How to PR in Any Distance When You're Already Doing Speedwork

How to PR in Any Distance When You’re Already Doing Speedwork

At some point, every runner hits a plateau. It’s not the end of the world, but a plateau certainly can be frustrating when you are doing polarizing your training with easy runs and hard speedwork and still not seeing any results in your race times.

There’s ample advice on the internet about how to get faster, but the same suggestions are often repeated. Do speedwork, run intervals, include tempo runs, etc. So if you’re already including those in an intentional manner in a well-developed training plan, what do you do when you still aren’t getting faster?

Should you add in more speedwork? No, because that’s just going to set you up for injury and overtraining. Should you give up completely on your goals? While you may need to learn patience and evaluate the feasibility of your goal time, it the goal is meaningful to you and realistic don’t despair just yet. A PR (personal record, or PB/personal best for my non-American readers) is still well within your grasp, with just a few small tweaks to your training.

These 7 tips on how to PR in any distance when you’re already doing speedwork will help you improve your running, both in terms of achieving your goals and enjoying the process more.

But first, let’s look at the factors that influence whether or not you PR in any distance:

1. VO2max

VO2max measures the maximum volume of oxygen your muscles consume per minute. The higher your VO2max, the more oxygen your muscles can consume, and the faster you can  run. In a sense, your VO2max is your aerobic limit – once you surpass it, running is powered through anaerobic metabolism (energy production without oxygen), which leads to fatigue much more quickly than aerobic running.

Your VO2max is a major determinant of how fast you can run at any given distance. Want to run fast? Focus on raising your VO2max through a smart training plan that includes speed work, long runs, and tempo runs.  

2. Running Economy

What is running economy? According to exercise physiologist and running coach Dr. Jack Daniels, running economy is “the measure of energy expended while running aerobically at some submax speeds.” In layman’s terms, it’s how much oxygen and therefore how much energy you need to run at a given pace. More economical runners require less energy than less economical runners at the same speed.

The less energy you need at a certain pace, the longer you can sustain that pace without accumulating fatigue or bonking. While it matters at every distance, you should try to improve your running economy if you are striving to PR at the half marathon or marathon.

3. Mental Strength

Racing demands a hard effort and you have to be able to cope with discomfort during the race in order to achieve your goals. Negative self-talk, fear of failure, and a lack of resilience will all get in your way of a PR. Stop self-sabotaging and work on your ability to cope when the race gets hard; your body may be in PR shape and your mind may be what’s stopping you from achieving your goals.

4. Specific Endurance

You can be in fantastic running shape, but you may not be primed to PR in the marathon if you’ve been focusing on speed work over long runs. PRs can and do happen in tune up races, often as a result of the three factors above, but if you really want a half marathon PR then you specifically need to train for the half marathon.

Specific endurance is one of the key components of my individualized training plans for runners of any distance. None of my athletes will be running Yasso 800s in the weeks before their marathon!

So now that we know what factors come into play, let’s look at how to PR in any distance when you’re already doing speedwork!

How to PR in Any Distance When You're Already Doing Speedwork

7 Tips on How to PR in Any Distance

1. Increase your average weekly mileage.

The more you run (with most of those miles at a comfortable, conversational pace of course), the better your aerobic fitness. The better your aerobic fitness, the faster you will run overall – especially since lagging aerobic fitness is what slows many runners down during the second half of a marathon or half marathon.

Even when most of your miles are at an easy pace, as they should be, high mileage will increase your VO2max. When I say high mileage, I don’t mean that you have to go out and run 100 miles per week – high is in relation to your current mileage. So runners averaging 25 miles per week benefit from increasing to 35 miles per week, and runners at 40 miles per week will get faster at 55 miles per week.

Long runs have benefit no matter what distance race you are training for, since they boost your overall weekly mileage and offer numerous physiological benefits such as increased mitochondrial density and recruitment of various muscle fibers that improve your VO2max and running economy. 

How to PR in Any Distance When You're Already Doing Speedwork

Of course, any increases in mileage should be done safely to avoid injury. Read this post on how to safely increase your running mileage and/or work with a running coach to reach new levels of weekly mileage while still including quality workouts in your training.

