well, did I share anything with you that you didn’t already know? We are runners and naturally want to work ourselves hard, but if you’re not doing things to make yourself a better runner, you’re not training, you’re just jogging hard. I know the “J” word is offensive to some but some of you are stuck in Jogger’s Paradise. Find what works, work smart, be patient and consistent, be accountable, fix your problems, stop eating so much, sleep more and believe in yourself. You don’t have to listen to me. I’m not an Olympian and I haven’t run under 2:30 in the marathon (yet). Hell I don’t even have an exercise degree. I’m just a run coach with a love for the sport, some modest but respectable PRs and a donut habit but I can tell you for certain that it’s not rocket surgery……. or brain science!
Assistant Whip Cracker
USATF and RRCA running coach