If you've been running consistently for a few months, you've probably been focusing on slowly increasing the distance and/or frequency of your runs. Building that aerobic base is an important first step, but as the weather improves and race season gets under way, you might be shifting your focus more toward pace. One of the best ways that novice runners can safely and effectively build speed is by practicing fundamental form and cadence drills.
Break it Down
At its most basic level, running speed is the product of cadence (steps per minute) and stride length, so in order to get faster, you'll need to increase one or both of those factors. Unfortunately, many novice runners put little thought into creating a smart plan for getting faster, which can often result in injury. Simply going out and trying to beat your last time on each successive run is a recipe for almost certain disaster, but by regularly including fundamental drills in your routine, your body will learn the proper mechanics for increasing pace without increasing your risk of injury.
Form First, Last and Always
Before you think about stepping up your cadence or lengthening your stride, you need to be sure you have basic form down. While each runner's body is different and we all have our own unique natural running stride, there are a few rules that everyone should adhere to in order to avoid injury.
First, pay attention to your upper body. Your head should be held high—aim to look passing runners in the eye—and your chest should be up and out, not caved in beneath rounded shoulders. As you run, your head and neck should bob only very slightly up and down, and not swing much from side-to-side. You can have a friend record a video of you running or watch your shadow to see how you're doing.
Next, pay attention to the swivel of your hips—there shouldn't be much. They should remain squarely facing forward as your legs pump back and forth in an imaginary line stretching out from your second toe.
Finally, you should try to land on the middle or ball of your foot rather than your heel, and each foot strike should fall beneath your center of gravity rather than out in front of you. In order for this to happen, your entire body should be canted slightly forward, but that lean should originate at the ankle and not at the waist. If someone took a freeze-frame photo of you in profile just before the push-off phase of your stride, you should be able to draw a straight line through your ankle, knee, hip, shoulder and earlobe that slants approximately 15 degrees forward of vertical.
That's a lot of different components to incorporate, so it's imperative that you constantly think about and practice them every time you run. As you begin to fatigue, your form will start to falter, and if you let this happen too much your body's muscle memory will start to see that poor form as your default running posture. It's better to run shorter and slower with proper form than it is to eek out more miles or a slightly faster pace while reinforcing improper and potentially dangerous habits. A month or two of disciplined, good-form running will pay huge dividends down the road when it's time to ramp up the speed.
Step Lively, Now
Once you've got the form basics down, it's time to focus on cadence. Optimal running cadence is around 180 steps per minute, or three steps every second. Many beginners run at a much slower cadence than that, which often corresponds to a stride length that is too long, increasing their risk for injury. Cadence drills are designed to help you pick up the tempo of your foot strikes while keeping stride length relatively constant.
Start by finding out what your default cadence is. Count your steps as you run normally for 10 seconds and then multiply your result by six. If you're hitting the 180 target, you'll take 30 steps in 10 seconds. If your number is closer to 25, or even lower, than you have quite a bit of room for improvement. Practice hitting that 30 steps/10 seconds target for at least two out of every 10 minutes of running. Gradually increase the amount of time you spend running at the proper cadence until it feels more natural. For some runners, a quick cadence may never feel completely natural, but eventually you should be able to keep it up over the duration of your runs by checking in for 10 seconds every now and then.
To really increase your speed, you'll need to periodically exceed the 180 steps/minute threshold. This is where very short sprint cadence intervals come into play. On one or two runs per week, warm up with five to 10 minutes of slower running, and then alternate 10 to 30 seconds of running at a very fast cadence with longer recovery periods of easy running at your normal cadence. Concentrate on keeping your stride length roughly the same and alternating only the cadence. Start with only a few of these intervals, and work your way up to eight or 10 of them as your fitness improves.