3 Ways to Become a Better Runner

What is the best way to improve your running time? What is a recommended mileage for an amateur? How long would it take?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.


Answer by Sherwin Chen, avid runner, I read a lot of running blogs


There are multiple things you can do to become faster:

1. Start a training plan / begin running both fast and slow

This is the most important change you can make to your training. Most beginning runners train at one speed, running at moderate (or even max) effort every session. While that's enough to drive meaningful aerobic gains, it's not the most effective way to get fast. In fact, most coaches will refer to moderate effort runs as "junk miles." In contrast, training plans will prescribe a variety of workouts each week, with each workout serving a different purpose. Here are the most basic building blocks of a training plan:

  • Speedwork. These workouts are comprised of short, intense intervals. Bart Loews's suggestions are a great example of speedwork. The intervals can be as short as 50m sprints or as long as 1+ miles, separated by 30-90 second slow jogs/walks. Hill sprints would be included in this category. Speedwork strengthens your muscles, improves your running efficiency, and improves your general fitness. If you haven't done speedwork before, a good way to ease into it is to add 3-5 sets of strides to the end of your runs for a few weeks before tackling speed workouts. Strides are 20-30 second intervals where you gradually accelerate to 85% of your max sprinting speed for the first third of the interval, remain at that speed for the second third (focusing on quick turnover, i.e., footstrikes per minute), and gradually decelerate for the last third; walk for 1.5-2 minutes between each set.

  • Tempo run. Tempo runs are sustained, "comfortably hard" efforts of 20+ minutes (the longer your target distance, the longer the tempo run). You're running hard, but not racing. The benefit of tempo runs is that they teach your muscles to more effectively eliminate lactic acid, a natural byproduct of energy production. As a result, you can maintain a faster pace before your muscles start accumulating lactic acid and become fatigued.
  • Long run. This is simply your longest run each week and is the cornerstone of endurance training. Long runs build your endurance by training your body to utilize fat as a fuel source, increasing glycogen storage, and increasing the number of capillaries and mitochondria in your muscles (for greater oxygen delivery and utilization, i.e., improving your aerobic system). To start developing your long run, simply add 10-15% to your longest previous run (but it's best not to increase your mileage by more than 1-2 miles any given week, in order to minimize risk of injury).
  • Easy run. These are runs done at a comfortable pace, at which you can carry on a conversation (or are able to say the Pledge of Allegiance without gasping for breath). These workouts are critical, particularly if you run more than three times a week, because they stimulate the development of your aerobic system (i.e., capillary and mitochondria growth) while simultaneously allowing your body to recover from your hard workouts. This recovery period is crucial -- it's when your body adapts to the stress of prior workouts and actually becomes stronger. So do these runs SLOW.
  • There are many training plans available for free. You can google "run training plan" and peruse the results. Also, the Runkeeper mobile app offers many different plans targeting different race distances and alternative fitness goals. You can also just incorporate these targeted workouts into your runs at your discretion (e.g., a day of speedwork, an easy run day, and a long run on the weekend).

    2. Focus on running form and cadence

    Improving your running technique will enable you to run more efficiently, so that you can run faster at lower effort. There are a variety of sources online where you can learn about good running technique (http://goodformrunning.com and Chi Running are two examples). Many places also offer running clinics, in some cases for free. The basic tenets tend to be similar:

    Faster cadence. Most beginning runners have too long a stride and too slow a cadence. 180 steps per minute is the commonly accepted target. Consciously shorten your stride. Rather than trying to push your feet off from the ground (like a sprinter), imagine landing lightly and sweeping the ground back with your foot or simply lifting your heel off the ground toward your butt. Running to music with high bpm or running with a metronome app are great ways to speed up your cadence. Initially, target a cadence ~5% faster than your current. It may take a few weeks to get comfortable with it; once you are, you can target a higher cadence.

    Minimize up/down bouncing. The less effort you put into an up-and-down movement, the more energy you have to run forward. Faster cadence will facilitate less bounce.

    Stand tall (possibly with a slight forward lean). Look straight ahead when you run. Don't hunch your shoulders or bend at the waist. Run with a strong, activated core. If you add a slight forward lean, you want to "tilt" forward at your heels. The key is that your head, shoulders, pelvis, and footstrikes are all in a single plane.

    90-degree arm bend / forward-back swing. Arms should be bent at 90 degrees or less, and the direction of the arm swing should be similar to how you would swing straight arms while standing in place (i.e., mostly forward and back, and not crossing across the front of your body). Keep your hands, arms, and shoulders relaxed.

    For more information on running form and cadence:
    The Perfect Form
    Make A High Stride Rate Work For You

    3. Strength training

    Strength training once or twice a week can also help a lot. Great exercises for runners include burpees, squats, single-leg deadlifts, lunges, and planks. Bodyweight exercises, involving 10-20 reps per set, are effective, but studies have shown that heavy weight/low rep sets are best for improving speed (i.e., 4-6 reps per set).

    Technically, it's possible to generate improvement from targeted workouts in as little as 10 days, but meaningful, sustained improvement is more likely measured in months (typical run training plans span 3-5 months).

    Unless you're training for a race, there's no real mileage recommendation. Time permitting, I'd suggest trying to run at least 3x per week for 20-30 min or more. Obviously, the more you run, the better you'll become. If you do decide to increase the intensity of your workouts, don't increase your mileage by more than 10% per week, and make sure to rest or cross-train after hard days. If you are training for a specific race, your weekly mileage will vary depending on the race distance. 5K plans may have you topping out at 10+ miles per week (across 3 running days per week), while many marathon training plans will build to 35-50+ miles per week (across 4-6 running days per week).

    Good luck!

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