…with the same amount of (or less) perceived effort.
Working in the health and fitness industry I constantly meet people who ask me how to run faster, or how to train for a specific running-based event. Sometimes these people are absolute beginners and want to try their first 5km. Sometimes they are highly-trained individuals with several marathons under their belt and want to be able to breach the three-hour benchmark for 26.2 miles. This article is for both ends of the spectrum and everyone in between. I’ll cover:
Definitions/Abbreviations (for the purpose of understanding the article)
Essential and Basic Science
The Real How To
RPE: rate of perceived exertion. A scale of 1 - 10 to describe the amount of effort you are using, completely irrelevant of your speed/fitness level…
1-2 = just faster than a walk
3 = very slow, very comfortable jog / shuffle
4 = slow and comfortable OR recovery after sprint
5 = comfort zone, lower end
6 = comfort zone, higher end
7 = just higher than your comfort pace. You can maintain this pace for some time but you’ll have to slow down eventually (how quickly depends on your fitness)
8 = well above your comfort pace. Can only maintain for 1 - 3 minutes (if you’re really fit)
9 = just shy of an all out sprint
10 = 100% burst of power. Can only maintain for a max of 30 seconds before having to slow down
The distances will differ depending on your own fitness level/running ability so for ease of reference I’ll just say, long, medium and short distance…
Long distance: the farthest you can run without stopping, whilst maintaining at least a 5 RPE pace, or as far as you can run within 90 minutes, which is about the maximum amount of time most people ever commit to a single training session (unless marathon or Ironman training). Advanced runners might consider this to be 12-16 miles whereas a beginner might consider this to be 5-7 miles.
Medium distance: a manageable distance to complete within 30-50 minutes which would be your average training session time. Advanced runners might consider this to be 6-10 miles whereas a beginner might half that.
Short distance: a short sharp run, which takes 20-30 minutes. Advanced, 3-6 miles. Beginners, 2-3 miles.
For measuring running circuits from your home or office: www.mapmyrun.com
Being able to time yourself is essential and having automated intervals at set times is fundamental to this programme.
For pre-set speed intervals: Gymboss Interval Timer, £16 from Amazon
I’d suggest memorizing where each mile/kilometer starts along your route using the www.maymyrun.com website, rather than relying on technology to tell you. This will help you develop a feel for how far a mile/kilometer is much more quickly.
However, if you like your gadgets I recommend the Garmin Forerunner 210, for about £110 from Amazon. It has GPS built in and will tell you your speed, average pace, distance, heart rate and it has an interval timer function.
Essential & Basic Science (which we love!)
When you’re running for longer than 2 minutes, oxygen is the primary source of fuel for your muscles and lactic acid is a bi-product of the energy making process. Your heart and lungs are constantly working to try to deliver enough oxygen to the working muscles and remove the lactic acid. Therefore how fast you run is dictated essentially by three things:
The rate at which your body can remove the lactic acid whilst still running
The speed at which oxygen can be delivered to the working muscles (VO2 max)
Your individual running efficiency and gait mechanics
The following programme will address the first two. To address the third you need a 1:1 gait analysis. I recommend Kingston University (NOT Runners’ Need footwear shop) http://sec.kingston.ac.uk/sportex/consultancy.php.
As Roger McCarthy touched on in a Strength Matters publication: so many runners are keen to buy “the best” footwear technology and are overly obsessed with anti-pronation footwear and carb-loading. Whereas most of them are lacking the hip stability and foot and ankle proprioception to be able to balance on one leg for more than 60 seconds. On that, I challenge you to stand on one leg with your eyes closed for 60 seconds before spending your hard earned cash. The ability to do this will have a much more positive effect on your running, will reduce your risk of injury and build up essential stability. If you can do this for two minutes, you’re up there with Olympian athletes.
The Real How To
First, measure where you’re at. Go for a medium distance run at a constant pace, as fast as you can. (ie. No sprint intervals – if you naturally slow down a little towards the end, that’s ok). Record the time of this run and re-test every 4 - 6 weeks. We’ll call these test runs.
