This Runner's Trials

How to become a faster runner

I get a lot of comments from friends about my speed. When I tell them I haven’t always been so fast the follow up question is always “how did you do it?”

Well, I’m here to answer that question today :)

Note that speed is relative. I’m not even that fast of a runner. These tips can help you become faster than you are now. But if you want to learn how to get super speedy I suggest checking out other blogs and asking those ladies how they did it ;)

When I first started running, I didn’t run to train for races. When I first started racing, I didn’t race for PRs. The majority of my running career was spent running for fun.

Then in May 2009 I ran my fourth half marathon. I somehow knocked out an 1:50:25 half marathon in the pouring rain (my previous PR was 1:55:40). Granted the course was very flat, but I felt awesome the whole time.

I ran another half marathon 5 months later on Halloween. I kept up my same “training” in between the races: 2- 3 short, untimed runs per week; 1 long, untimed run; and 2 spinning classes each week. I assumed I’d PR. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? You just get faster each race? It was working for me so far. But on this day it ended. I struggled to finish in 1:59:12.

Regular training can only take you so far. You will peak eventually if you do not add speedwork into your training.

The day of the Halloween half, I was miserable. I was sore, tired, and incredibly disappointed. That night I consulted the running gods and downloaded a Smartcoach training plan. I was running another half in 2.5 months and I was going to break 1:50.

I followed my training plan to a T. I never missed a day or varied my pace from the prescribed workouts. I even hiked a mile in 2 feet of snow to get to the gym and knock out 11 miles on the treadmill a couple days before Christmas. (There’s a thin line between determination and obsession ;) )

A few days before the Disney half I felt strong and confident. But Mother Nature got in my way. At the 5:50 a.m. start it was below 30 degrees, sleeting, and dark. My husband and I decided just to run the race together for fun and do our best not to slip and fall. What resulted was the most fun race of my life, I was literally smiling the whole time, and my “easy” race ended after 1:53.

I stuck to my training plan for the next 3 months. In April, I lined up at the start of the Clemson Easter Bunny half. I knew the course was hilly, but I knew the course like the back of my hand since I ran it all the time in college. I didn’t just beat 1:50, I crushed it coming in at 1:43:12 and earning second in my age group.

The next 2 halves I ran were also sub 1:50 and now I expect to always beat that clock time. Both my 10k and 8k PRs have improved by more than 5 minutes in the past year.

Here’s how I did it:

  • Have a plan. There’s a reason there’s a host of race training plans: they work. I suggest Runner’s World Smart Coach or Greg McMillan’s plans.
  • Embrace the speed sessions. Your plan is going to call for tempo runs or 800 meter (half mile) or 1600 meter (mile) repeats. They hurt at first, but you’ll adapt. They teach your body to make an uncomfortable pace more comfortable. Of course, if you have chest pain or shortness of breath, stop running. (source)
  • Go slow. You can’t go hard all the time; it taxes your body too much. I always aim for at least one slow run per week. (source)
  • Know your pace. A year ago, I bought a Garmin and it was the smartest investment I ever made. This helped me learn what an easy and hard pace was for me. I have no doubt this helped me increase my speed.
  • Cross-train. Cross-training reduces your risk of injury, helps you recover, and makes you speedier. (source) I’m currently loving swimming and yoga, but past loves include cycling and strength training <--- wish I could enjoy lifting again.
  • Have one goal at a time. Concentrate on speed or distance. Unless you’re very experienced, trying to get faster and increase your mileage is a recipe for injury. (source) Training for your first half or full marathon? Ignore your pace and worry about speed the next time.
  • Be patient. You’re not going to get faster overnight. I was a distance runner for 6 years before I started concentrating on speed. You don’t have to wait quite that long, but be patient at first. You will improve in time.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. Running is an individual sport. It’s just you and the clock (and your husband if you’re crazy competitive ;) ). There will always be someone faster than you, and someone slower than you.

