Once you've been running consistently, your thoughts will likely turn to your speed. Our competitive drive makes us want to go faster, even if the only race we ever run is against our own best time.
If you ramp up your speed too quickly, though, you can get injured. Likewise, if you don't already have the basics of form and cadence down, your chances for injury are higher. This four-step guide will give you the details on timing and training that can help you get faster safely.
Step 1: Focus on the Basics
Running with proper form is the most important thing you can do to avoid injury and improve your running performance. If you can afford it and if you live near a hospital, university or sports performance center with the capability, getting a professional running gait analysis is a great idea. This is a top-to-bottom analysis that involves strength and flexibility testing, as well as a detailed video analysis of your running gait.
If you can't afford one or you don't live near an analysis center, then you should seek the advice of a running coach or another similarly experienced runner. Running shoe stores, meet-up groups and expo booths or tables at local running events are good places to find these people. Getting real-time feedback from someone with experience will always be better than trying to determine your own running flaws yourself. But if you have to go it alone, there are a few things you can do to assess your running gait and make the necessary corrections.
It will be important to get some good visual feedback. Have a friend get video of you from the rear and both sides while you run on a treadmill. Pay attention to your upper body posture: it should be straight, with shoulders slightly back, chest up and out. Your head should be in line with your shoulders, not bent forward, and you should see very little head movement.
Next, pay attention to where your feet are hitting the treadmill relative to the rest of your body. Ideally, they should be falling beneath your center of gravity and not far out in front of you. Your entire body should be angled slightly forward from the ankles, not bent forward at the waist. A diagonal line should pass through your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and earlobes at about a 15-degree angle forward from vertical.
Finally, pay attention to which part of your foot is hitting the ground and how many steps you're taking per minute. To reduce impact forces and improve running economy, it's best to land somewhere between the middle of your arch to the ball of your foot rather than on your heel. The ideal cadence is 180 steps per minute, or about 3 steps per second.
Step 2: Build Consistency and Endurance
Novice runners commonly get injured more often than experienced runners because they try doing too much too fast. Do yourself a favor and take your time. First, develop a consistent running habit, successfully logging at least three runs per week for a month or two. Slowly increase the distance or amount of time you run each week, taking care to listen to your body's warning signals if you start to get overly ambitious.
Once you've been training consistently in this manner without injury for a few months, you can start thinking about building up some speed. At that point, it's important to keep your weekly mileage about the same, because it isn't safe or smart to increase distance and speed in the same training cycle.
Step 3: Build Speed Gradually
When you start training for speed, don't make every workout a hard run. Keep most of your weekly training miles easy, only focusing on speed for about 20 percent of your total weekly mileage. Alternate easy and long runs with speed interval workouts or tempo runs, and only do one or two of these harder runs per week.
To safely progress, follow the stair-step method: Increase the pace of your speed workouts by a tiny bit for one or two weeks, but then level off for a recovery week, keeping your pace at or below that same level for a week or two before you work on building speed again.
Step 4: Rest and Recover
Not only is it important to include recovery weeks in your training program, but you also need to insert recovery or non-running days within each training week. This is because the real gains from training come not during a workout, but afterward, while your body is making the metabolic repairs and adjustments to the physical demands you just placed on it.
Proper rest, hydration and nutrition are important. Shoot for at least seven hours of sleep each night, and possibly more following your speed workout days. Drink water rather than caffeinated beverages whenever you feel thirsty, and avoid alcohol or drink it in moderation.
When it comes to food, rather than focusing on calories and protein-to-carb ratios, simply try to maximize the nutrient-density of the foods you eat after each workout and on recovery days. Whole foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein are the best for fueling your body's recovery.
By listening to your body, training smartly and building speed gradually, you'll avoid injury and make it possible to set many personal bests.