The pace you are maintaining during this test run should bounce between a 6-7 RPE. You’ll find that when you’re running just above your comfort zone (7 RPE) you can maintain this for up to a few minutes but then you feel you have to slow down and recover for a minute or so at 6 RPE.
You feel you have to slow down because the lactic acid has built up in your muscles at a faster rate than your blood can remove it, so little messenger hormones are sent to your brain, saying, “SLOW DOWN!”
This is where most people do just that, if they push themselves beyond their comfort zone at all. Remember your body has no reason to change (inside or out) unless a new uncomfortable stimulus is applied that your body is not used to. Mindlessly “jogging” on a treadmill whilst reading a book will do nothing for improving health and performance. Although, if you genuinely enjoy a casual jog on a treadmill whilst reading Pride & Predjudice, bloody good job! This will maintain (not improve) your current health and I can think of much worse hobbies. Anyway…
Here’s the Magic Part...
If you want to make considerable and fast gains with your running fitness include short sharp sprint intervals within every training session. Re-test your performance by going for a test run every 4-6 weeks and you’ll be amazed at the effects. When you sprint, a sudden surge of lactic acid fills your muscles and the messenger hormones that tell you to slow down are released very quickly. Even superior athletes can’t maintain a 10 RPE for longer than 30 seconds during a medium-long distance run*. Don’t just increase your pace, SPRINT FOR YOUR LIFE! In between sprint intervals, ideally try to return to your normal 5-6 RPE running pace. You will want to slow right down to a 2-4 RPE but this is where strength of mind plays a key part – KNOW that you will recover at 5-6 RPE and keep it there.
*Professional runners can’t maintain a 10 RPE burst for very long but their 7 - 8 RPE is much faster than our 10 RPE, and much closer to the speed of their 10 RPE.
These intervals will cause your body to adapt exponentially faster. They will significantly increase your ability to deliver oxygen and remove lactic acid by increasing the size of your heart and lungs and increase the number of mitochondria in your blood (the cells that carry oxygen). It will also increase your muscles’ capacity for storing energy (glycogen) and increase your arteries’ ability to contract and expand – therefore moving the blood around your body much more efficiently. There are numerous positive effects to your health, but I’ll try to stick to the point and not go into them.
Even if you’re having an off day due to a hangover or tiredness, don’t go for a constant pace run. It’s always better to go for your run with sprint intervals but slow right down to a 2-4 RPE between sprints.
The ideal frequency and duration of these sprints depend on several variables, outlined below:
Beginner Intermediate Advanced
Duration of 10 - 15 seconds 15 - 25 seconds 25 - 35 seconds
Frequency of intervals
during short run Every 5 minutes Every 3 - 4 minutes Every 1 - 2 minutes
(20-30 minute session)
Frequency of intervals
during medium run Every 8 minutes Every 6 - 7 minutes Every 3 - 5 minutes
(30-60 minute session)
Frequency of intervals If you can run without
during long run stopping for more than Every 8 - 9 minutes Every 6 - 8 minutes
(60-90 minute session) 60 minutes, you’re
not a beginner
In my opinion, everyone who can run, should run at least once a week. If you don’t have a specific running-based goal such as a half marathon, I strongly suggest at least one short run per week involving very frequent sprints or hill sprints. The positive effects gained from sprints vs jogging are vast. At the very least, spend 10-15 minutes doing joint mobility movements, 5 minutes warming up your sprinting muscles, then just go for one 200M-400M sprint. It’s liberating. However, please bear in mind that if you sit in a chair for longer than 2-3 hours per day without including daily anti-chair mobility OR if you can't balance on one foot with your eyes closed for longer than 30 seconds, running will probably lead to injury.
***PLEASE SEEK INDIVIDUAL APPROVAL FROM A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL BEFORE EMBARKING ON ANY PHYSICAL TRAINING PROGRAMME***