How to run faster if you've just started running

If you’ve started running for the first time during lockdown and you’re still going, congratulations for making it this far.

They say it takes eight weeks for a new behaviour to become a habit so you’re dead close to making this running lark stick.

But once you’ve gotten over the initial pain, breathing difficulties, tired legs and incessant hunger, you’ll probably start to wonder how you can improve.

Maybe you dream of going longer – and if you want to know about training for your first marathon, you can read what it’s like to run one after 12 weeks of training.

If distance isn’t something you’re that bothered about, however, then another good marker of progress is how fast you’re running your 5 or 10K and how quickly you recover afterward.

Everyone has their own reasons for running. If you’re going for a jog just to get out of the house and clear the mind, maybe you’re not bothered about improving. Running might just be a tool to keep things ticking over.

Even if you do want to race, it’s worth pointing out that the race is only with yourself.

You may decide to join Parkrun (a free weekly 5K that takes place in parks across the world) or Run Through (a series of cheap 5K, 10K and half marathons through UK parks) when lockdown is over but the goal is running to finish, walking away injury-free at the end and possibly beating your own time.

Of course, many of us do want to get faster – and Parkrun is the perfect post-lockdown environment to see just what you can do. Who knows when the first meet may be but to run your fastest, you’ve got to start putting in the work now.

So, where to start?

Don’t run every run the same

Whether you’re new to running or you’ve been clocking up miles on the road for years, it’s so tempting to go out and just run. You run your same route with the same playlist at the same speed.

Some days it’ll feel easy, other days hard. But once you’re actually used to the routine, you’re not benefitting massively from it anymore. To improve, the body needs to be tested – thrown new challenges.

You want to split your week up into different types of runs. Sunday might be your long run – maybe a 10K.

Then you’re going to do one tempo run which might be your 5K, where you’re working at 70-80% of your overall effort.

And then you could have a chilled recovery run in between where you go out for 5 or 7K, not focussing on time but just moving and feeling relaxed.

It doesn’t have to be measured in distance either – you could easily set your long run to be two hours, your tempo to be 50 minutes and a recovery to be 30 minutes.

If you get used to running 6K in 35 minutes and that’s all you do day in, day out, it’s going to be really hard to push beyond those 35 minutes.

Try sprinting during your normal run

Lots of runners swear by attending weekly track sessions. There are any number of track clubs out there and even if you don’t want to commit, you can often just turn up, pay a small fee and take part in the odd session.

There are also tonnes of gyms who now offer treadmill interval classes where you switch between hill sprints on the treadmill and HIIT or weights on the floor. Both are incredible for increasing your VO2 max (your maximal oxygen uptake) – making you fitter and able to withstand hard work for longer.

At the moment, however, clubs aren’t meeting, and many gyms and tracks are closed. That doesn’t mean you have to swerve off the sprints.

It may be harder to make yourself do sprints on your own but it really is worth trying to include a little speed work into your regime.

If you can, give yourself one run a week where you’re going between sprinting and jogging. Remember: intervals are short, intense bursts of effort followed by slightly longer recovery times. You want to be working at 90% of your overall maximum effort during those intervals and then following it up with a really easy jog.

A park might be the best place to do this kind of training as you can split a round path circuit more easily into 100m chunks. Run fast for 800m, jog for 800m and repeat four times. Then try sprinting for 400m and jogging for 800m and repeat that twice.

Have a go at fartlek

Fartlek is Swedish for ‘speed play’ and it’s all about switching up how fast you run over the course of an outing. It’s much less structured than classic interval training and goes between easy, moderate and hard effort.

It’s really good for keeping you on your toes without feeling boring or too difficult. If you hate intervals, this might be for you because you can turn your tempo run into a fartlek session – or as PT Hannah Lewin recommends, ‘include sprint intervals within your normal run’.

Turn your run into a game. Every time you see a red car or a postbox or cherry tree, you have to sprint for a minute. Every time you see a traffic light, you’ve got to sprint for 30 seconds.

It’s not about your watch or Strava, this kind of training is about getting out there and having fun while challenging yourself to run faster frequently.

Don’t forget the strength training

The gyms aren’t open but that doesn’t mean you can’t work on your strength training at home.

