How to run fast
Have you ever watched faster runners at a race? Next time you’re at a race or out running, pay attention. You should notice a difference between how faster and slower runners look. Of course faster runners are faster. However, if you ignore the speed difference, they look smoother, lighter, like they’re running more easily.
There are three ways to get fast – train, train, train! Of course, how you train matters. But there’s more to it than that. How you run matters too. Part of running faster is teaching your body how to move at a faster pace. Doing so will make you more efficient at any running speed, and will make it easier to get faster.
Strong & fast feet
Faster runners generally have much quicker and lighter strides. The difference in stride rate is largely a factor of how much time your foot is on the ground. More time on the ground means, less momentum is carried forward, more energy is absorbed by your body, and more energy is required to propel you forward. Fast feet are strong feet. Here are some exercises to help your feet get stronger and faster.
Alternating hops: Find something stable to hop on, about 4”-6” high; e.g., curb, stair, old mattress. Start with one foot up one the object and the other on the floor. While staying on the balls of your feet, hop simultaneously off of both feet, alternating the foot that’s up/forward and down/back. Focus on hopping as soon as your feet land, alternating as quickly as possible, slightly faster than is comfortable. It’s OK to lightly hold onto something to help your balance. The goal is foot speed, not power, so lower is better than higher. You can even do this on a flat surface by alternating front and back.
Striders … done right: Many runners do striders, or know what they are. However, many who do may not be doing them right. Done right, striders are about leg speed and form, not pure sprinting speed. The goal is not to see how fast you can run the straights, but to see how quickly you can stride (in the process, you’ll go pretty fast).
For those who don’t know, striders are alternating short sprints with slow jogs/walks. They are often done on a track – sprinting the straights and jogging the curves – but can be done anywhere. They are done after a good warm-up, often just before starting a speed workout. You’ll also see many runners doing them before the start of a race.
Start with a few strides walking and/or skipping, start to run, gradually picking up your stride rate, reach full speed about half way, then carry that speed through to the end. Keep your stride short and quick. DON’T REACH! Imagine you’re running on hot coals, so that you’ll want to land light, and lift your feet as soon as they hit the ground. On the track, build your speed until midway down the straight, and then sprint through to the end of the straight. This can be done anywhere, preferably on flat and smooth ground. Build your speed for 15-25 strides (left-right = 1 stride), then hold that speed for the same. Walk/slow jog between each strider about the same distance, twice or more the time. You want a near full recovery. As you do these, keep your body upright (don’t bend at the waist) and your chest open, leaning forward from the ankles. Pump your arms, but keep them and your body (including your face) relaxed.
If done right, your stride should feel a bit uncomfortably short/compact and quick, and a bit like you’re falling forward. You’ll get used to it. In the process of striding quicker, your stride will actually be longer (but under you, not reaching in front), and you’ll be going faster.
Skipping: As simple as what we used to do as kids. Focus on springing off your feet as soon as you land (hot coals). You can incorporate a high knee exercise into skipping. Bring your knees up by lifting from your hip, not jumping up from the ground (while your knees come up high, your body shouldn’t come up that much), and exaggerating the backwards arm pump.
Embedded striders: These are striders, as above, but embedded into a longer run. Starting 20-30 minutes into your run, do 4-5 sets of 10-15 seconds of striders, 45-50 seconds of slow. Then, continue running your normal pace. Repeat these about every 30 minutes. This is especially helpful on longer runs where your stride tends to slow, and you can develop a shuffle stride as you tire. These help remind your mind and body to keep your stride light and quick. And, after doing striders, going back to your “normal” stride will seem slow, and that normal stride will start to become faster.
Speed can be calculated by the length, times the speed of your stride. Above, I tell you hot to increase your stride rate. Here, I will tell you how you can lengthen your stride without over striding (DON’T REACH!).
Stride length is a factor of strength and flexibility. The distance you can drive your body forward, can be increased by generating more power in your stride. The inability to generate much power is largely due to not working the faster twitch muscles. Longer, slower runs barely touch these faster fibers. You need to work them to be able to use them effectively. Here are some exercises to help build power.
Short hill sprints: Very short, 6-10sec, very hard sprints (98%), uphill. It’s important to keep them that short. This allows you to fully engage the faster twitch muscles, and without tapping into your longer term stored energy systems. Hills add power and reduce the risk of injury from sprinting on flat ground. Choose a hill that’s steep, but still run-able without struggle. If you don’t have a suitable hill available, a set of stairs can work.
Be careful doing sprints. Warm-up well before doing any sprints. Don’t go all out from a dead stop. Start with a few walking, then skipping (optional), then jogging strides, then go nearly all out for 6-10 seconds. Walk down the hill for a near full recovery, jogging easily for an additional 15 seconds or so if needed. Repeat. Do 4-6 repeats to start, a couple of days/week. You won’t feel the workout right away, so wait until the next day to see if you’re sore. Don’t increase the number of repeats until you can do them without being sore the next day. You can increase this to 8-12 repeats over a few weeks.
If you haven’t done any speed work in a while, start with flat (above) and uphill (below) striders.
Uphill striders: Similar to striders (above), but with additional focus on driving the arms back and the knees up. As with flat striders, keep the stride uncomfortably compact and quick, and gradually build your speed.
