True story: when my daughter was on the track team at her middle school, she saw after a while that her times weren’t getting any faster. She ran the 800 and 1500 meter, two notoriously hard distances to run. Getting frustrated, she asked her coach how she could get faster. His response was, “Run faster.” She asked how exactly to do that because she was trying to run faster. He wasn’t able to give her any more information. Ultimately she reluctantly finished out track season at about where she was when she started, but with a bad taste for running with a school team or a group, although she continued to run on her own.
When she was starting high school, I encouraged her to try out for cross country. My daughter had run several 5ks, a 10k, and two half marathons at that point, and she preferred longer distances over shorter ones that track runners do. Although she was hesitant because of her experience with track team, she began running the unofficial morning runs before cross country official practice started. Even though freshmen didn’t have to have a qualifying 3k time like the older kids, everyone that wanted to be on the team ran 3k time trials.
My daughter ran two 3k time trials before school started and did so well she was invited to run the team’s first off-site race that only 48 kids were invited to (unfortunately she couldn’t attend because we already had plans for that weekend that couldn’t be broken). I should also mention that there are 180 kids on this cross country team, which I’ve been told is one of the biggest in the country, and which also means more competition regarding who is able to attend meets at off-site locations (they can’t take everyone since they only have one bus). So far, my daughter’s times are gradually improving, I’m sure due to several reasons and I have no doubt her times will continue to improve over the next few years.
I’ve noticed that my own times have also been improving over the last few years, despite the fact that I’ve been running races for the last 22 or so years. I actually got a PR (personal record) at a half marathon in Wyoming this summer, a race that was even at altitude. Most people would think they were well-beyond reaching a PR after they hit 40, especially if they’ve been running since their 20’s, but I’m proof that that’s not always the case. Miracles can come true.
So, how does one improve their running times other than the simple answer of just run faster? As everything else running-related, it’s complicated. Looking at my daughter’s experiences, she has benefited from running with a group that has no doubt pushed her a bit more than if she was running on her own. She has also benefited from running 6 days a week, versus the 4 days a week she was previously running. I know the trails where the cross country team mainly practices and the park is full of hills, twists, and turns, which has undoubtedly made her a stronger, fitter runner. Finally, being forced to stretch with the team after every run has likely benefited her more than the minimal amount she stretched on her own previously.
Examining my own background for the past couple of years, there are also several factors that have likely enabled me to be a faster runner. Looking back at my stats from Strava, it looks like I ran more than double the amount of miles (some months it was triple) during the beginning months of 2019 compared to the first few months of 2018. I ran half marathons in May, August, and November of 2018, and similarly I’ve run half marathons in May and July so far for 2019 but I ran much more in the spring of 2019 than spring of the previous year. By the time 2019 ends, if I keep on track with what I’ve been running, I will have run around 150 more miles in 2019 than 2018.
I changed several running-related things in 2018, most of which worked out to my advantage. You can read about them all in-depth here, but basically, I switched my half marathon training plan from one I had been using for races to go from running three days a week to a different plan that called for running five days a week. I began doing more trail running. I did some heart rate training. I ran a 5k, which I hadn’t done in many years. I switched up my running routes. I tried new running shoes (that one didn’t go so well but I learned what does and doesn’t work for me when it comes to running shoes).
Not everything that happened in 2018 was to my advantage, however. I also developed anemia again. I have a history of it and was able to recognize the signs fairly quickly and get an appointment with my doctor for a diagnosis and begin treatment. Surprisingly this all happened a mere couple of weeks before I ran one of my fastest half marathons in years, in Arkansas. How I managed to run as fast as I did while severely anemic is still beyond my comprehension. I started treatment and was able to start feeling like myself after a few months, and my sub-2 hour half marathon streak continued at the half marathon in Delaware in May of 2019, and that was topped with my PR at the half marathon in Wyoming in July of 2019.
Another important thing I did that I believe had a part in my PR was I hiked all over Peru at very high elevation in May just after my race in Delaware. As I mentioned in my post, Is Hiking in the Mountains Good Cross-Training for Runners?, I truly believe that those two weeks were enough to boost my red blood cell count and give me a bit of an advantage when it came to running. I referenced a paper in my post that states that two weeks at high elevation is enough to get your body to start producing more red blood cells, which helps you deal with the elevation better, and those lingering benefits of having more red blood cells can last a couple of months. I was also at high elevation in Wyoming in July but not as high as I was in Peru so I’m not sure if it was enough for my blood to be effected or not.
OK. So I have several things that I changed in 2018 that continued into 2019: changing my running routes so that I wasn’t running the same path more than once a week, changing my half marathon training plan to go from running three days a week to running five days a week which also meant I increased my weekly mileage, and occasional trail running. I also have the extra boost from hiking at high elevation in May of 2019 which may have effected my race time in Wyoming in July.
Now let’s see how all of this translates to numbers. In 2017, I ran three half marathons, all of which were over 2 hours (although the last one was by less than one minute over). In 2018, my race times for the half marathons in May and November were sub-2 hours (1:59:51 and 1:57:31) but my finish time for the race in August was 2:01:06, which I attribute to an uphill literally at the very end of the race and I of course struggled with. In May 2019, my finish time was 1:58:34 and in July 2019, I finished the half marathon in 1:53:00. I would say all of the changes I made in 2018 are definitely working to my advantage.
Back to the original question of how do you get faster as a runner, the answer seems to be (at least in the cases of my daughter and myself) by increasing your weekly mileage, run with others that may be slightly faster than you, add in some trail runs, vary your running routes, and if you’re able to visit a high elevation place (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming would all be great places within the US) for a couple of weeks or more, do so. You may notice I didn’t even mention speed work. Of course doing speed work is important to get faster. However, for me, I was doing speed work prior to 2018 and I continued doing speed work after that, but for me that alone wasn’t enough to get faster. I needed the other changes as well to see faster race times.
Everyone is different, too. What works for one person may not work for another. Experiment with making small changes and see if that seems to make a difference. If you start to feel like it’s too much and you’re not recovering from your runs, back off. Likewise, if one thing just doesn’t work for you, cut it out of your routine and move on to something else that might work.
What about you all? What changes have you made in your running routine that have made you a faster runner?