How to Become a Really Fast Runner in Very Little Time
Every runner has experienced that moment of looking at the calendar and realizing that – oh no! – the upcoming race is coming up a little bit more quickly than expected. Or, perhaps an injury has sidelined your training and you are not as fit as you would like to be. For moments like these, what can be done to keep your dreams on track of a fast finishing time?
Many runners look at the professionals for inspiration. A common example is Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the 1984 Olympic Marathon Team Trials only 17 days after having knee surgery. How did she become fast so quickly? What can you do to get fit in little time? Listed below are a few tips for becoming fast on a tight schedule.
High Intensity Interval Training
To be a faster runner, one should practice running fast – a lot. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a great way to get in shape quickly, but is not typically sustainable for long-term training, which makes it a great strategy when time is limited. With HIIT, which consists of fartlek or track workouts, runners alternate sprinting with easy running to not only increase metabolic efficiency, but also strengthen muscular and cardio systems.
A common workout would be thirty minutes of alternatively running at 10k pace for 2:00 and jogging for 1:00. Other workouts include 10 x 400 meter repeats run at mile race pace with 400 meter jog recovery. Not only is this training style efficient, but it also helps runners burn fat while increasing muscle. If coming back from an extended running break or an injury, HIIT (or modified versions) can be performed 3 – 4 times per week with easy days in between. Workouts can also be adapted to cross training, such as the bike, elliptical, or the pool if weight-bearing exercise is problematic.
Don’t Skip the Long Run
Even though running fast is a great way to become faster, do not skip out on the weekly long run in favor of a speed workout. No matter what event you are training for, spending extra time on your feet has great benefits, in both the long and short-term. A long run will help develop aerobic fitness and build capillary strength in the heart. It will also strengthen mitochondria and myoglobin concentration in muscles, which will guard against injury and fatigue. Additionally, the long run helps to improve speed, even in shorter events, by improving running efficiency and economy. Don’t have enough time to build up to a sufficient long run distance? If a single long run is not feasible for your current fitness level, you can still reap the benefits of an extended run by doing two medium distance runs in one day, spaced at least 4 hours apart. For an added benefit during the run(s), use the last 10 – 15 minutes to incorporate a miniature speed session. Include four to six 1:00 pickups, or try to run “up tempo” at the end. Not only will the change in speed help your legs learn to finish fast at the end of the race, but you will also improve your fitness by running outside of your comfort zone.
Do Strides and Form Drills
When you do not have a lot of time to train, you will find yourself needing to fit in a number of additional exercises. Strides are a very simple and non-taxing exercise that you can perform at the end of every easy run that will help improve your running form and build your anaerobic system. Strides can also improve leg speed. After an easy day, run at 85 – 95% of maximum effort for 100 meters or roughly 20 – 30 seconds. During the strides, focus on good form and good breathing.
A second exercise that can be included after easy days are form drills. By incorporating exercises such as high knees, A-skip, B-skip, bounders, or other drills, runners can develop explosive power and improved mechanics that they would have otherwise developed from months of repetitive training.
Run for the hills and try not to stay away from them. Know that hills build lung and leg strength, giving the massive foundation of fitness you need to get really on the track on the short term. At least once a week, include into your run a variety of hills that take 20 to 90 seconds to climb. Remember to stay relaxed as you run up hill. Keep your shoulders down, your gaze straight ahead, and visualize your feet pushing up and off the leg, and the road rising to meet you.
After that, on the way down, avoid leaning back, do not let your feet slap the pavement, and avoid braking with the quads. That will put you at a high risk for injury. Strive to maintain an even level of effort as you are climbing up the hill and as you are making your descent. Always avoid trying to charge the hill; you just don’t want to be spent by the time you get to the top. When you get fitter, try to add more challenging hills with different grades and lengths.
You can switch to trails whenever roads become boring.
A crucial component of improving one’s fitness and becoming fast is increasing the amount of time spent exercising, particularly running. However, for many runners on a tight schedule, steeply increasing running volume can lead to injury or other setbacks. Instead, supplement running with cross training such as biking, elliptical, power walking, or swimming. Non-weight bearing exercise still provides the same cardio benefits as running, but will decrease the load on one’s legs, allowing for extra fitness without the risk of injury. Adding 30:00 of cross training before or after a run can greatly improve one’s fitness.
When time is of the essence, strength training is important. Not only will strength work (specifically focused on back, abdominals, hamstrings, glutes, and quads) increase explosive power and speed, but will also provide important mitochondrial growth for injury protection. Exercises such as lunges, squats, step-ups, and core work are recommended. Improved running economy allows a faster running pace at the same distance, or allows the runner to go longer at the same running pace, due to a decrease in required oxygen consumption (energy demand)2.
The key to efficient training is effective recovery. If trying to quickly get fit, sufficient sleep is required. Aim for 8 – 10 hours of sleep a night in order for your body to absorb the benefits of training while repairing muscle. Sleep will also help with mental recovery, which is just as important as physical rest.
There is a time and place for junk food and cheat days, but if your goal is to become faster in a limited amount of time, processed foods, refined sugars, and excessive fat should be avoided. Instead, eat plenty of inflammation-fighting foods, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meat, and healthy carbohydrates. Also be sure to eat for recovery, and aim to eat 200-300 calories with a 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio within 30 minutes of vigorous exercise.
On the same note, read the nutrition guide I wrote a few months ago.
Pay Attention to your Life Stress
While running is a proven stress-reliever, if you begin your workout frazzled or drained from your non-running life – say you are sick, sleep deprived and anxious about work, or you have been partying too hard – the run is going to feel harder. Studies1 have shown that for people who were really stressed out, general workouts felt way harder than they did for those who were not stressed, even when they were working at the same level of effort. In addition to this, muscles took longer to recover.
Tackle Your Mental Demons
Having a limited amount of time to get fast can wreck havoc with your mental state. Remember that your mind can control your body, and trust that the body can handle more on race day than you even realize. Think positively, and trust yourself and training. Choose an empowering mantra, and do not forget the work it took to get you to where you are. Not every journey is a conventional one!
1. Stults-Kolehmainen, M. A., & Sinha, R. (2014). The Effects of Stress on Physical Activity and Exercise. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 44(1), 81–121. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0090-5
2. Ronald E. Johnson MS, Timothy J. Quinn PhD (1995). Improving Running Economy Through Strength Training. NSCA Classic. Strength & Conditioning: August 1995 – Volume 17 – Issue 4 – pg 7-13