Extended hill sprints: This is a bit of a hybrid of shorter hill sprints and uphill striders. Start with a walk, skip, then take 5-10 strides to build to full speed (~95%), then hold that speed. Go to the point where your legs start to tighten up, your form starts to, and your stride slows, usually about 20-25 seconds, then just 2-3 seconds more. You want to push just beyond that limit while working to maintain your form. However, there’s no benefit in continuing if you’re struggling and sloppy. Walk back down the hill for a near full recovery.
Start these after 4-6 weeks of the short hill sprints. You can transition by doing one day/week of the short sprints, and one on the extended. As with the short sprints, start with 4-6 repeats, and increase to 8-12 over time. Once 20-25 seconds becomes easy, you can start extending the length of the sprints. Remember that the goal is to go just beyond the point where your form starts to break down, your legs start to tighten up, and your stride rate slows.
Vary your pace
Many runners spend too much time running the same effort level/pace. And, I’m guessing for many non-elites, that effort level is too hard and the pace too fast. The bulk of your running should be fairly easy, at zone 2 or below. For those not familiar with heart rate or metabolic zones, zone 2 is also known as the Aerobic Threshold (not to be confused with the higher lactate threshold, zone 4), Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation (OBLA), or Maximum Aerobic Fitness (MAF) level for those Maffetone fans. Breathing should not be labored. You should be able to talk in full sentences without having to catch your breath, and still be able to sing. A lot of non-elite runners spend too much time in zone 3 because they don’t feel like they’re getting a good workout unless they’re breathing a little hard. However, staying at a lower effort level, even if that means walking, allows you to build fitness with less stress, and greatly improves your ability to utilize fat as a fuel, and to do so at faster paces.
Bursts: As an introduction to speed work and faster paces, add some short bursts of speed to your otherwise easy to moderate effort, medium length runs. After a good warm-up, sprint hard (95%-98%) for about 15-20 seconds, then return to your normal pace. Repeat this periodically through your run. These bursts don’t have to follow a rigid pattern. Here’s where the term fartlek, or speed play, applies. If you’re running flats, you can pick objects to guide the bursts. E.g., sprint to one utility pole, jog the next three. On hills and trails, you could sprint up a short hill, then jog for a while. The goal is to introduce your body to the mechanics and feel of running fast, not too overstress your cardio systems. So, it’s alright to have fairly long breaks between bursts. And, although the focus here is more on speed, still maintain a strider like form with short, quick, light strides, and DON’T REACH!
Keep it Short
A lot of runners feel the pull to go longer. Resist. Don’t step up in distance. Don’t do a marathon or ultra. If you have, and you want to get faster, step it back down first.
It’s very difficult to get faster while you’re going longer, and likely that you’ll get slower. You’ll likely be focusing on longer runs and building endurance. Adding speed work at the same time that you’re adding distance can lead to injury. A better approach is to build speed at a shorter distance first. Then, when you start to add more distance, you’ll have more speed, and it will be easier to add in the speed work again once you’ve adapted to the new distance.
If you want to run a faster marathon or ultra, especially if you’re struggling to make cut offs, then back away from longer races and training for a while and learn to run faster.
Faster running is something you need to teach your body to do. Faster running is generally more efficient biomechanically. I realize that it’s not more efficient cardiovascularly (metabolically), and not sustainable. As you do gain fitness, you will be able to incorporate more of these faster, more powerful strides into your running, and for longer periods of time.
Notes, terminology and Links
Time/Strides: It can be hard to time some of these very short and hard efforts. I find it easier to count strides instead. If I assume 90 strides per minute (spm), that’s 1.5 strides per second. Thus, a 10 second hard effort is about 15 strides.
Stride Rate: I count left-right as one stride, not two. Thus, I use 90spm where others mention 180. Either way, the result is the same. I just find counting L-R = 1 easier. Most articles on this tell you to try for 90/180spm. I don’t. Counting is good, but don’t obsess over hitting that number. Rather, figure out where you are now, and work on getting a little faster.
Set: A combination of exercises done as a group. In the examples above, it’s a combination of hard and easy efforts. For example, 5 sets of 15 seconds hard and 45 easy means to run hard for 15 seconds, easy for 45, then immediately repeat 4 more times.
Pace/Effort: I use those terms somewhat interchangeably. I prefer to run and coach by effort level, most of the time. However, effort is subjective, and using it effectively is a learned skill. Pace is fine on flat ground, when conditions aren’t too extreme (hot/cold, windy), and you’re feeling fine. If it’s easier to use pace do so, just make adjustments for terrain, conditions, and how you feel.
Links for additional reading and exercises:
How to strengthen your feet and why it’s important – http://www.runuphillracing.com/write/StrongFeet.html
The benefits of and techniques for increasing your stride rate – http://www.runuphillracing.com/write/StrideCount.html
How training for a 5km will make you a faster ultra runner – http://www.runuphillracing.com/write/5k4Ultras.html
How to slow, and reverse the decline in stride length with age – http://running.competitor.com/2014/09/training/fast-40-master-stride_113559
Have fun. Train smart. See you on the trails.