After you've been running for a little while and improve your endurance, you may want to focus on a new goal—running faster. Here are some eight simple things you can do to pick up the pace and improve your race times, plus race day strategies.
Be Prepared for a Little Discomfort
Some beginners have difficulty running faster because they're afraid of feeling uncomfortable. But one of the first steps to getting faster is to learn what it feels like to pick up the pace. When you're pushing yourself during speed training, expect to get out of breath and feel your leg muscles burning. It may feel strange and uncomfortable at first, but you'll start to get used to that sensation and eventually start to anticipate (and enjoy) it.
Work on Your Turnover
If you can increase your stride turnover, you'll run faster. Start by running at about your 5K race pace (one you could sustain for 3 miles) for 30 seconds and counting every time your right foot hits the ground. Then jog for a minute to recover and run for 30 seconds again, this time trying to increase the count. Focus on taking quick, light, short steps—as if you're stepping on hot coals.
Try Interval Workouts
Interval workouts are a fun way to work on your speed. You can do track workouts, such as 400-meter (one lap around the track) repeats. After a warmup of 5-10 minutes, alternate between running one 400-meter lap at your 5K pace and jogging one slow, easy recovery lap. Start with two or three 400-meter repeats (with a recovery lap in between each), and try to work your way up to five or six. Or, if you're running on the road, you can use lamp posts or telephone poles to mark intervals. After warming up, try sprinting for two lamp posts, then recover for two, and keep repeating the pattern until you've covered a mile.
Do a Tempo Run Once a Week
Tempo runs help you develop your anaerobic threshold, which is critical for running faster. The anaerobic threshold is the exertion at which your body switches from aerobic processes to the processes that produce lactic acid, leading to burning muscles. By improving your fitness with tempo runs, you won't hit this point as easily.
To do a tempo run, start your run with 5-10 minutes of easy running, then continue with 15-20 minutes of running at about 10 seconds slower than your 10K pace (a pace you could sustain for 6 miles). Finish with 5-10 minutes of cooling down. If you're not sure what your 10K pace is, run at a pace that feels "comfortably hard." You shouldn't be gasping for air, but you also shouldn't be able to carry on a conversation.
Try Some Hill Training
Hill repeats are an efficient way to build running strength. Find a fairly steep hill that's about 100 meters long. Run hard to the top of the hill, and slowly jog back down. Start with three to four repeats once a week, and gradually work your way up to six to seven repeats.
If you're already trying to shed some pounds, here's more incentive: Some estimates say that, on average, runners get two seconds per mile faster for every pound they lose. For example, a 10-pound weight loss would shave about one minute off your 5K race time.
Don't Forget About Rest Days
Don't assume that running hard every day will make you faster. Rest is critical to your recovery and injury prevention efforts, so don't forget to take at least one day off completely each week. Your muscles actually build and repair themselves during your rest days. If you run every day without taking days off, you won't see much improvement.
Be a Smart Racer
It's possible to shave some seconds or maybe even minutes off your finishing time with smart strategies for running faster races:
- Study the course: Get as much information about the course as you can, so you'll know to pace properly or be prepared mentally for tough sections, like hills. Most races post the course map and often an elevation map on the race website. If you're running a local race, take advantage of your home field advantage and run the course or parts of the course during your training.
- Don't start out too fast: One of the biggest mistakes in racing is starting out too fast in the beginning of the race. The problem is that if you go out too fast, you'll burn through your stored energy too quickly and your muscles will fatigue faster, leaving you feeling tired and depleted toward the end of your race.
- Run the tangents: Even though race courses are measured accurately, many racers run a longer distance (and therefore a slower finish time) by following every curve in the road. A tangent is a straight line that just touches a curve, so the concept of "running the tangents" is to run the shortest distance possible by running straight from one curve to the next.
- Check your form: Every mile or so, check your running form from head to toe, so you can prevent wasting energy as a result of bad form. Look ahead (not down), keep your shoulders relaxed, arms swinging back and forth (not side to side), and your hands gently clenched. Keep your hips under your shoulders and make sure your stride is short, with your feet close to the ground.
- Don't lose time at water stops: Make sure you line up properly at the start, so you don't spend time and energy weaving around slower runners or walkers. At the water stops, if you don't want water, run straight down the middle, so you don't get caught up in traffic. If you want to grab water, don't stop at the first table -- it's always the most crowded. Go to a table towards the end and on the left-hand side, if there are tables on both sides of the street. (Most people are right-handed and naturally go to the tables on the right side.)
- Avoid the need for bathroom stops: Don't waste time stopping at the port-a-potties. Make sure you get to the race start early so you have plenty of time to go before you start running. Follow tips on how to avoid runner's trots and having to stop to urinate.