Unlock a New Personal Record
Yes, you can be a fast(er) runner. Really. Push your limits with these adjustments to how you think, breathe and train.
If a runner were granted three wishes by a genie, one of them would probably be to run faster. (The other two might be for perfectly crisp, sunny weather every day and for runs that feel easy, breezy and pain-free.)
While not every person who laces up stresses over their pace, it’s safe to say most runners would accept a new PR with open arms — it’s a clutch way to feel empowered and like a straight-up badass. Sadly, real life has no genies (if only), and real speed takes real effort.
But another reality check? You can get faster, bit by bit, without running yourself into the ground. To see some realistic progress toward a speedier pace, try a few of the following suggestions. If you want to go beast mode (props), try them all.
1. Make Time to Run Long
“True speed always starts with endurance,” says Nike senior director of global running Chris Bennett, aka Coach Bennett. “It’s the difference between being fast and being fast when you want to be fast.” (You know, during the last 100 meters of that 5K.) The less endurance you have, he says, the more speed you’ll have to use up in the early portion of a run. “It’s very difficult to run fast at the most important times,” says Coach Bennett. “Endurance is what will get you to that point.” To build yours, run at least once a week at a comfy speed and just a bit farther than you normally would. Doing this consistently can help condition your body to do more without getting tired.
2. Be Smart About Sprints
There’s no way around it: To run faster, you have to, well, run faster.
That doesn’t mean you should be dropping a minute off your mile time overnight. A good training plan will build your speed gradually through a variety of workouts. (Need some help? Check out the training programs in the Nike Run Club app.)
However you decide to map out your workouts, you’ll want to include interval training. Intervals, which intersperse faster efforts with slower recovery, improve how efficiently your body uses oxygen (a key marker of aerobic fitness) more than moderate-intensity workouts do, according to research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. And once you start to bring up your speed for short bursts, your overall pace during longer distances should start to improve too. These workouts can be as simple as alternating one minute of hard running (a pace at which you can’t hold a convo) with one minute of easy running (a pace that allows you to talk freely).
Typically, you should be doing true sprint work — say, all-out 200-, 300- or 400-meter repetitions — only every other week, says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field–certified coach, the head coach of Strength Running, and the host of The Strength Running Podcast. That kind of workout is one of the more stressful parts of your training, so you need more time to recover, he explains. On your off weeks, he adds, you can do longer intervals, like 800-meter or mile repetitions, at that slightly easier can’t-talk pace to keep making speed and endurance gains.
“True speed always starts with endurance.”
Nike Senior Director of Global Running
3. Learn to Love (OK, Like) the Treadmill
Running on a machine can be ideal for interval and sprint sessions because you can lock in an exact speed, incline and mileage. This makes a treadmill perfect for testing how well you can handle a race pace, whether you have a 5K or marathon in mind, says Nike Run Club coach Jessica Woods.
“The treadmill lets you home in on those specific paces,” says Woods. “It’s like muscle memory; the more familiar you are with that exact pace, the better you’ll be able to hit that same feeling outside.”
4. Head for the Hills
Pretty sure no one actually likes running up hard hills IRL or on the tread, but training on higher ground can be your ticket to Speed City. People who ran on a 10 percent incline twice a week for six weeks boosted their top speed and were able to sustain it for longer than those who trained at faster paces on level ground, found one study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine. It’s not just that your muscles have to work harder on hills, strengthening them for any activity in the process. It’s also that, compared with training on flat ground, hills better improve your lactate threshold, say the researchers, meaning your body produces less lactic acid (the stuff that makes your muscles burn and eventually tap out) at the same pace.
Next time you’re in the gym, hike up that treadmill incline to around 10 percent or as high as you can safely handle, or hit a trail with some gradual uphill. Even if you feel Slow. As. Hell going up, you should start to feel swifter on level ground over time.
5. Roll Out Your Muscles
Tight and tired muscles are a lot harder to run on than light and loose ones are. Make time to foam roll before and/or after a run or gym session and you’ll set your body up for a better run and/or recovery, which is particularly key if you’re intensifying your training routine thanks to all that extra speed work. “Rolling your muscles with a foam roller can help work out specific tight spots and flush your system of metabolic waste after a workout,” says David McHenry, a Nike physical therapist and strength coach who works with elite athletes. If you have time for only a few key spots after a run (fair), McHenry recommends focusing on your quads, calves and glutes.
6. Build Some Brawn
“Strength training is speed work in disguise,” says Coach Bennett. On top of making your sprinting muscles stronger, lifting weights is also crucial for strengthening your bones and connective tissues, including your tendons and ligaments. This improves your overall running form, says strength and conditioning coach Janet Hamilton, the owner of the Atlanta-based company Running Strong. The stronger you are, the easier it is to carry your body weight over any distance, and the more resistant you’ll be to fatigue, adds Hamilton.
