Whether you’re a beginner or an elite runner, improving your speed contributes to better athletic performance and motivation as a whole.
However, I know what you’re thinking. “Easier said than done, David.” And I agree. Improving running speed is one of those things that sounds possible in theory, but tricky in practice.
But fret no more. In today’s post, I’ll share with you some of these strategies as well as how to incorporate them into your workout schedule. Here are the tips you need to pick up the pace on your next run.
One of the most efficient ways to increase running speed is by interval training.
Why? Because the method works, and it works fast. Whether you’re taking up running for the first time or training for your 11th marathon, intervals do good for your health and make you faster and fitter.
So what are they all about?
Interval training consists of short, intense periods of speed with rest in between. You sprint for a set distance repeatedly with breaks in between. This not only boosts speed and power but also increases endurance and burns major calories!
How fast you go depends on the interval length, but the rule is to push yourself as hard as you can without losing form for the duration of the effort.
Here’s how to proceed on your next speed workout.
Start with a 10-minute dynamic warm-up to get your body ready for intense exercise. Jog slowly for 5 minutes, then perform a set of dynamic movements for another 5 minutes to get your running muscles, such as quads, hamstrings, and hips, ready for the training session. Ideal exercises include inchworms, lunges, butt kicks, squats, and leg lifts.
Once you’re well warmed up, sprint at maximum speed for 20 to 30 seconds, then slow it down to a jog for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat the sprinting and jogging for 15 to 20 minutes, then finish it off with a 5-minute cool-down jog.
Instead of doing structured intervals, you can also do a fartlek session, which consists of sprinting following an unpredictable recipe. You can also perform these running workouts on a treadmill.
Improve Running Form
If you want to take your running speed to the next level, it’s key to take a look at your running technique and make any necessary changes and adjustments.
When your form is on point, you move more efficiently, and ultimately increase your speed. This not only helps elevate your running performance but could also reduce the chance of injury.
Here are a few of the adjustments that will give your pace the push it deserves.
Keep your body relaxed. Tension wastes energy. Keep your cheeks loose, relax your shoulders, slightly bend your knees, keep a neutral head, and breathe deep.
Keep a straight posture—the more straight, the less energy you’ll waste. Keep your back flat, and don’t round your shoulders. Imagine that you’ve got a helium balloon tied to the top of the head.
Use your upper body. Keep your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, swinging them back and forth—not side to side. Keep your hands open or gently clenched. Imagine you’re holding a delicate butterfly in your palms without killing it.
Strike it right. Try to strike the ground roughly at an obtuse angle from heel to toe, then focus on pushing up and off the ground behind you. Keep your toes dorsiflexed—pointed up toward your shins—until your foot hits the ground, then extend through.
Every runner—regardless of their fitness level and experience—stands to benefit from the speed, power, and strength gained by going up and down the hills.
Here are a few perks to regular hill repeats:
- Improved mental strength and confidence in your running ability in general
- Promoted economical form
- Builds more powerful muscles than running on flat ground
- Easier on your joints and connective tissues than similar efforts on flat ground
- Increased stride power
Here’s how to proceed.
Begin by finding a hill that takes roughly 45 to 60 seconds to run up (shoot for longer hills if you are training for an endurance event).
After a thorough 15-minute warm-up on a flat surface, run up the hill at 80 to 90 percent of your maximum effort. Once you reach the top, turn around and recover by jogging or walking down to the starting point.
Pace and form also matter. Do not charge the hill with 100 percent effort; you don’t want to be exhausted by the time you get to the top. Repeat the cycle for 15 to 20 minutes.
Avoid staring at your feet nor staring way up to the top of the hill, especially if it’s really steep and long. Focus on the ground roughly 10 to 20 feet ahead of you.
As your speed and endurance improve, try running up more challenging hills with different grades and lengths.
Want to squeeze more from your runs? Add strides to the end of your workouts.
Strides consist of accelerations that typically last for 20 to 30 seconds. You basically run each stride at about 95 of your maximum effort, which is roughly the pace you could hold for a mile. Often, strides are assigned to running routine after an easy run or before tough workout or race.
Strides aren’t a panacea for all of your running weaknesses, but they’re a valuable training tool for almost all runners. Here’s what you stand to gain by adding them to your training plan:
Start speedwork. Strides are a great way to add faster-paced training to your running plan without having to sacrifice a whole day of training.
Gear you up for speed. Strides prepare your body for faster pace before hard sessions and races.
Improve technique. Strides reinforce aspects of good form, improving your efficiency in the process.
Minimum time investment. Strides only take a few minutes to complete. They can be performed virtually anywhere—provided that you have the willingness and space.