2. Incorporate strides and drills into your routine.

Poor running form wastes a lot of energy. In fact one of the easiest ways to improve your running economy is to improve your running form. There are a whole host of form issues from chicken arms and slouching to overstriding; strides and drills will remedy many form mistakes and make you a more economical runner.

Start with once a week after an easy run and add in strides (smooth 20-30 second bursts of running hard but not all out, with good form) and simple running drills after your run.

3. Run hills

To say that hills are speedwork in disguise sounds almost cliche, but it’s true. To run the same pace up a hill requires more effort than on flat terrain, so you have to work harder to maintain your pace. The pounding on the downhill thanks to eccentric contraction of your muscles is gentler on the body than fast interval training, and uphill running certainly places less stress on the body than hard running on flat surfaces. Plus, hills are less forgiving to poor running form than flat terrain, meaning that you will be forced to improve your force and thus become a more economic runner when you run hills regularly.

How to PR in Any Distance When You're Already Doing Speedwork

Hilly easy runs, hill repeats, and short hill sprints will all benefit your running by boosting your specific endurance, running economy, and even VO2max. To start, add them in once a week, let your body adapt, and then progress from there! Whether you’re running a flat or hilly race, you will see improvements on race day.

4. Have a specific, progressive, adaptive training plan

A cookie cutter plan may or may not get your the PR. Sure, it’s worth a try, but at the end of the day be ready that it will not guarantee a PR for you.

However, even a cookie cutter training plan is better than a hodgepodge training plan. Don’t throw your favorite workouts haphazardly onto a calendar and call it a training plan. You may really love 400 meter repeats, but those workouts aren’t going to help run your best half marathon time as well as tempo intervals or a long run. Specificity, remember?

5. Be patient and don’t force it

Missing your PR, whether by a couple seconds or several minutes, is a cruel blow to your self-confidence and a disappointment after you invested months of training. That’s why patience is such a key trait for a runner to possess: PRs take time.

No matter what distance you are running, a PR is a result of hard work over several weeks or months. There is no shortcut, and a PR happens when you are mentally and physically happy. Don’t force your body into training at faster paces than you are fit for; be patient, don’t force it, and enjoy the journey.

How to PR in Any Distance When You're Already Doing Speedwork

6. Hire a coach for outside perspective and expertise

Many athletes skew their perspective with doubts, insecurities, and comparisons to others. This doesn’t mean that you should not listen to your intuition or listen to the signals your body sends, as those are important. But sometimes, when you back away from hard workouts because they scare you or you have overtrained in the past, it’s beneficial to turn to a coach.

In fact, trust me as a running coach when I say that there is no runner who would not benefit from the guidance of a coach. No matter your pace, goals, or experience in running, a coach will provide outside perspective on what you’re doing right and where you need to improve in your training. A coach takes care of the guesswork; all you have to do is run (and listen to your coach). And you’ll be PRing before you know it!

Want to hire a running coach? Learn more about my coaching services and contact me here

7. Trust your training and don’t overdo it

The following scenario often occurs when a runner wants to run a PR: they read that tempo runs once a week are good, so they figure doing them multiple times per week must be better, right? Or if 5 mile repeats at 10K pace are good, shouldn’t they be better at faster than 5K pace? Both are wrong.

Training for a PR race requires a special balance of physiological stress. You need to stress the body to a certain degree in order to increase your VO2max, improve your running economy, and build your specific endurance; however, too much stress will lead to injury, overtraining, or peaking before your race and leaving your race in your training.

So when your training plan calls for 4 easy runs, a long run, and one 4 mile tempo run, don’t throw in intervals, push the paces, or tack on junk miles. Trust your training plan. Trust your hard work, trust your abilities, and trust your coach if you have one.

Enjoy this post? You may also like:
5 Strategies for Breaking Through a Racing Plateau 
Tempo Runs: One Workout All Runners Need
How to Run a Sub 1:45 Half Marathon (or Any Goal Half Marathon Time)

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner!

What tips would you add to this list?
How do you improve your running besides speedwork? 
Have you ever ran a breakthrough race? When was it and how did it change your running?

