A large majority of runners, no matter their ability, share a common goal: they want to run faster. The internet and running books are full of guidance on running faster, to the point where it can feel like information overload. Yes, training theory can be as complex as you want to make it – but there is no secret to how to run faster.
This article guides through the basics of how to run faster – in both the short-term and long-term. If you want to get faster now and keep getting faster later, focus on training fundamentals: mostly easy runs, deliberate weekly hard workouts (of varying intensities), strides, consistent training, progressive overload, and rest days.
Keep A Majority of Your Runs Easy
As counterintuitive as it sounds, easy running should constitute most of your training – 75-85% – if your goal is to run faster. Easy runs are a training staple. Master this skill, and you will see your performance improve.
Every event from the mile and longer relies predominantly on aerobic metabolism for energy production. Easy runs optimize the development of the aerobic system, as they target aerobic adaptations while controlling the amount of stress applied to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. As a result of easy runs, you have more robust adaptations in your muscles for running, including increased mitochondrial density (for aerobic energy production), a greater density of capillaries (for enhanced oxygen delivery), and slow-oxidative muscle fiber recruitment. Over time, your aerobic capacity increases – allowing you to run faster at distances from the mile to ultra-marathon.
Easy running also allows you to run more volume without breaking down your body. In a 2021 study in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers examined the training of world-class long-distance runners over seven years. The variable with the most significant impact on performance was total distance run. While more mileage is not always better, being able to handle a consistently higher weekly volume will help you run faster. Easy runs let you run more volume. (Read more on how to determine how many miles you should run each week.)
Why not just run more hard workouts each week? The answer lies partially in recovery. High-intensity workouts stress the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for physiological functions including heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. If it is chronically stressed with inadequate recovery, maximal cardiac output and aerobic ATP generation can actually decline – which means that performance declines. This effect is why you see declined performance as a symptom of overtraining syndrome.
Include ~20% of Hard Running at Varying Intensities Each Week
When most runners think about how to run faster, they are thinking about hard workouts: interval runs, tempo runs, hill repeats, and more. These workouts are essential for running faster!
Hard workouts provide the cardiometabolic, biomechanical, and neural stimuli to run faster. Fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment, lactate shuttling, Very few runners – only the genetic outliers – will improve their performances on easy running alone.
Hard workouts are not a majority of your training – approximately 20%. The exact percentage of intensity may vary based on your race distance, training phase, and tolerance. Some runners may do 15% of their week at a high intensity, while others may do 25% (especially if including more moderate-intensity work).
Rather than getting lost in the details, think simply about consistent workouts of varying intensities. If you run 4-5 days per week, include one hard workout per week. If you run 6-7 days, include two hard workouts per week. Be deliberate in including a variety of workouts through the training seasons so that you do not neglect any aspect of fitness.
Common training intensities include:
- Steady state/moderate: Continuous runs, typically 20-90 minutes, of a sustainable, moderate intensity. These are progression runs, marathon pace workouts, or tempo runs slightly faster than marathon effort.
- Lactate threshold: This staple training pace targets right around 60-minute race effort. Threshold runs can be done in interval format or as continuous tempos.
- Critical velocity: This is a “somewhat hard” effort, around 30-40 minute race effort. Critical velocity is typically used for intervals. This zone allows a higher amount of time at intensity than VO2max intervals.
- High-intensity intervals: These hard intervals are at or near VO2max – the “hands-on-knees” track workouts. For some runners, too much VO2max training can inhibit aerobic capacity, so it’s best to keep these workouts in manageable doses.
(This article delves into the common types of running workouts. For more on specific training zones, reference this article.)
Always Do Strides
Virtually every well-developed training plan includes some variation of strides: strides after a run, strides within a run, or hill strides. Strides seem so short, yet those couple minutes per week of very high-intensity running are the secret for how to run faster.
Strides are 15-30 second accelerations to a fast yet smooth effort (roughly one-mile to 3K race effort). You are not sprinting. These short, sustainable bursts of speed stress the neuromuscular system – the system in which the brain communicates to the muscles. As a result, running economy improves – which means you run faster at any submaximal intensity.
A 2018 study in Physiological Reports demonstrates the efficacy of strides for long-distance runners. The study had 20 trained runners (both male and female) perform 5-10 x 30 second strides for 40 days. (The sample size had 26 participants, but 6 dropped out due to low adherence.) The participants underwent the same tests pre- and post-intervention: a 10K time trial, a 10K time trial in a glycogen depleted state (to test changes to slow-twitch muscle fibers), and an incremental running test to exhaustion.