To properly perform strides, begin by finding a predictably flat surface—a smooth stretch of road, trail, or track—where you can run for 90 seconds at speed—roughly 250 to 300 feet for most.
Start the stride with a 10-second acceleration while staying relaxed and smooth. It’s key to easy into the pace and not go full throttle to prevent fatigue and injury.
Focus on fast turnover and pushing back. Keep a tall posture and strong arm drive. Once you reach about mile-pace, keep it for about 10 to 15 seconds, then gradually decelerate over the course of a few seconds.
Feel free to jog slowly, walk, or stop altogether to catch your breath and bounce back.
The goal of strides is not to get a tough, challenging workout or to have you panting for air. If you’re a newcomer to strides, start with a total of four and slowly build to eight overtime.
Another thing you can do to improve your running speed is to simply focus on taking shorter and faster steps. Enter running cadence.
Also known as leg turnover, or stride rate, running cadence refers to the number of steps you take during one minute of running. Improving your cadence will get you closer to your ideal balance of strength frequency and length, which can boost your speed and efficiency like nothing else.
To determine your current cadence, run at your 5K pace race for one minute, and count each time your right foot strikes the ground. Double that number to get your total cadence.
As a general rule, make it your goal to target a turnover rate of roughly 180 steps per minute. Research shows the most efficient cadence tends to fall within that range.
To get there, focus on taking light, fast, and short steps—imagine your stepping on hot coals. Then, aim to add five percent to your current cadence. Research shows that striving for five percent increases is an achievable goal that’s still significant enough to reduce impact and improve speed.
So, for example, if your cadence was 165, strive to hit for 170-172. To practice your new cadence, run with a metronome (there’s an app for that) to help you maintain a constant rhythm your body can recognize. Then give your body four to six weeks to adapt to your new turnover.
Sometimes the best workout you can do to improve speed doesn’t include running.
In fact, strength training can help you build stronger muscles (especially leg strength) that will help boost your speed as well as overall performance. Lifting weights can also help you build a more balanced body, which helps you cut injury risk.
Don’t take my word for it. According to a review of the literature published by the National Strength & Conditioning Associate, lifting weights at least two to three times a week can help improve running economy and speed.
Complete five sets of the following exercises, taking as minimum rest between each exercise as possible. Rest for one to two minutes between each round.
- 30 bodyweight squats
- 15 push-ups
- 1-minute plank holds
- 16 lunges
- 8 assisted pullups
These exercises are ideal because they target all the primary running muscles as well as your core, which helps you develop the strength that directly translates to improved performance.
To design your routine, feel free to either focus on one area—upper body, lower, and core—or create a full body circuit of various exercises that target different muscle groups at once.
Plyometric Speed Training
Also known as jump or explosive training, plyometric training consists of high-intensity, high-velocity movements. Mostly, plyo training involves performing bodyweight jumping moves and are a great way for you to increase your power and explosiveness.
Again, don’t take my word for it. Research out of the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research reported that runners who did plyometric training for six weeks improved their 2400-m race by time by about 4 percent.
There’s a wide range of different plyo moves you can add to your speed training program. Just make sure you’re doing these plyo exercises at maximum effort.
- Jump roping
- Box jumps
- Jumping lunges
- Jumping squats
- Skipping drills
Start by picking two or three exercises and doing them a couple of times per week. You could also add a few plyo moves to your strength workouts. You choose.
Don’t assume that pounding the pavement hard every day will make you a better runner. The opposite is true.
Recovery is critical to your fitness progress and injury prevention efforts.
It’s during your recovery days that your muscles build and repair themselves.
Here’s how to structure your program for maximum recovery.
Run hard every other day and fill in with the cross-training workouts you enjoy. By doing so, you’ll provide your body and mind with more time to recover, allowing you to push harder on your next session.
But the golden rule is to use common sense and listen to your body. If you’re experiencing overtraining symptoms, then take as much recovery time as possible. Some of these signs include:
- Elevated heart rate
- Unwanted weight loss
- Chronic fatigue
- Persistent aches and pains
- Mediocre performance
- Mood swings and irritability
Incorporating the above training strategies to your running plan will make you a more efficient runner and give you free speed. Now the ball is in your court. It’s up to you to show up and do the work. Then it’s just a matter of time and practice before you make it to the finish line.
And remember to keep track of your running times and performance—you cannot improve on what you can’t measure. The rest is just details.
What about you? Do you have any running tips you swear by? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.
In the meantime, thank you for dropping by.
David Dack is an established fitness blogger and running expert. When he’s not training for his next marathon, he’s doing research and trying to help as many people as possible to share his fitness philosophy. Check his blog Runners Blueprint for more info.