Faster, faster, faster! That’s the name of the game for runners. Although we are all striving for our PR or next goal, we often don’t know the exact steps to take to get there. Here are 7 ways to improve your running speed (bonus: none involve increasing mileage).
1. Vary intensities.
Running fitness is determined primarily by the combined volume and intensity of running you do each week and secondarily by the challenge level of your hardest individual runs. Because of this second factor, a week of training in which hard and easy runs are alternated will make you fitter than a week of equal combined volume and intensity in which every run is moderately challenging.
Your typical week should include three designated hard runs: a run featuring short, fast effort; a longer run at a moderately high intensity; and an even longer endurance run. These three hard runs should be separated by slow, easy runs. For example, you might choose to perform your hard runs on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, take Monday off, and do easy runs on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
2. Be more consistent.
Consistency is key to success in running. Fitness is built gradually over a long period of time. By training consistently year-round you will start each year at a higher base fitness level than the year before and be able to build on your gains of the past year. Too many runners allow themselves to fall out of shape at one or more times in the year, and as a result they spend most of each year just trying to get back where they were at the peak of the previous year.
A little time off is a good thing, and you certainly can’t train at peak levels year-round. But what you want to avoid is taking more than the minimum amount of time off to stay mentally and physically fresh. Instead, continue to do a little running or alternative training most days even during periods when you are not actively training for an important event.
3. Practice step cycles.
Just as alternating hard days and easy days will make you fitter than doing a moderate-effort run every day, alternating hard and easy weeks of training will do the same. A multi-week training period in which the running workload is intentionally varied from week to week is called a step cycle. The idea is to start a step cycle with a week of training that is challenging but manageable, then increase the workload slightly the following week, and then either increase it slightly again the third week and reduce it sharply for recovery in the fourth week or go straight to a recovery week in week three.
Four-week step cycles typically work best for fitter and more experienced runners. Three-week step cycles are appropriate for most runners. It’s not only the total weekly mileage but also the challenge level of the hardest runs that should vary in a step cycle. But, focusing just on mileage, here are examples of three- and four-week step cycles:
3-Week Step Cycle (Beginner)
Week 1: 20 miles
Week 2: 24 miles
Week 3: 16 miles
4-Week Step Cycle (Advanced)
Week 1: 60 miles
Week 2: 64 miles
Week 3: 68 miles
Week 4: 50 miles
4. Run hills.
Adding hill running to your training is a great way to get more fitness bang for your workout buck. A hilly five-mile run will challenge you more and stimulate greater fitness gains than a flat run of the same distance. Specifically, running uphill develops aerobic capacity and leg strength, while running downhill improves leg “stiffness” and running economy.
There are various ways to incorporate hills into your training. You can do your weekend long run on a hilly route, run a set of intervals uphill or downhill (e.g. 6 x 2 minutes uphill @ 5K effort), or do a few 10-second uphill sprints after completing an easy run for a quick power-building stimulus.
Naturally, you don’t want to hit the hills every day, but be sure that not a week goes by without your doing some hill running.