As a result of a 40-day training intervention using strides, the researchers observed a 2.0% improvement in velocity at VO2max (p<0.05 – meaning these results are statistically significant). The 10-km time trial improved by 3.2% (the difference of a 45 min 10K before intervention vs 43 min 10K after) and the glycogen-depleted 10K improved by 3.9%. (Both 10K results had a p<0.01, which means this is highly statistically significant data.)
Why does the depleted 10K matter? From that data, the researchers were able to conclude that the adaptations from the strides occurred in the slow-twitch muscle fibers. These are the muscle fibers predominantly used in long-distance running events. The effects of strides were not just at top-end speed – they translate to real performance improvements for long-distance runners.
The usual prescription of strides is one to three times per week. Make it simple: aim to do 4-6 x 20 sec strides (with 2 min rest if done mid-run or 1-2 min rest if standing in between) a couple of times per week. Do that consistently for months on end – and you will run faster.
(Caveat: strides may be excluded from a training plan if the runner is experiencing hamstring or Achilles issues. There are nuances to training prescription!)
Think Consistent Training over Epic Workouts
Hard workouts are not about proving your fitness. Pushing each workout to the maximum of your abilities is a quick path to injury, overtraining, or a frustrating plateau. Faster workouts are not better workouts – especially if you want to run faster in the long-term.
Instead, you want workouts to build fitness. No hard workout should be so exhausting that you struggle to complete your training in the upcoming days. Rather, you should be able to stack workouts and training days over weeks and months. That consistency, more than a single epic workout, is the key for how to run faster.
The simplest way to avoid pushing too hard in a workout? Leave room for more. Finish feeling like you could do another couple of reps in a short interval workout, another rep in a long interval workout, and another few minutes in a tempo run.
Implement Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the concept of gradually increasing the training load over time, so that training stress remains adequate as your fitness improves. When you were a beginner runner, three miles likely felt challenging. Then, as you adapted, three miles became more manageable – so you likely ran further. That’s an example of progressive overload.
To continue to improve your running performance, you need to apply progressive overload to your training. The training stimulus that got you faster as a new runner may not be enough as an intermediate runner. You need to progress some aspect of your training – volume, intensity, time at intensity, or frequency – to continue to run faster. (However, do not increase volume or intensity at the same time. Too much too soon can increase your risk of injury or overtraining.)
Progressive overload occurs on short-term and long-term scales. In the short term, your workouts should get a bit harder each week when you are training for a race. For example, you may build from 4 x 5 min threshold intervals to 3 x 12 min threshold intervals during a 12-week plan.
Progressive overload also occurs long-term. When you are a novice runner, a challenging workout may be a 15-minute tempo run. As you gain experience as a runner, your workouts will be longer (such as a 30-45 min tempo run). This type of progressive overload happens over years, not necessarily just a couple of training cycles.
You will reach a point where longer, bigger workouts are not more beneficial. If you are an intermediate to advanced runner, you can progress a workout in various ways without increasing time at intensity. Workout paces will get faster as fitness develops. Rest intervals may shorten. You can add slight variations, such as progressive pacing or multiple intensities within one workout.
Include a Rest Day at Least Every 7-10 Days
Training applies a stimulus; you need to recover from the applied stimulus to see the adaptation. Without adequate recovery, you will experience a plateau or performance decline due to overreaching or overtraining. Sometimes, when a runner is not getting faster, it’s not an issue of needing to train more – it’s needing to rest more (and possibly train less).
Rest days provide all physiological systems with the opportunity to recover from training. Your nervous system, musculoskeletal system, cardiovascular system, and others all get a respite from the strain of training. As a result, you are more likely to adapt to your training. Rest days also can prevent mental burnout, which can be an obstacle to the consistency that is required to run faster.
Remember: rest days mean rest from running. A short recovery run or cross-training on the bike is not the same as a rest day. If you feel like you need to move on a rest day, take a walk. If running everyday feels necessary and you perceive a rest day as detrimental to your mental health, please speak with a mental health professional.
Great article! Question about the easy runs part, does this apply even for very time-limited schedules (ie if you can’t run more than a couple times a week?) Thanks!
Yes! Time-limited athletes will still benefit from easy running, although some methodologies (as supported by some evidence-based opinions, see Stoggl & Sperlich 2015) suggest that those athletes may be able to spend up to 50% of their time at moderate intensity, depending on how low volume is. If you are running just 2-3x/week, one to two runs would be easy-mod (comfortable and sustainable), one hard workout, and strides at least once per week!
I completely agree with your article that easy running should make up the majority of a runner’s training if their goal is to run faster. It’s interesting how counterintuitive this may seem to some, as many people may think that running at a faster pace more frequently is the key to improving speed. However, as you mentioned, deliberate weekly hard workouts and consistent training are also crucial components to improving speed. My question for you is, how often should one incorporate strides into their training routine to see improvements in speed? Thank you for sharing this evidence-based approach to running faster.