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19 Responses

  1. In a way I think last years Baltimore half marathon was a breakthrough race for me. Something about that PR, has stuck with me and taught me that I can push harder than I think I can. I have felt like my mental strength has been on point since that race, but only time will tell if that can continue. I definitely think hill repeats are so beneficial! And I need to start incorporating drills back into my training! I actually did strides yesterday but before that I havent done them in months.

    1. You ran such a strong race at Baltimore from what I remember in the recap – and that PR was in the middle of marathon training! That’s awesome how much that race benefited you in terms of mental strength.

  2. such a great post! i like to think my last half, thanks to you, was a breakthrough half for me. i feel like i just needed that little extra boost to get a touch faster and now those faster paces feel so much easier! and i never fully understood vo2 max jargon until i starting reading your posts. i hate the technical stuff lol

    1. Thank you! I really think you’re going to have another half PR in the fall, based on how you’ve been running since the half in May. I hate technical stuff when it’s pedantic and not clearly explained, which happens so often! I was taught in grad school that if someone outside of my field could not understand what I was explaining, then I was doing a poor job at my writing.

  3. This post is very true. I feel like a lot of runners can benefit just by running more miles and consistently. It is hard to improve if someone is running 35 miles one week then only 10 miles the next and so forth. So many people I know think about doing speedwork when they want to PR… intervals on a track. But IMHO, that is probably the last thing to add if you’re not already doing consistent miles and a long run.

    1. Thank you! Consistency really is key – no matter what distance. So much more effective than speed work – and so much easier on the body and more sustainable.

  4. I LOVE THIS POST. So informative, and you back it up, but also practical. Sometimes, runners plateau (as we all do with anything) and you can be doing everything “right” and still not seeing the right results aka what you are looking for. That’s when it is time to shift a bit, and a running coach can help you do that.

    1. Thank you Susie! A running coach is great for mixing it up as you and both know as coaches, because when you’re stuck in a rut it’s hard to think of any other way to do things.

  5. This list is perfect as is; I wouldn’t change a thing! I have worked SO HARD for this marathon coming up and I’m hoping that all the tempo runs and speed work that I did will help me break through the 3 hour mark. The taper is the toughest part for me, ironically. I’m less than two weeks away from this race and I’m SO NERVOUS and all I want to do is run out my nerves and I can’t. So I sit here biting my fingernails. ARGH.

    1. Thank you! I really think you’re ready for a marathon PR! Just take the taper in stride (ugh, tapers are so frustrating, aren’t they though? Harder than the hard workouts of training in a way) and you’ll be seeing 2:xx:xx on that clock at Seattle RNR. Plus the weather is still looking in your favor, which is just a sign that it’ll be a good day!

  6. YES to hills!! Runners, stop being so afraid of hill work! Speaking from experience, hill work is the best example of running rewarding the patient. No, you don’t get to see lightning-fast paces while you’re doing a death march up a hill, but once you get back onto a flat route/course after regular hill work….HOLY SPEED BATMAN! One thing I noticed right away while hill training this spring is that I felt like my leg turnover really improved. I would run tempos at the same effort as usual but my legs looked like the Roadrunner cartoon.

    I love this post. It reminds me of a saying I really like: “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time.” A plateau doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong, it might just mean you’ve trained a certain way for such a long time that you’ve gotten all you’re going to get out of it, and it’s time to introduce something fresh to wake up those legs.

    1. Yes! I’ve admittedly slacked on hill training out of convenience before but hills are so beneficial when you do them! Just look at what they did for you at PGH! Quick turnover is important for good running economy as well.

    1. Patience is hard, but it’s a good characteristic to have as a runner (and in life overall). And yes to strength training – especially heavier weight that build power!

    1. Thank you! Trusting in training requires so much mental strength – there’s something about a race that tempts us into questioning all of our training if we’re nto careful.

  7. First off, excellent post and so much great stuff in there – rest is incredibly important, and it is how your body recovers that dictates everything. I think more and more things keep appearing that back that up, or at least that is what I have been reading.
    I think I tend to be happy with about one rest day and 50-55 miles in the winter and 60 or so in the summer.
    And whether or not that is optimal for me being a ‘better runner’, really doesn’t matter. It works great with my time and love of getting out there, and I feel great. I’m sure a coach would knock me upside the head and totally change things up on me, but I really don’t care. 🙂

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