Strength training is so important for running. Not only does it make us faster, it also helps to reduce the risk of injury by working out muscular imbalances, strengthening up even tiny muscles and improving our core stability.

‘Both interval training and strength training will have a big impact on speeding up your times,’ celebrity PT Alice Liveing tells us.

Try to carve out two sessions a week during which you focus on body weight and if you have them, kettlebells or dumbbells. Either download an app like FIIT which has hundreds of amazing strength classes or set yourself up with a circuit.

‘The right strength training will help you to generate more force and have a better transferance of energy,’ says Graham Barrett from Barrett’s Fitness.

It can also help stabilise the hip joints – an area which often gets weaker from sitting at a desk job all day. Get your hip joints stronger and your energy system working more efficiently, Graham says, and you’ll enjoy ‘better running efficiency’.

Have a go at the following (2 rounds, 1 minute rest at the end of the circuit):

  • Romanian deadlift
  • dumbbell split squat
  • goblet squat
  • squat jumps
  • squat press
  • shoulder press
  • bent over row
  • renegade rows
  • Russian twists
  • plank jacks

If you don’t know how to do these moves, pop over to YouTube where there are loads of tutorials.

Those Romanian deadlifts are great for stretching out tight hamstrings before you go into a split squat which will test how well balanced you are (try a single-leg deadlift to really work isometrically and smooth out any imbalances).

But you don’t want to just be working your legs all the time – you need a strong core and upper body to move efficently.

Get in more miles

It’s hard to get better at something without doing it. If you do start training for a bigger goal (say, half marathon), then the chances are that you’ll get slightly quicker on your shorter distances.

You might not be great at sprinting (that requires different muscle fibres) but 5 and 10Ks may feel easier if you’re clocking up 20 or 30-mile weeks.

A few years ago, I ran a half marathon having done hardly any running and lots of strength work and clocked in at 1:53 – not too shabby.

The following year, I ran a half marathon a month before I was due to run Paris Marathon – the 13.1 miler was part of my tapering. I ran it in 1:44. Proof that you need weight work but that more miles do make a difference.

Just remember to pace yourself and not to suddenly increase your weekly milage by a lot – that way lies injury.

Nell McAndrew, glamour model-turned-marathon star (with a ridiculous PB of 2:54:39), tells ‘I ran my fasted 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon times when I was doing higher mileage.

‘It’s as if everything just clicked into place and running felt easier.’

Oh, and if you want to know how a running queen like Nell trains, she’s busy hosting free Instagram Live training sessions throughout the week.

If you’re looking for a challenge, you might want to check out Adidas Runner and FIIT trainer Adrienne Herbet’s ‘100K in May’ challenge.

It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you go – you could run 3K one day and 10K the next – it’s just about building up that running over the course of 30 days.

Why not have a go? Use the hashtag #100KinMay so that others can see your progress. And if you’re really struggling, Andrienne has said that her DMs are open in case you need an extra kick of encouragement!

Change up your playlists

This isn’t a technical tip but it’s a valid one nonetheless. I have four standard running playlists: 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon.

Everything on my 5K list is on my marathon list but the 5K music tends to be a lot faster than a lot of the stuff on the marathon one.

During marathons or long runs, you might want to listen to podcasts, audiobooks or just get lost in the sound of nature/your own breath. It can be quite boring and exhausting listening to club music for nearly four hours. But for your shorter runs, you may find that listening to faster music helps.

Scientists believe that music really does help you to run faster because you end up synchronising your stride to the rhythm. It also regulates your stride and can help you to up your energy output by 7%.

You want to be aiming for tracks that are about 140-160bpm for moderate-to-high intensity (think: Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me out, DJ Fresh’s Golddust and Metallica’s Hardwired).

This might all sound like a lot to do just to run a few minutes or seconds faster during an amateur race or event.

If you’ve not got the time or can’t be bothered with it all, just pick one or two things to add into your weekly regime. It might simply be choosing a different playlist or deciding to run slightly faster whenever you see a red car.

Whatever you do, just enjoy it and stick with it – that’s more important than sprinting for your life, hating every second and vowing never to get out on the road again.

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