I was once talking with a running friend, who is an ultra marathoner and who comfortably clocks a sub-7-minute per mile pace on a regular basis, about running faster. I had shared my secret deep down wish to one day qualify for Boston and was talking about wanting to get faster over longer distances. He shared with me the simple formula to running faster. He said, “If you want to run faster, you just run faster.”Ok, so if I want to run faster I simply run faster. But when? And for how long and how far? How often? And what exactly is ‘faster?’ Like anything with running, the ‘faster formula’ that works for me will not apply across the board to all runners. My definition of running faster will vary drastically from any given other runner’s idea of running faster. I believe that running faster is tied to specific goals so that it can be measured. For example, I know that I want to run a 10K race with 8-minute miles or less. And one day (while I’m still in my current age group) I would love to attempt to run a BQ time which for me is an 8:40 per mile marathon pace. At my current level of fitness I can achieve both of those paces, just not for the distances at which I need to meet my ‘fast’ goal. And while I’m throwing fast goals around, I”d also love to run a 5K with a 7:30 average pace or less.
How To Achieve Speed: Fartleks, Intervals, & Tempo Runs
There is a reason that nearly every training plan includes some form of speedwork be it tempo runs or intervals. Not only do they help with turnover and prepare the body to keep going during exhaustion but they train the body–and the mind–what it feels like to be faster.
Before adding speedwork into training it is important to have a solid base. I spent four weeks base building with runs varying in distance from 4 to 6 miles, 4-5 times a week, all recorded as ‘easy’ runs. I used these runs to establish my comfortable base pace, the goal marathon pace of 8:40 per mile. Toward the end of these weeks I added in a few longer runs and on every run I always push to finish hard and with as much kick as I have in me.
Once I had a solid base I started integrating different forms of speedwork into my runs. Twice a week I would run a fartlek or set of intervals. Fartleks are fun because you choose when, how fast, and how far you run faster. In my neighborhood there happen to be plenty of light posts that I use to measure any given fartlek. The whole point of the fartlek (in my mind) is to build the confidence that you are in fact capable of going faster. The catch is not to cheat. If I decide to kick it up a notch or two from one light post to the next I better not slow down until I’m past that post.
Intervals and tempo runs I consider a little more ‘serious’ forms of speedwork. Tempo runs can probably be done with some sort of formula. I recall a training plan I once used that told me precisely how long and how often to run my goal tempo pace. My recent practice of tempo runs has been to maintain my goal race pace either for a set distance or a set time. Early on in training I’m more likely to set out to keep tempo for just a couple minutes and then back off for recovery for a few minutes and repeat the process. As I get stronger and have more endurance I will set out to keep a tempo pace for a set amount of mileage with a balanced amount of recovery time. When running a tempo I find the Garmin Forerunner to be a great friend because it is easy to keep tabs on my pace. The treadmill of course is also helpful for setting speed.
When it comes to training I have a feeling that most runners will have a love/hate relationship with either hills or intervals. I happen to love/hate both in a twisted sort of way. There are a zillion different types of interval programs to choose from. I am a huge fan of Yasso 800s. The original intention of Yasso 800s were for marathon training but I like using the concept for various goal distances. The idea is that you run 800 yards, or two laps around a track, in your goal marathon time as your pace, recover for 400 yards and repeat. Over time you add sets of Yasso 800s. So if my marathon goal finish time is 3:40, the Yasso 800 goal is to run 800 yards in 3 minutes 40 seconds. Trust me, it’s a good work-out.
Strides are another variation of intervals and were not something I understood at all when I first read about them but like any type of interval it is pairing sets of speed with recovery and repeating. Most stride work-outs I have ever done involve a 1-2 mile warm-up at easy pace and then sets of strides for 2-4 miles in the middle of the run followed by a 1-2 mile cooldown. Running strides I find more difficult than something like Yasso 800s because they require you to pay close attention to your watch or timer. Granted, gear like a Garmin can be set up to help manage interval training like this and beep at specific times taking the watch watching out of running but I personally have yet to learn how to take full advantage of the technology. Strides are all about running fast–not quite a sprint–and then recovering; 15-20 seconds of strides followed by 30-45 seconds of recovery.
Patience & Practice
How long does it take to get faster? I really have no idea. For what seemed like forever I ran 9-minute miles. Forever. Then all of a sudden one day I noticed I had improved my pace to average around 8:40 per mile. I think it took at least a solid year of running consistently to move the needle that little bit. When I started taking speedwork seriously I was able to get down to 8:30 and 8-minute miles for shorter distances. And last year I spent four months or so working toward that 8-minute per mile pace for the Cooper River Bridge Run 10k race. While I achieved that goal I did not maintain the right training to be able to keep that pace over time. I got distracted by triathlons, house projects, a new job…and that’s ok. With patience and practice speed will come back.
What speed tips do you have? If you have favorite interval work-outs please share. While Yasso 800s are fun, having a variety of intervals to choose from makes the pain of running them somehow better.