We all run with the purpose of improving something: whether it’s to improve your health, fitness, lose weight or improve running speed. Yet, achieving consistent improvements isn’t easy.
Often, we see big improvements when we first start running training. The problem is training progression is never consistent. And overtime this rate of improvement begins to slow.
The good news is there are proven methods that will help you to achieving more consistent improvements in your running speed and race performances. So how can you achieve a more consistent level of improvement? And how can you continue to improve running speed year on year?
In this article, we’ll take a look at some proven strategies to achieve long term, and consistent improvements in your running performance.
Achieving consistent improvements in running speed
Whilst many factors affect training progression, there are 5 key components that are present in any successful running training plan.
Let’s take a look:
When we talk about consistency, we’re talking about consistently completing the correct amount of each type of training session (speed, endurance, strength, mobility etc). Here, we need consistency both in the short term (weekly/monthly) and throughout longer-term training blocks.
So, why is consistency so important? Without a consistent approach to training you limit your long term progression.
With all things being equal, a runner that trains more consistently will always outperform a less consistent runner. This is not always in our control – work, holidays, family, injuries, illnesses all have an impact. However, there are always ways to maintain a level of consistency, even when things get in the way.
So, if you want to improve running speed, consistency is a vital first step.
Whilst consistency is a key factor, training must also be purposeful. There’s no point being consistent, if we’re doing the wrong training; consistently just doing one type of session; or always training at just one intensity.
“The two most important factors in any long-term training plan are consistency and purpose.”
Training with purpose
To get the most from training, every session should have a specific purpose. This might be to improve efficiency at race pace, improve maximum running speed, lactate threshold, VO2max, strength, or it might just be to improve recovery.
Often as runners, we neglect our training purpose, in favour of achieving our mileage targets.
If you’re truly being honest: how many of your running sessions are more focussed on hitting a mileage target? And does each session have a specific purpose?
So, make sure there is always a purpose to every training session!
Specific running training
Training must be specific to the purpose or goal of the session. In particular, the training should be specific to the sport you’re training for. And the more specific the better.
If we take the example of strength training: a really good example of a very running specific strength training workout is hill running.
Another example is: running 10k pace intervals is very specific for a 10k runner, but far less specific for an 800m runner.
So, try to keep training as specific as possible.
Progression of training
If you want to achieve consistent improvements, then training must always be progressive.
What does this mean? This means that to continue to see improvements, training must develop gradually over time.
How do we achieve progression? Firstly, as your fitness level improves, you need to adjust (increase) your workrate. Otherwise training progression will slow.
Secondly, the training volume needs to be gradually increased over time. When we talk about volume, this refers to both the volume within a session, and your weekly, monthly or yearly training volume.
So if you want to see consistent progress, pay attention to the intensity and volume of training.
Variety of running workouts
In order to achieve more consistent long-term improvements, we need to optimise training. To do this we need to find a variety of purposeful ways to train. In essence, your looking to find ways that continuously challenge and stress your body.
Why is this important? Simply put, this leads to a more progressive level of training adaptation. And when this happens, we see greater longer term improvements.
For this to be effective, it needs to be done consistently, and combined with adequate rest and recovery periods – often, we forget that rest and recovery are vital for training adaptation.
Many runners, focus too much attention on one area of training; this might be hitting a specific weekly mileage total, always doing your favourite interval sessions, or always trying to achieve a minimum running speed – even during easy runs.
However, more consistent long-term improvements occur when we identify and work on improving, the many different areas that contribute to performance.
By consistently working on improving a number of trainable areas, you will see more consistent long-term improvements. After all, the more areas that you are working on improving during a training phase, the greater the chance that you will see some improvement in one or more of those areas.
The key point to take away is:
greater long-term progression is achieved by looking at the bigger training picture. And considering all the different areas that contribute to performance.
Below, I’ve included 20 different ways to improve progression and ultimately improve running speed.
An important note: don’t introduce too many changes at any one time!
Ideally, you should only make small changes, or additions, to your training at any one time. Look to only make one, or possibly two changes at any time. And, allow time to see how you respond to these changes.
Don’t try to rush things by including too many new workouts in your training schedule. Training adaptations can take a while. So it’s important to be patient when you make any changes.
Why is it important to limit how many changes you make? Well to put simply, you want to be able to identify whether a change is beneficial. And, if you introduce 4 or 5 changes at one time, how are you going to know which of those changes was beneficial? This also reduces the risk of changes leading to injuries – every time you add in a new type of training you increases, or change, the training stress.
So, be cautious when introducing new sessions.
20 Ways to improve running speed:
#1 Include 1-2 Interval sessions per week.