Note that you can take many different training approaches to get desired results. This is just what worked for me. And always talk to your doctor before you start running your heart out :)

How do you feel about speedwork? Are you a faster runner now than when you first started?

Comments (28) Trackbacks (4)
  1. I’m currently working on my running and I find that if I do one interval workout a week I do much much better on my long run on Saturday.

    So I have a question for you. Why is it that when I swim in the morning, I can ROCK my afternoon run like it was nothing. If I DON’T swim in the morning, I have terrible runs. Weird?

    Anywho, good stuff!

  2. Amen sista! This is pretty much what worked for me. If you want to run faster you have to, uh, run faster! :) Good news is it’s always there for you to strive for again and again. :) keep up the good work!

  3. Great post! This is timely for me because in January when I start my half-training will be the first time I have ever tried to get faster. Somehow my first half marathon was 1:53 and then after that I was only focused on endurance for marathons, so I’m excited to incorporate speed work again and finally get faster.

  4. I love this advice. I did speedwork in high school for cross country and track and hated it, so I don’t do much of it now. I might give it another shot this winter when I’ll be doing more treadmill runs and can control my pace better.

  5. Great advice! I have definitely made huge improvement in my times from when I first started. I also went from a 4:30 marathoner to a BQ’er and had a couple sub 3:30 marathons. When I get asked how I did it….. speedwork has been the key to my success. In order to get comfortable at running faster, you have to run faster.

    I am not a high mileage runner, I often train for marathons on just 3 runs a week….. speed, long and recovery. I also do kettlebell and crossfit workouts. Usually with one day of rest. I have gotten a bit complacent recently and haven’t pushed myself for any new PR’s. After the holidays though I ramp up training for Boston and hope for a new PR this year!

  6. Great advice! I noticed a big difference between my second half marathon and first and I think it’s because I did some speed work while training for the second. I really didn’t even do THAT much, but it definitely seemed to help!

  7. Thanks for posting this!! I’ve run 1:54 three times and would really love to run sub 1:50. But with marathon training, I got slower. I hope I’m able to really add speed workout in January and get that sub 1:50. Possibly at National in March?

  8. great post! I love speedwork since I used to be a sprinter, but since I was trianing at distances I have never done before with this full I didn’t do any speedwork during this training cycle. That is my goal after the full though!

    I totally remember whenn you didn’t want a garmin and I told you it would change your life LOL! seems I was right about that and the GU now haha! :)

    love all the pictures!

  9. Really great advice. Speed training is DEFINITELY key to getting faster. I had absolutely no clue what I was capable of until training for my 3rd marathon, when I actually knew what it meant to “train” (vs. just putting in miles) and began doing tempo runs, speed work, and race pace runs. I followed exactly a training plan in one of my mom’s Jeff Galloways books and was amazed how much of a difference it made. And over time you certainly learn what works for you and how-much-of-what is optimal. I find that to be one of the best things about running, that you can keep trying new things, pushing yourself harder, and improving, always trying just to beat yourself.

  10. i totally agree. i took my time gaining speed as well. i used to just run randomly for my training and then do a race. my finishing times were always a surprise to me, some good and some bad. i never went into a race with an agenda.

    when i decided i wanted to get faster i shaped my training around my goals. i knew i wanted to meet a certain time goal and that motivated every inch of my training. it became so much easier to get out and run because i knew that it would get me closer to my goal. speedwork, tempo runs, marathon pace runs, they all helped build my fitness and my confidence.

    setting goals helped make me faster.

  11. Thanks for the advice! I’m currently trying to increase my speed, so this is really helpful! Thanks :)

  12. I’m so new to running, that I don’t really focus on speed yet, just finishing the run :)
    I will pick up the pace by a little near the end of each run, but that’ usually just to get it over with faster ;-)

    These are great tips and can’t wait to slowly start adding some in to my training!

  13. Great post Jen! I think these are all great tips, especially the point that even though you’ve got to embrace speed sessions, you absolutely cannot go fast all the time. Your body needs time to rest and recover.

