Question: Dear Coach, I have been running for years, but my times haven’t improved; what can I do to get faster?

That is a great question and it is one that I get almost every day. The answer is multi-faceted, and has generated an untold number of seminars, articles, and books. Anybody who can type can offer advice, whether or not he or she has the knowledge and experience. I believe in the adage: “We can see further from the shoulders of giants.” We should listen to those who have been there, those who have seen and helped many others to get there. I also believe we should “Run for Fun and Personal Bests” (the journey should be fun). We are limited in space here, so we cannot get super-detailed in this discourse, but if you are like most runners, you don’t want to be overwhelmed with information that does not apply to you. You don’t eat, sleep, and breathe running; you have many other important life responsibilities, and yet you do want to make the most of the time you have to run. You may find that you can take the same amount of time that you now devote to running, make it more productive and get faster. Here are some suggestions:

• Determine what it is that you want from your running. Would you like to run a faster mile, a faster 5K, a faster 10K or maybe a half or full marathon?

• Pick a goal for this distance. It doesn’t have to be precise, but should be reasonable. Figure out what the pace per mile for your goal time is.

• Attain the mindset that you will do it, not maybe or “I will try.” You may find that you need to modify your goals as you go, but please set reasonable and attainable goals. I recently asked a 13-year-old about his goals, and he said that he would like to break the world record, which sounds crazy, but he did just run a 17:17 5K. If he stays motivated and trains properly, who knows?

• Give running the proper priority in your life. If it is important to you, be sure that you treat it that way, every day!

• Make a plan and stick to it. Do not continue to switch gears and be whimsical from week to week. Great training plans don’t usually result in overnight success, and there will be times when your performances will plateau. But, you have to believe in what you are doing, and stay the course. I have seen many runners improve greatly on a plan, then reach a plateau, begin to question the plan and make drastic changes, only to then suffer dismal performances. The great ones usually keep on keeping on through those plateaus and begin to climb the mountain. It is a matter of mindset to be able to do this and not be influenced by friends who try to get you to do their workouts or for you to try the latest fad just published somewhere. The key to any success is to be mentally strong and to believe in what you are doing!

• Keep in mind that hard runs and long runs should be treated with respect. Do not turn training runs into races. Save the racing for the race. Those who win workouts rarely win races. Stressful runs need to be preceded and succeeded by proper rest, hydration, and nutrition. Remember that every motor (including your body) needs fuel, so be sure to re-fuel it. Do not let the idea of losing weight get in the way of properly fueling your body!

The Training Plan Itself

Keep It Simple. I have a theory that each of us has the ability to exert only so much mental energy, so let’s not waste that energy fretting over details. Instead, let us put that energy into the actual running and racing! Here are the few but very important components to any successful training plan:

• Consistency – being consistent in lifestyle and training is the single most important factor in fast running. Frank Shorter did not miss a day of training for seven years before his Olympic Marathon victory in 1972. He remains only the third American to win the men’s Olympic Marathon.

• Long Runs - once a week. Long runs can be up to 25% of total weekly mileage. This will vary, depending on the event you are preparing for. The long run will build blood volume, develop capillaries, and also help with mental toughness.

• Tempo Runs - once a week. These are firm runs at shorter distances and slightly slower paces than the distances and paces you intend to race. If you are preparing for a 5K, in which you hope to average seven minutes per mile; then your tempo run might be two miles at 7:15-7:25 pace. These runs teach you mentally and physically how to run a sustained effort at a threshold pace that does not make you crash. All tempo runs require a warm-up jog and warm-down jog.* As you get stronger, it is very beneficial to throw tempo runs into the middle of your long runs!

• Speed work - once a week. There are many different types, distances, recoveries, and paces for speed work, but the key is to learn to run “fast but relaxed.” Many runners dislike speed work because they run too fast or too long and they do not learn proper technique. If you are training for a 10K or a half marathon with a goal pace of 7:30 min per mile, it does not benefit you to run repeat quarter miles in 85 seconds (5:40 min per mile pace). Half mile repeats in 3:30 min (7:00 min per mile pace) or mile repeats at 7:15 min pace would be more beneficial and not just exhausting. The simple guideline for the ratio between rest and recovery is to jog easily for one half the distance of each speed portion. All speed sessions require at least a one-mile jog warm-up and a one-mile jog to warm-down. As you advance in your speed training sessions, specific workouts can get a bit more involved. Generally, the speed portion of the workout should be between 2.5-4 miles. Longer than this and you get the benefits of a tempo run and not speed. If you make your speed sessions too difficult, they can leave you too exhausted for the other important training components and it may leave you hurt as well.

• Hill work - occasionally at first, then weekly as you advance. Please refer to the previous Coach’s Clipboard (Summer 2013 or at pacerunningmagazine.com) about hill training. Hills will make you stronger, less prone to injury, and a better racer. The key to hill training is to learn how to run the hill efficiently, and then to accelerate off the top.

• Recovery Runs - every other day. These are short easy jogs to help flush your body of the toxins and acids that built up on your hard days.

• Hard/Easy Principle - every hard run must be followed by at least one easy day. If you run too many hard days without enough recovery, you will not receive the full benefit of each run, and in fact, you may find that your performances regress.

• Racing - when you are getting ready for a race, cut back your volume significantly, but not your intensity. Much has been written on tapering for races, with some claiming that they race better when they don’t taper. The key is to taper properly. Much of this involves maintaining intensity, but backing off the volume. In college, my coach was arguably the best ever at this. My collegiate teams always ran well when it counted; our coach knew how to make his teams race well when it was important!

Here is a sample of a weekly training schedule:

            Sunday-Easy Jog

            Monday-Easy Jog or Day Off

            Tuesday-Speed Session

            Wednesday-Easy Jog

            Thursday-Tempo Run or Hill Training

            Friday-Easy Jog or Day Off

             Saturday-Long Run

This is a simple and brief construct of how to get more out of your running and to become faster. There may be many ways to improve, but this program is “tried and true, proven and simple.” Everyone runs for different reasons, but if your goals include running faster, this should help.

Published By: Pace Running Magazine, Spring 2013

What Can I Do to Get Faster?

By: Jeff Milliman