Interval training is a great way to bring about quick improvements in running performance. It has a number of benefits including:
- Increases aerobic capacity
- Enhances neuromuscular strength/co-ordination,
- Improves running speed and efficiency,
- Increases running cadence and stride length,
- Improves fatigue resistance of type I and type II muscle fibres.
To get the greatest benefit from intervals, look to include 1-2 interval running workouts per week. And don’t run these all at the same speed – use different training speeds during different interval sessions.
- Longer aerobic intervals like 4-6 x 1600m intervals at 10k pace with a short active (jog) recovery – the recovery should be just long enough to allow you to complete all the intervals at the same target pace.
- VO2max intervals – 5 x 3minutes at 3k pace, with a 3minute jog recovery
- Shorter intervals like 10-16 x 400m at Mile-3Kk pace, with a 40-60second active jog recovery or rest.
- Speed endurance intervals like 10-12 x 150m intervals at 800m-mile pace with a 50m jog/walk recovery.
- Alternatively, replace one of the interval sessions with a hill interval session (see #2 below) or consider combining it with a threshold/tempo run (see #4 below).
#2 Include hill running workouts
Hill running training increases activation of the glutes, quadriceps, soleus, and calf muscles. It’s a great way to improve running speed, efficiency, strength and fatigue resistance.
Hill training should be performed at an intensity equivalent to interval training. It’s important to note that we’re looking to match the intensity, and not the pace of flat terrain intervals. So, you will need to adjust the pace depending on the gradient of the hill.
Here’s a few examples:
- Hill sprints – short maximal sprints like 10 x 10-12second maximal sprints, with a 2-3min jog recovery
- Short Hill repeats such as 10-12 x 60second at 3k intensity, 70-80sec jog recovery
- Tempo hill intervals involve running continuous up and down hill efforts as part of one longer interval. They’re great for developing aerobic capacity and lactate threshold.
- Long hill intervals like 3-5mins at threshold intensity with a steady jog back down. Or, they can be run at a higher intensity like 6x 2minutes at 3k intensity, with a very easy jog recovery.
- Downhill running training
As hills are a type of interval training, they should replace one of your current interval sessions. So, if you normally include two interval sessions per week, then the hill session would normally replace one of those.
#3 Include some tempo running or lactate threshold training
Without going into too much detail, lactate threshold pace is equivalent to a pace/intensity you could sustain for around 60minutes in a race situation. Tempo pace is slightly slower; and for most runners this is close to half marathon pace.
The training benefits are similar (but not equal) for both intensities. And the intensity you choose (threshold vs tempo) should be dictated by your targeted race distance. The main benefit from these types of sessions is improved fatigue resistance, at race intensities ranging from 5k upwards. Essentially, threshold training improves your ability to sustain a fast running pace.
- 2-3 x 10mins at around 10k-10mile race pace (~lactate threshold),
- 2 x 15-20mins at half marathon pace,
- 30-40mins at half marathon pace,
- 60-80mins at marathon pace.
#4 Combine a tempo/threshold running session with an interval session.
To maximise the training benefit and get the best return on your training time; consider combining a tempo, or threshold session, with an interval or hill session.
Some examples include:
1) 10mins at threshold/tempo pace + 6-8 x 400m intervals + 10mins threshold/tempo, or 2) 10mins threshold/tempo + 6-8 x 60second hills + 10mins threshold/tempo.
Both, are tough sessions but really maximise training time, by combine the benefits of both interval training and tempo/threshold training. These type of sessions should only be used when you have good conditioning. And ideally you should have been consistently, using high intensity intervals and threshold intervals as part of your regular training.
There are more examples of how to combine tempo and intervals on the following half marathon training plans:
#5 Always include some running training at race intensity
If you want to race well over a specific distance, such as 10km, then you need to include some training at that intensity.
This is important for a number of reasons, but mainly it improves your efficiency at race intensity, and trains you to feel more comfortable at race intensity.
Essentially, this trains you to better cope with the unique physiological and psychological stresses of your chosen race distance. As an example, you can read about 10k specific running intervals here.
#6 Include some strength training
Some of the proven benefits of strength training include improved:
- Improves Fatigue resistance,
- Increases Lactate threshold
- Enhances Neuromuscular co-ordination
- Improves Running speed and efficiency
Strength training also helps to even out muscle imbalances. And when used correctly reduces the risk of injuries.
Examples of good strength exercises for runners include: squats, deadlifts, lunges, split squats, step ups and calf-raises.
These can be progressed to include single leg exercises: single-leg squats, walking lunges, single-leg deadlifts, single-leg calf raises – both straight leg and bent knee variations.