    For me, I think the biggest thing that has helped me get faster is training my body to sustain a faster pace than normal for longer distances. This isn’t quite a tempo run but more that if I know I want to race a certain pace, I practice running that pace (and I’m talking about marathon pace here, not speedy 5K/10K pace). The more I do it, the easier it becomes and the quicker my standard pace gets.

    For this round of training though, I do think I need to embrace more speedwork than I have in the past. Doing what I’ve been doing will only get me so far.

  14. You followed a great path…I think it’s very wise for new runners to run for about a year without worrying too much about their times. When you’re ready, watching your times drop after you put in speed work makes it so worth it!

  15. I love this! In fact, I’ve already entered my info into Smart Coach and I feel like I have something to work with. I tend to get comfortable with my steady state pace and runs all of my runs at that 9 minute or so pace. Clearly, that’s not going to bring me up to speed ;)

    For this training cycle, I hope to embrace speed sessions and tempo runs, while still incorporating some long slow runs. I tend to skip the recovery running. I get way too caught up in wanting a faster time. I also want to include more cross training. If that means lower mileage, I will be OK with it. Pinky swear!

  16. It’s all about the tempo runs! but the slow, recovery runs are important too. And i think the variaton keeps me exited about running.

  17. Speedwork and I do not get along. And I know this is why I have traditionally been at a fairly stagnant pace. However, with my new dedication to running, I’ve tried to make every run count. I typically run a shorter distance..anywhere between 3-6 miles, but I give it my all each time (usually only about 2-3 times per week, if that). And I have SIGNIFICANTLY improved my speed.

  18. loved this, thanks for sharing

  19. This is such an awesome post! and the comments are awesome too. I feel a drive to go do a speed work session now! Thanks for the advice!

  20. Even though speed work can be difficult at times, I love the feeling I get afterwards! I love putting in a good hard workout! :)

  21. Funny, I’ve just finished my second half this weekend in the same 1:43:12 … I’m not good at speed work, but as you said, one at a time: for now I don’t care about speed but about distance, since I’d like to run a marathon in the future! :) thanks for the very interesting post!

  22. I give total credit to my Garmin and Runner’s World Smart Coach for helping me make significant gains with my race pace this year!

    It’s amazing how eye-opening it is to have the facts right there on your wrist. :)

  23. I’ve been really running for about a year, and with the half marathon I finished this weekend I reached the plateau you referenced. I realized that I was done racing for fun (“I just want to finish”) and needed to start truly training. I’m easing into it this week, but next week I’m going all out. I actually bought “Run Less Run Faster,” by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr, and Ray Moss (from Runner’s World) and it has a lot of really great plans for different goals and abilities. They go by the run 3, cross train 2 plan which will be hard for me becuase I run 4-5 days a week. We’ll see. Thanks for your tips- it’s good to see that my current frustration isn’t uncommon.

  24. Wow! Awesome post! I just found your blog :) I had A similar experience this summer… PR’d at a 1:50 in May, jut sort of maintained my training through summer (focussed more on cycling) and then ran a disappointing 1:56 in October. I just started a SmartCoach plan which Im hoping will help me PR in February. Your story is inspiring. You used tools available to everyone, worked hard and diligently, and it paid off! :) thanks for sharing!!

  25. I always have people ask me about how I became a better runner and I’ve never known how to put it into words or describe it so accurately as you did here. Thank you so much for sharing! I hope you don’t mind but I put this on my blog (with crediting you twice of course!). It’s just too amazing of a post not to share with others who want to become better :)

  26. YES! I firmly believe in speedwork to help become faster. I am a slightly-under-11 minute miler who does intervals (coached) in a group of six minute milers. It’s humiliating and challenging but it is so motivational to see them speed by me – and I watch their form, etc. for ideas. I enjoyed this blog!!

  27. I agree! I love the Runner’s World SmartCoach because I’m gradually increasing my mileage and getting faster without over-training. Set 5k & 10k PRs this year, and I’m working towards my first half marathon :-)

  28. taaaaaaaaaaaanks for this amazing article

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