Once a runner achieves her primary target of completing a race of any given distance, the next goal, generally, is to become faster: not just for that same distance but better overall speed. This is when runners turn to online groups, other running resources or coaches, because improving on one’s speed takes extra effort, planning and training.
To understand speed, one needs to understand the physics of motion and the mechanics of the human body. “An average runner generates approximately 220kg of force with a foot contact time of 0.12 seconds while an elite runner generates about 450kg of force with a foot contact time of 0.08 seconds. What does this imply? Increase in speed calls for increase in force generation, reduction in contact time and sustained power,” says Susheel Chand, running coach at Life of Tri, a triathlon training centre in Bengaluru.
In order to get your body to generate more force in as little time as possible with every foot strike, you will need to familiarise yourself with not only speed training but also longer runs and strength training, say experienced runners and running coaches.
Interval training and tempo runs
Tanvir Kazmi, a Tata Mumbai Marathon pacer says that in the running community, there are two widely accepted approaches to increasing speed. Kazmi, who is also the founder of the 100 Days of Running challenge, says that these two techniques are used in tandem. “The first way to become fast is to, well, train fast. It might sound too simple, but it works. Modifying your training pace for certain days and doing faster runs specifically for shorter periods trains your body to get accustomed to running at a higher pace. The duration of your faster runs should be gradually increased over time,” he says.
A tempo run is a continuous run where one gradually builds up to a higher pace. A typical tempo run of 30 to 40 minutes begins with 10-15 minutes of easy running, accelerating to near 5km race pace (the pace you run your 5km race is always much quicker than a 10km or half or full marathon runs) for 10-20 minutes with a peak near the middle, and slowing down gradually over a final 5-10 minutes, says Kazmi.
Interval training was popularised in the 1960s by the American running coach and author Hal Higdon. It requires you to alternate between walking or jogging and running at speed during the same session. “Interval training taps into both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, alternating during easy and hard intensity,” says Chand. Fartlek (one minute of fast run, one minute of easy pace), Yasso Loops (800m fast run, 400m recovery pace), and lactate threshold intervals are excellent examples of interval training that help athletes sustain higher speeds for longer durations.
LSD is great
The second technique to improve speed is to increase your mileage (the amount of distance you run in a week). Do this while running at a pace that’s slower than your normal racing speed. Chand suggests increasing this distance slowly and consistently every week; this lays the foundation for distance running, and slow runs should contribute 70-80% of your total run volume. “Higher mileage stresses your body in different ways and makes your cardiovascular system stronger to handle faster speeds. You may not realise the benefits immediately but over a period of time with a properly planned increase in mileage will make you go faster,” says Kazmi, explaining the benefits of what the runners call LSD or the “long, slow drag.”
Ironically, getting faster is actually a slow process. It takes time and patience is key. “You have to be consistent in your training giving due attention to mileage, tempo and interval runs. More importantly, you should not forget that you have to do a big number of your weekly runs at slow speeds. This allows you recovery, which helps your body avoid injuries and keep it ready to take on the faster runs,” says Kazmi. She adds that getting adequate sleep is also very important for runners trying to improve on their speed.
Work on your chassis
Your quest to gain better speeds will place a huge amount of stress on your chassis: your musculoskeletal system. Before you increase your physical workload, spend some time engaging in specific strength, conditioning and plyometric workouts. Chand says that doing so will improve your body composition and give you a leaner and more efficient system. In turn will allow your body to generate greater force and withstand higher loading.
Also read: Four great strength and mobility workouts
The key to staying injury-free while trying to gain speed is to improve your running biomechanics for efficient form. Since most running injuries are a result of either increasing speed or distance too soon, Chand suggests making running drills a part of your warmup. “Dedicating some time every week to focus on drills and ladder workouts to improve your footwork would go a long way,” he says. “And if you can, get a video analysis of your run to figure out footwork, imbalances and asymmetries. Then, work on fixing them.”
Most importantly, listen to your body and manage your training load accordingly. Our bones, ligaments and tendons are much slower to adapt to training load as compared to the cardiovascular system. Therefore, neglecting strength training and increasing speed, warns Chand, is asking for trouble.
After all, getting fast isn’t just about endurance, it’s about strength too.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.