Plyometrics have also been shown to be beneficial for improving running speed.
#7 Include some core strength exercises
These will help to improve stability, running efficiency, and help you to maintain better running form. Don’t underestimate the benefits that can be gained through consistent core strength training.
Good core strength exercises for runners include: front planks, side planks, glute bridges, reverse planks, hip thrusts.
#8 Include some running strides
Strides are a great way to work on running speed, technique and neuromuscular coordination.
A good time to include strides, is either before or after an interval session, or towards the end of an easy/steady pace run. Typically, strides involve running at a controlled effort, for approximately 25-30seconds, over 4-6 repetitions.
When running strides, gradually increase the effort, whilst maintaining good running form, building the pace to around 80-85% effort over the final 10seconds. Recover between strides by running at an easy pace for 2-3mins.
It’s important to gradually build the pace during the strides. The key is to be able to maintain good running form throughout the length of the stride; so, if you struggle to maintain running technique, then you are likely running the strides a bit too fast and should slow the pace down slightly.
#9 Keep easy days “easy” and hard days “hard”
If you were to look at the training diary of any elite endurance athlete, you will quickly notice two key features.
Firstly, elite athletes tend to spend a large amount of the training at low intensities. In fact, around 80% of their training is completed at a low-intensities, with only 20% (or less sometimes) at higher intensities. Secondly, when they train easy, they are not afraid to really train easy.
This has two key benefits: 1) It allows them to maintain a larger training volume, and; 2) It allows them to really train hard on their hard training days.
Easy pace runs serve an important purpose of helping to build/maintain a good base fitness; whilst at the same time being easy enough to allow adequate recovery between harder sessions.
With Elite athlete’s there is a real significant difference between their easy days, and their hard training days. This approach is often termed polarized training. And has been shown to be a highly effective approach to training. The key point here: don’t be drawn into the “strava athlete” mentality of pushing even your easy pace runs.
#10 Include some running drills
Running drills can easily be included as part of the warm up to an interval or faster running session.
Not only will these serve as a great warm up for the interval session, they also help to improve neuromuscular co-ordination, as well as left-right leg balance, strength and power of muscles, joint stability (great for improving running efficiency) and running cadence. They also bring in a plyometric element to the warm up.
Some examples include: grapevine exercise, high knee marching, high knees, A-skips, B-skips, high skips, backward running, and straight legged drills.
Typically, you would include 4-5 different drills and complete 2-3 sets of each, with each completed over anywhere from 20-50m, depending on the drill your conditioning, age, training experience etc. A key determinant should be: how long can you hold good form during the drill?
#11 Include some short maximal running sprints
As endurance runners we often tend to forget about the importance of developing top end running speed. Whilst this is less important for endurance athletes; your maximum running speed affects your endurance running potential. And a faster maximum running speed, increases the range of speeds that you can run at. In turn this can lead to improved running speed across all race distances.
To develop maximal running speed, include 4-6 x 30m near maximal efforts. This should include a 30m acceleration zone, followed by 30m effort, and 30m deceleration zone. The recoveries should be a very slow walk back recovery, or complete rest for 2-3minutes.
Before adding in sprint training, it’s important that you are already including some faster running training, or are familiar with training at faster intensities. These can easily be included as part of your weekly interval session – ideally completed just after the warm up, and just before the main session.
Read more about sprint training for distance runners.
#12 Don’t forget agility, balance, proprioception and co-ordination training
Whilst these might not seem important, they all contribute to running performance. Ultimately, developing these will make you a more complete athlete.
The easiest way to work on these is during the warm up. We can do this by using specific drills, ladders and accelerations – well look at these in a future article.
#13 Consider including some cross-training sessions
Bike sessions, in particular, can be beneficial to runners. And because cycling is more quad dominant, it can help to improve stability around the knee. It can also help you to develop leg turnover (cadence) – providing you cycle at a good cadence.
Research has shown that weekly cycling interval sessions can actually improve running speed. And, it’s a great way to work on cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance without the high impact associated with running. Read more about the benefits of cycling for runners.
#14 Don’t forget to work on mental strength and focus
One big difference between Elite athlete’s and non-elite’s is their ability to focus. Focus is key to maximising racing performance and getting the best out of training sessions.
So what is focus? Essentially, focus is all about being present in what you’re doing (or meant to be doing) at that moment. It’s about not being distracted by things like negative thoughts, or emotions. And about being in the right mental state, and achieving that important state of flow that’s key to peak performance.
Getting into the right mental state during training, is also key to achieving a consistent state of progression.
Good approaches include Mindfulness meditation training and body awareness when running (mindful running practice). There are a number of good apps (such as Headspace) that provide useful mental training sessions for all athletes.
