Matt Fitzgerald—We all want to get faster. And we’re all busy, too. The most obvious and commonly pursued way to improve race times is to run more. But running more is seldom an option with a daily schedule as hectic and draining as the average working runner’s is today.
Fortunately, running more is not the only way to run faster. In fact, often it’s not even the best way. There are many things the average runner can do to squeeze additional performance out of the time he or she is already devoting to training. It only makes sense to do these things and get the most out of every second of training time before you even think about running more.
Here are the top seven ways to get faster without running more:
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.
It’s truly amazing how many runners never run as fast as they can. While distance runners seldom sprint in competition, including a little sprinting in your training will make you a better distance runner nevertheless, by increasing your stride power and running economy. Plus, it’s fun.
A little bit of sprinting goes a long way. Just a handful of all-out efforts lasting 8 to 10 seconds a piece, done each week, will make a difference you can feel. And did we mention it’s fun?
6. Do Plyometrics
Running is a form of jumping. Plyometrics, or jumping exercises, isolate and develop the jumping element of running to make you a better runner. Research has proven that replacing some running with plyometrics enhances running economy and race performance.
As with sprinting, a little bit of plyometrics goes a long way. Try doing just 5 minutes of jumping exercises after completing an easy run twice a week, or add a couple of plyometrics drills to your weightlifting workouts.
7. Strengthen Your Core
Most runners think of strengthening the core muscles as a way to reduce injury risk. While it probably works, there’s actually no scientific proof that a stronger core keeps a runner healthier. But there is proof that doing core strength exercises improves running economy and performance, probably by reducing the amount of energy the body loses to the environment through laxity in key joints.
You don’t have to make time to strengthen your core. Just do some crunches and planks three times a week while watching TV at home. Who says you can’t?