Ask Janice/ Learn-to-Run

Ask Janice: How Do I Become A Faster Runner?

My friend Greta, from the blog Middle Aged Jock has for some insane reason been seeking and valuing my advice about how to become a faster runner. I’ve been trying to help her, but unfortunately I’ve been trying to guide her through Twitter and 140 characters sure isn’t enough space to write about all of the things involved in becoming faster, so I thought I would answer her here. Perhaps you want to learn how to run faster too?
In essence Greta wants to learn how to get her current 5K race time down from 36 min to under 30 min – no easy feat because that means she wants to go from running a 5k race at an over 7 min/km pace to a 6 min/km pace -she wants to shave over a minute per kilometer! However – with lots of training I’m confident she can do it.

What is Speed?
Speed is combo of strength and endurance. In order to run faster you need to teach your legs to turn over faster, exert more power and do this for a long period of time. While doing this, your body needs to be able to supply your legs with the oxygen and glycogen fuel they need to maintain this speed over your chosen race distance. Also, while your legs are going faster, you’ll also want to maintain proper form so that your body will work as efficiently as possible, sending all of that precious oxygen and glycogen to your legs – not to other muscles. So how do we do this?
Greta needs to think of her training as a long term plan (macro cycle) with 4 shorter plans (micro cycles) within it:

  1. Endurance cycle – 8 weeks
  2. Strength cycle – 4 weeks
  3. Speed cycle – 4 weeks
  4. Taper – 2 weeks

I’m not saying it will take her 18 weeks to be able to run a 5k faster than she is now, as I’m sure after each training micro cycle her 5k time will be faster. What I’m suggesting is that to reach her full speed potential she should focus on one component of speed for a few weeks in order to elicit adaptation, then move onto the next component. Typically you need endurance to build strength, and strength to build speed – this is why I’ve scheduled her training in this manner. To guage her progress I would recommend that she run a 5k at the end of each cycle – doing that will alow her to see progress, learn how to pace, gain race experience and to stay motivated – racing is fun!

1. Endurance Cycle:
Greta’s first micro cycle goal is to increase her endurance – In order to run 5k fast, she needs to teach her body to maintain proper form over 10k. I didn’t become a fast ½ marathon runner until I had run a marathon. For the life of me I couldn’t break the 2 hour mark in a 1/2 , but after completing a marathon, I was able to easily complete a ½ marathon in 1:51 two months later. I would recommend that Greta follow a program, such as Hal Higdon’s Novice 10k program that will help her build from a 5k to 10k. By increasing her endurance Greta will also learn how to run outside of her comfort zone which is a very big component of learning to run faster.

2. Strength Cycle:
In the second micro cycle, Greta’s goal is to increase running specific strength. During this cycle, Greta will maintain her endurance (ie: weekend long runs of 8k) and will do hill repeats once a week (I prefer Wednesdays). For her hill repeats she should start with 5 min warm up run, find a good sized hill and run up it fast as many times as she can in 15 min, then conclude with a 10 min cool down run. On active rest days, she should focus on upper body and core strength training as those also contribute to proper form and running strength. Perhaps a pilates class on Tuesday and high repetition, low weight, strength training on Thursdays.

3. Speed Cycle:
This is where the truly fun working beyond her comfort zone training comes in. Tempo runs at race pace and speed repeats! At this point in Greta’s training, I would suggest she run 3 times/week. Tuesdays do a 6k tempo run 15 sec/km slower than race pace (ie: 6:15/km). Her first few weeks this will be hard, but the last two it should be easier. On Thursdays she can either head to a track and do 400m sprint, followed by a 400m slow jog (repeat 5 times) OR if she’s like to keep running fun, sprint between lamp posts, then jog to the next lamp post. Her Saturday long run should still be up in the 8k – 10k distances.

4. Taper:
After 16 weeks of some pretty challenging training, Greta gets to take a break and run for the sheer enjoyment of running. Shorter distances, no strength workouts, no speed workouts. This will allow her body to recover and be rested for race day. This is also carbo-loading time. Because she’s not depleting her muscle glycogen stores with each training run, her body will be able to build up a storage of the fuel she needs to run well on race day. Carbo loading does not mean eating as much pasta, rice and potato as she can for a few days before the race – carbo-loading means active resting. Resting will build up that glycogen storage far more efficiently than eating ridiculous amounts of food ever will and will also prevent weight gain and that bloated icky feeling.

The most important things for Greta to remember while she trains is that in order to become a faster runner she needs to run outside of her comfort zone. Running easy and slow will never make you a faster runner. To run fast, you must train fast and hard.

Good luck Greta! I KNOW YOU CAN DO IT!!


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  • PT Girl
    September 29, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Great post! I’ve seen the most improvement in my speed ever since I’ve incorporated track work. I run six to eight 800 meters sprints at the track at my max speed. This not only teaches you body to go faster but also to keep pace as you are supposed to try and run two even laps (400 meters) This type of work has definitely proved beneficial for me. I’m also a big believer of the hill repeats as well!

  • Greta
    September 29, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Wow! My very own post!! Thank you!! So I’ll go check out Hal’s 10K training. Thank you!! I guess I should look at the two 5Ks I’m doing as training runs too.

    • Janice - The Fitness Cheerleader
      September 29, 2010 at 2:45 pm

      No problem! Yes – you can’t PR every race, some should just be for experience. However, if you follow the advice & structure of this plan you will see yourself get faster!

  • Mamavation Monday October 4, 2010! |
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  • Heather @ Not a DIY Life
    April 30, 2011 at 7:38 am

    I think I’m going to follow along with your advice for Greta! I’d like to run an 8k in July, but right now that seems totally daunting!

  • VirgoMommy
    May 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    This is what I need too, as I want to learn to run faster!! My best 5k was 36mins as well. I would love to run it under 30mins.
    So I need to follow your training plan too, but can’t start it till after my 1st 1/2 marathon at the end of this month.
    Other than what you listed above is there anything else I should know/do?

  • Heather @ Not a DIY Life
    May 2, 2011 at 8:29 am

    I’m asking this question here in case anyone else has a similar question: looking at the Hal Higdon plan re: the cross training. Does that cross training need to be all at one time? Once a workout gets past 30 minutes, I feel too crunched for time. Maybe it will be better in a few weeks when I don’t have to get the little one to preschool. And can I mix and match cross training? Say 20 minutes on the bike & 20 minutes of EASActive cardio?

    Thanks, Janice!

    • Janice
      May 2, 2011 at 8:44 am

      Yes – mixing it up is ok, but I don’t think splitting up in the day is ok. I believe the idea is to build your cardiovascular endurance and dividing it up does not allow your body do that.

      • Heather @ Not a DIY Life
        May 2, 2011 at 6:11 pm

        Thanks, Janice! Guess I’ll be getting up even earlier when those 60 minute cross training session hit 🙂

  • Janene
    January 13, 2012 at 7:24 am

    This is awesome! I’ll definitely be bookmarking this one! 🙂

  • Kodjo
    January 13, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    The detail with which you outline the 18-week program (down to the relationship between endurance => strength => speed) should motivate any reader to at least try it out. Here’s a connundrum for you.
    If you are looking to get lean (shed the fat), and get strong at the same time, how would you structure your weekly workout routines? a) blocking off an entire week doing only aerobic exercises, then following it up with an entire week of strength-training routines, or b) alternate between days of aerobic and days of body-weight/strength-training

    Cheers, and thanks for an excellent article. Kodjo

  • Lyka Ricks
    January 14, 2012 at 4:02 am

    This post motivates me to do some runs. I haven’t been running these past weeks now. Thanks for this Great Post!


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