As a coach and someone who is deeply involved in the local running community I am often asked, "How can I get faster." While there is no concrete answer, as everyone's situations vary, there are a few common trends I see with people who ask me theses questions.
Are you running enough to get comfortable at the distance you are training for?
Many of the people who tell me they would like to get faster simply don't run enough. People get trapped into this mode of thinking that they only need to run 3 miles, a few times a week, in order to complete a 5k. This works if your goal is to simply complete the race. If we look at some of the best athletes in town, who also tend to be high school students, we see that they run on average 6-8 miles a day five to six times a week. For these people I suggest upping your weekly mileage. If your goal is to get faster at 5k, then build your mileage up to at least 30 miles per week. This is easily achievable by running an extra 10-15 minutes a day.
Are you varying up your training?
One of the cliches in long distance running, is that long slow runs create long slow runners. So if when reading above you found yourself thinking, "I already run 30+ miles per week." It is time to take a look at what you are doing in your runs. Are you simply going out and putting in mileage, or are you incorporating some sort of workout into your routine. Running is all about stress and adaptation. If you are comfortably running the mileage, then it is time to add in a new type of stressor. The workouts don't have to be fancy, they can be as simple as a 4 mile tempo and some sort of interval / fartlek workout mixed into your weekly training.
Tempo - A tempo is a run that can be described as comfortably hard. An easy way to figure out a pace for the workout is to take your mile average from your last 5k and add 15-20 seconds per mile. Then run this pace non stop for 4-5 miles. You can sneak in mileage by doing a 1 mile warm up before the tempo and 1 mile cool down afterwards.
Fartlek - Fartlek is a Swedish word meaning speed play. To implement a fartlek into your routine you would pick a set interval of time or distance to run hard and a set interval of time or distance to run easy. Usually fartlek are done on a "Run as you feel" basis where the hard is fast enough to feel like your working without causing you to walk during your easy.
Have you taken any time off lately?
This tends to be the one that surprises me more than the others. There are people who put in the mileage and who do the workouts, yet they tend to never get any faster. They also tend to be the ones who are the top of their age groups at most of the local races. For them there need to train is also one of the reasons they are not seeing a drop in times. An example of this is a personal trainer who I knew when I lived in Jacksonville. Her mentality towards training was there is no off season. She often complained that she could not break 22:00 in a 5k to save her life. When asked, she hadn't taken more than 2 days off at a time in 3 years. Shortly after our conversation she got hurt while running. She was forced to take 3 weeks off. In her first 5k back she ran in the min the mids 21s. She is now a proponent of some sort of seasonality in training.
While seasonality is not practical for many, it is a good idea for people who enjoy competing to set a schedule that includes a goal race and a block of time for recovery. The recovery block should be 7-10 days of no running or hard aerobic work. The time off will repair the body and allow for faster training and racing during the next cycle.
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