By Alys DiMercurio
When I first took up running, it was kind of a Forrest Gump thing: “I just felt like running.” Garmin watches weren’t invented yet, I didn’t know how fast or slow I was, and I really didn’t have a goal beyond simply going out for a run. Eventually I discovered something that many are blessed to unveil: that running makes me feel good. Anxiety drips away. Nervousness about a test or job interview gets reduced. Frustration over a disagreement with a friend or trouble at work subsides and makes room for some humble clarity. There’s a lot you can solve in your head within a few miles.
Eventually, I decided that I wanted a goal. I set my sights on the half marathon distance and took to training – badly. I didn’t really have a training plan, had no idea how much water or glucose to take in, and never completed a training run longer than 7 miles. For those new to this, a half marathon is 13.1 miles long, so that’s not one of my most brilliant moments. But somehow I made it to the finish line, and thought that perhaps I’d even do it again.
A handful of half marathons later, I began to crave a new goal: getting faster. With some work and persistence I have now managed to trim 8 minutes off my 5k time, 15 minutes off my 10k, nearly a full hour off my half marathon, as well as complete a full marathon in less than 4 hours. My proudest part of this, however, is that I didn’t lose my love of running and the purpose it served for me in the beginning.
If your interest at this point is simply being able to run 2 miles without feeling like you’re dying, or – as my boyfriend says – “not being last,” then there’s no need to worry yet about transforming into Speedy Gonzales. But if you are at a point where you’d like to pursue some faster times without losing your love of running, here are a few tips.
- Give each run a purpose. I used to “just go running.” I completed every run more or less at the same intermediate pace. This is great in itself, and it is absolutely necessary to build a base level of fitness through consistent workouts, but you’ll see progress at a greater rate with the addition of various types of runs. Whether that be a long run to build comfort in going the distance, or speed intervals on a track/treadmill, or a tempo workout to push to hold speeds that typically feel uncomfortable, or an easy recovery run, or a mellow quiet jog in the park for mental health – set an intention for what you’re looking to accomplish.
- Establish a base level of fitness. The old phrase of “learning to crawl before learning to walk” applies here. This differs depending on the distance of race you’re looking to train for, but most generally speaking, you want to be running a few times per week already and be able to sustain a couple of miles at a leisurely pace before introducing speed work to the picture. Even if you’ve been a runner before but it’s been a hot second since you ran consistently, get back in the habit of running a few times a week comfortably first in order to reduce risk of injury.
- Do a speed workout at least once a week. If you’re like I was a couple of years ago and are wondering what the heck track intervals or a tempo workout is, that is completely ok! Runner’s World has a simple breakdown of what these terms mean, and there are other resources offering advice on how you can implement them. There are a lot of fancy geeky terms thrown around like VO2 max and lactate threshold, but the basic premise here is that it’s hard to get faster without..you know..running faster. If you’re unsure what paces you should be running these workouts at, these can be calculated from charts using your most recent 5k personal record. I like the time tables found in the book Run Less Run Faster, and there are some calculators available online as well. Speed workouts should always (I repeat ALWAYS) be sandwiched by a warm-up and cool-down of 10+ minutes of easy effort running, along with thorough stretching.
- Recover smart. In addition to the stretching, you’ll want to gently promote blood flow to repair and strengthen muscle tissue. A great way to do that is to follow your speed workout day with a day of taking a nice walk, or a short very easy jog, or another low-impact activity like yoga or bicycling. If you own a foam roller, you may want to follow up hard workouts with a nice dose of rolling out tired muscles. Getting plenty of rest, hydrating well, and nourishing yourself with balanced meals are also key components of workout recovery.
- Incorporate strength training. I think a lot of runners expect that all they need to do to progress is run a whole lot. Furthermore, many runners have the misconception that working with weights will make them bulky and slow. This is so far from the truth! It’s been my experience that adding strength training and working on some muscle mass was a huge breakthrough in getting fitter and faster. Strengthening your core, upper body, gluteus muscles, quads, and hamstrings can have an immense effect on your overall body composition and reduce how hard your body has to work while you’re running. Even just 15-30 minutes a few times a week is a game-changer. If you don’t have a gym membership, don’t be discouraged; I often complete much of this at home in my living room with the help of some weights that can be picked up at your local sporting goods store along with free YouTube videos.
- Set realistic goals. This does not mean sell yourself short, or tell yourself things like “I could never do that…” Everyone deserves to reach for the stars. But something I often see runners do is set black-or-white, pass-or-fail kind of goals, and then fall apart or give up when they don’t pan out. A great way to avoid this phenomenon is to set both long-term ‘big’ objectives, as well as short-term goals you can chip away at step by step. This allows us the opportunity to experience many little victories on the road to our big one. We are all different people with different patterns of thinking, so the way you go about goal-setting may need to cater to you specifically. If you’re the type of person who tends to set goals and then procrastinate and make excuses along the way, a hard-and-fast “I WILL break a 30 minute 5k” type of goal might suit you best. If you’re a perfectionist who tends to be very self-critical and hard on yourself if you don’t feel good enough, you may want to be more flexible with your goals, such as “I want to get as close to a 2 hour half marathon as possible, and if I break 2 hours that will be a nice bonus.” That way, a 2:01 is still something to be celebrated rather than a failure.
- Consider working with a coach or team. If you’re reading the above and realize you’re not sure what goals are realistic for you, or how you’ll keep up training, or how you’ll stay accountable to yourself – hiring a coach might be a great option. In fact (shameless plug), I happen to know a pretty good one. You can find coaches online, or local to you by asking around to your running community or checking the bulletin board at your nearest running shop. Joining a team or training group is another excellent way to stay accountable to others, share ideas, engage in some friendly competition, and develop a network of supportive peers.
- Don’t lose your passion. Pushing yourself to be your best and exploring new goals is great, but can sometimes encourage tunnel vision and burnout if passion gets pushed aside. Be mindful of why you started running in the first place, and take mindful moments to appreciate what your body allows you to do. Climb a hill you’ve never been up before. Take a jog with a friend. I like to take at least 1 run per week where I leave my watch at home, turn my mile tracker notifications on silent, take the headphones out, and just enjoy the scenery. That’s what it’s all about.