You don’t have to be a gym rat or lift massive weights to get these benefits. Try to strength train at least twice a week, incorporating core-building exercises like planks and Russian twists. (An eight-week core-training program was shown to improve running economy, among other things, in college athletes, according to research published in PLOS One.) You also want single-leg movements like lunges and split squats, which mimic the movement of running.
7. Schedule Your Sleep
You just ripped through a killer sprint session. Your body will absorb some of that work — and become faster — after your run, when it rebuilds broken-down muscle fibers to adapt to the increased stress you just put it under. A key time for that recovery is while you sleep. To help ensure you notch at least seven hours, the minimum amount experts recommend, set an alarm for 30 minutes before you need to be in bed.
“Scheduling a sleep time is one of the most helpful shifts for a lot of my athletes,” says Cheri Mah, MD, a physician scientist at the UCSF Human Performance Center and a Nike Performance Council member who specializes in sleep and performance in elite athletes. “They build it in, just like they do other aspects of their training.” You have a wake-up alarm; might as well have a wind-down one too.
8. Fuel Your Speed
To get faster, you don’t need to follow a high-fat, low-carb diet — or a low-fat, high-carb one, says Ryan Maciel, RD, the head performance-nutrition coach for Precision Nutrition. You don’t need to rid your house of sugar either. Simply balance the meal on your plate so your body is primed to not only perform at its best (i.e., fastest), but recover like that too.
“In general, aim for one or two palm-sized portions of protein, like poultry, fish, beans or tofu; one or two fist-sized portions of veggies, trying to get a wide variety of colors; one or two handfuls of carbs, like fruits and whole grains; and one or two thumb-sized portions of healthy fats, like avocado, nuts and olive oil,” says Maciel.
9. Breathe Like This
As you run, concentrate on taking deep breaths that puff your belly out on the inhale and contract your belly back in on the exhale, says Belisa Vranich, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Breathing for Warriors. This helps open up more space in your lungs for oxygen. “The densest, most oxygen-rich part of your lungs is at the bottom of your ribs,” explains Vranich.
This belly-breathing method helps you breathe more efficiently — you can get the same amount of oxygen in one breath as you would from several shallow breaths — and gives you more pacing choices, says Vranich. When you take deeper inhales and exhales, you’re delivering more oxygen to your muscles while they’re working, which allows you to maintain or pick up your pace.
10. Try Something New
It may be easy to do the same thing every day, says Coach Bennett, but that’s not how you improve. “You want to mix up your running to keep things exciting,” he says. One, you’ll create the consistency you need to build the strength and endurance required to fly down the road, he explains. And two, your mind will revel in the novelty, setting you up to breathe new life — read: speed — into your run.
Variety doesn’t have to be just about how long you go, he adds. Try running with music (or without it!). Take your usual route in the other direction. Go up the hill you always avoid; run on dirt, grass or sand; ask a friend to join you. What makes even tiny changes effective is that they help you experience running in a different way, says Coach Bennett. And that’s what will encourage you to keep going.
11. Consider Minimal Footwear
If you’re a serious runner gunning to shave seconds off your time, a lighter shoe might help you hit your need for speed, says Coach Bennett. After all, even milligrams can make a difference when you’re already really fast and looking to get faster. And they’re worth the money, because if you have different shoes for different runs, they all should hold up longer.
If you’re sprinting on the track, Nike Run Club Chicago coach Robyn LaLonde says you might even want to invest in shoes with spikes, which dig into the surface and help you maintain traction. “Racing flats can also give a runner great track-feel while offering the ability to go off-track,” LaLonde adds.
When shoe shopping, look for keywords like “minimal,” “lightweight” or “featherweight.” And make sure the shoes are comfy so they don’t just sit pretty in your closet.
12. Train Your Brain
No matter how hard you work, you’ll run only as fast as your mind is willing. “Fast is scary,” says Coach Bennett. “But it should also be fun. It should add a little excitement to your routine.”
Visualization can help you get into the right headspace and gain the confidence you need to hit your target pace. “Imagine you’re on a track, you’re running smooth, it’s a nine-out-of-10 effort,” says Coach Bennett. “You feel a little dangerous, but you’re smiling.” Picturing that effort helps you get to “know” a pace, he says. And once you know it, it’s no longer scary.
And don’t forget to talk yourself up. Using kind self-talk not only feels good, it can also translate into physical benefits, like more energy and a lower heart rate, according to research from the journal Clinical Psychological Science. One tip: Tweak your pump-up mantra from “I can do it” to “You can do it” (cyclists who addressed themselves in the second person instead of the first person rode faster in a time trial, according to a study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences).
Who needs a genie when you have a built-in cheerleader just waiting to help you get after it?
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Ryan Johnson