#15 Practice race day nutrition strategies in training
Do you practice race day nutrition? Research has shown that you can train yourself to become more efficient at digesting energy gels and drinks when running.
Interestingly, this can lead to a 4-5% improvement in performance as well as reducing the risk of gastro intestinal problems. This is particularly beneficial for longer races, like marathons and ultra marathons.
Of course, progression in sport involves more than just training. Here’s five additional ways to help to maintain improvements in running speed and reduce the risk of a plateau:
#16 Don’t wait for a niggle to become an injury…get it treated!
Injuries are one of the biggest enemies to improving running speed. So, if you’re serious about running and you have a niggle that’s not improving; book in for a sports massage, see a physio or osteopath, and get it treated!
Even, if you don’t have an injury, regular sports massage treatments, and using foam rollers, can prevent muscle tightness turning into an injury.
#17 Maintain a normal range of motion by working to maintain flexibility
So, this is closely linked to #16 but involves you investing some time in maintaining a good level of flexibility. Whilst I’m not an advocate of excessive stretching, maintaining a good (normal) range of motion is important. Both for running performance and injury prevention.
Generally we’re not looking to increase flexibility.
In fact, too much flexibility can be detrimental to performance, particularly in areas like your knees. In fact, knee stability levels affect running efficiency and injury risk.
Instead, we’re looking to maintain a “normal” range of motion.
What is a normal range of motion? Whilst this varies from athlete to athlete; ultimately, you should be able to move your limbs without restriction from tight muscles.
Currently, recommendations involve:
- Using dynamic stretching as part of the warm up routine,
- Light stretching (no more than 10-12seconds at a time) after exercise.
Foam rolling can also be a useful way to aid recovery and to help maintain flexibility.
#18 Schedule in some REST, or RECOVERY periods
Whether you include full rest days, or easier training days; adequate recovery periods are vital for your long-term progression.
So how often should you include rest, or recovery days? As a guideline you should include at least 1 or 2, rest/recovery days every week. It’s also important to include easier training weeks – a good approach here is to include 1 easier week every 3-4weeks.
Not only will this allow you to train harder during key sessions, you’ll reduce injury risk, overtraining, and illness. And you will find that your body adapts and responds to training more positively.
#19 Good Nutrition is important
Whilst this is obvious, it’s often overlooked. Good nutrition practises include:
- Consuming carbohydrates and protein after key training sessions,
- Making sure your energy consumption matches expenditure
- Keeping hydrated throughout the day
- Eating a balanced diet
- Supplementing with key nutrients if required (multivitamins, omega-3 etc)
#20 Get enough sleep
Sleep is a key part of recovery and regeneration. And if you don’t get enough then recovery is compromised, you’ll risk overtraining and compromise your immune health.
If you doubt the importance of getting enough sleep: consider that elite athletes often sneak in extra naps during the day. Whilst this is not possible for all of us, we can aim to consistently get ‘adequate’ amounts of sleep.
Whilst by no means a complete list, I hope it gives some insights into the importance of purposeful training. And hopefully some new workouts to add into your training schedule.
Don’t expect to see your running speed improve overnight
One of the biggest problems affecting long term progression, is that most people expect immediate results.
Often we’re not prepared to play the long game. You see this impatience, or lack of confidence, with athletes who are constantly changing things. They are constantly trying to find the one change, that will make the big difference to their running performance.
Yet, they never allow adequate time for a change to have an effect.
One week they’re doing 400m intervals. Then they read an article about tempo running and replace the intervals with a 20min tempo run. Next week they’ve decided it’s all about mileage – so they drop the intensity and up mileage.
The real problem here is a lack of consistency, purpose and faith in the tried and trusted path to long-term progression!
Whilst there are certainly training sessions that bring about very quick results, you won’t achieve long term progression if you’re always focused on short term results.
Sure, if you’ve only recently started training, then you’ll likely see quick improvements from your training. Unfortunately, overtime that will slow.
The simple truth is: if you want to be successful in the long run, then you have to be prepared to play the long game.
So, you need to approach any changes you make, with the attitude that if you do the correct training in a purposeful way, this will lead to big improvements in the long run.
A final note on achieving long term improvements in your running speed
Long term success always comes from making many small progressive improvements over a number of years. And through a consistent and disciplined approach to training.
As we’ve discussed in this article, any significant improvement takes time.
Many people think they can’t improve, but that’s really not the case. If you consistently do the right training you will improve. The improvements might be small at first, but over time they accumulate until they eventually add up to a significant improvement.
It will take time, but if you train consistently and with purpose then you’ll be surprised just how much you will improve.