The reality is that there isn’t just one thing that can help make you a faster runner. Running, the most basic of all sports, simply putting one foot in front of the other can be complex if your goal is to get faster. Below are practices and strategies that have helped me along the way and have worked for other runners too. I’ll break it down into 3 simple concepts: nutrition, building the foundation, and running.
Reality check. I grew up running competitively, so the muscle memory I have works to my advantage. I was able to “cheat” my way back into competitive running when I hit my 40’s relying on years of on- and off-training. With mileage volume and speed work, I regained a lot of speed and endurance. I ran two sub-3 hour marathons and a sub-36 10k. Respectable times at any age, but my foundation was weak. I fought IT Band injuries, Plantar Fasciitis, and then things came crashing down. I never did core work, strength training, or any other drills to shore up my foundation. An imbalance in my hips and lower back resulted in an injury just three weeks out from the Chicago Marathon. I did everything possible to get to that starting line, but in the end I was a DNS. It took a while but I managed to get most of that fitness back, but I lost the drive to be competitive.
A very wise mentor of mine once said, you only learn from your mistakes if you don’t repeat them. I’ve stayed in shape the past 7 years since that last injury, but haven’t had the urge to get faster or be competitive… until now. When I first started back into running around 2004, I was inspired by my wife who wasn’t a runner, but was determined to run so she could compete in a few triathlons. As I’ve watched her fitness journey the past 2 years, helping her again with the running, it has inspired me to see what I'm capable of as I turn 50.
Nutrition: I’ve changed my diet (for the most part) over the last 2 years as we eat a well-balanced, whole foods diet. Lots of greens (kale, swiss chard, spinach), lean meats (most of the time), moderate amount of carbs, and more importantly, a keen awareness of what we eat and when we eat it. There’s a saying, abs are made in the kitchen, and I strongly agree with that. The 8-9 pounds I’ve lost in the past 2 years are small, but significant as that has brought me close to my former race weight. My wife has changed the way we eat and so we both have more energy and our bodies are properly fueled to handle the workouts that we do. Yes, I do indulge on occasion, but as with anything else, I keep it in moderation.
Foundation: Without a strong foundation you put yourself at a higher risk for injuries and fatigue. The imbalances will cause you to overcompensate, which is frustrating on multiple levels. My wife struggled with running for a long time. Tight calves and numbness in her feet were debilitating at times. She spent several months focusing just on her core and foundational strength before she tried running again. Rebuilding that foundation, combined with the weight loss from eating soundly, made it significantly easier for her to get back into running. It was slow at first and we limited the mileage (run, walk, run, walk) until she was back running stronger and faster than she’s ever run in her life. At 51. So I decided to drink the Kool-Aide and see what strength & core work could do for me. The short version of that story is yes, it’s had a huge impact on my running and overall fitness. I’ve advised other runners that have asked me for assistance and recommended that they incorporate strength and core work into their fitness routines. Their results are quite similar to mine and my wife's results. The nagging injuries started to fade away, they got faster, and running became easier.
Running: So what about the actual running? I started reading Joe Friel’s book Fast After 50 over the summer. It’s a technical read, but very insightful as as Friel's philosophy is similar to my own. Over the years I’ve learned that moderation is essential. Older runners are more successful when they focus on quality over quantity — and this can also be helpful for runners of any age. Getting in quality runs where you set targets can make a huge difference over running what I refer to as a lot of garbage miles. More isn’t better if you’re constantly fatigued and you don’t give your legs proper recovery. Here’s a few rules that I abide by and try to encourage other runners to use if they are looking to improve their running:
Volume – weekly mileage should never increase by more than 10%. Same thing applies to your longest run. Gradually increase the mileage so your body has time to adjust to the increased load and recover.
Recovery – in my training cycles I usually will have 3 weeks of gradual increase followed by an easier week in effort and mileage. I also try to ensure that I have at least one rest day per week. If you need to do something, then that’s the day to do some restorative yoga, take the dog for a long walk, or something similar. But this is a no run, no ride, no swim day for me.
Distractions – lose the music. You’ll never see me run with music. It took some encouraging, but eventually I got my wife to do the same. It changes you when you can start to get more in tune with your body. Focus on your breathing, your body position, take in your surroundings. Speaking of breathing, look up belly breathing. Breathing from your diaphragm maximizes your lung capacity.
Form – when I coached high school athletes I used one simple thing with them. Run tall. If you imagine a line going from your hips through your shoulders to your head, it should be straight with a very slight lean forward. Shoulders and jaw are relaxed (you can’t breathe efficiently if you’re running tight lipped). Your hips, shoulders, and head should move forward in a straight line if you’re running tall. Bouncing up and down is wasted energy and an indication that you’re not running with good form. If you’re running with good posture, your feet will land at or just in front of your center of gravity, not out in front of you. Oh, and by the way… this is so much easier to do if your core is strong.
Over the last 6 months I’ve gotten stronger and the speed is coming back without having done any actual speed work. I’ll do a few hill repeats every now and then, but mostly just quality miles focusing on tempo work. Occasionally I’ll wear a HRM to get a sense of what my actual effort is, but normally I rely on a perceived effort for my runs. I almost always start my run with a slower first mile (or at least the first 3-4 minutes) to warm up. I also do dynamic drills before I start. One of my favorites is a modification of Coach Jay Johnson's, Myrtl Routine (opens and warms up the hips, helpful if you’re at a desk all day).
So the secret is out. Want to get faster? It’s simple. Pay attention to and if needed, modify your nutrition. Include strength and core work. Focus on good form/posture, and be consistent with your training. Build that foundation and set realistic goals. When you reach that goal, set a new one.
Eric is a seasoned runner who fell madly in love with the sport while growing up in Eugene, OR, home to many running legends. Eric has completed 5 marathons,10 Hood to Coast relay races, and countless 5k and 10k. He is an avid cyclist, beer taster, paddle boarder, and oyster shucker. He will be tackling his first Half Iron Man in 2018 and racing for Mojo Racing.