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How to Improve Running Speed: 4 Key Factors

I’ve never met a runner who hasn’t wanted to run faster. Let me be clear that this doesn’t mean that speed=success as a runner. Running goals come in many shapes and forms and I’m supportive of whatever those shapes and forms may be. But, similar to how the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte sends coffee lovers into a tailspin every year, so too does the thought of improving running speed send runners into a frenzy. There’s something about running fast that taps into our primal instincts to outwit, outlast, and outplay (oops, that’s Survivor).

Keep in mind that when we talk about how to improve running speed, it’s a very individual process. All runners begin with different mental and biological factors that will influence the ease with which they’re able to increase their speed. Don’t be hard on yourself because you aren’t progressing at the rate you believe you should be. That being said, the 4 key factors listed below can help you make some shifts in your routine, mentality, and lifestyle that may have you running faster in no time.

Incorporate Sprint Workouts

Yes, if you want to run faster, you should run faster. Got it? Moving on.

Just kidding. Really though, this is something that is so easily forgotten. I hear so many runners complain about not getting faster, but their route, distance, pace, and routine stay the same day after day. Sprint workouts are essential to building your fast twitch muscle fibers that produce explosive movement. These muscles give you a lot of bang for your training buck, as short sprint workouts will go a long way in increasing your strength and improving your speed.

I like to incorporate sprint workouts into my routine at least once a week. If the thought of running on a track makes you groan, don’t worry. I do all of my sprint workouts in the forest, as the thought of a mountain lion popping out at any moment makes me run faster. You can do sprint workouts anywhere that is relatively flat and hazard free. Remember, you’re going to be running fast, so you don’t want to be battling curbs, dips, or potholes.

Now, it isn’t practical to be carrying a training plan and calculating distances during a sprint workout. My advice is to pre-plan your sprint workouts and then program them into an interval app. Essentially, these apps work as timers and will tell you when to start and stop your sprinting. While there are programs that mandate running certain distances in certain amounts of time, I like to keep it simple. As of now, my sprint workouts include 30 seconds of sprinting with 60 seconds of rest. When these intervals need to change, I reset the app and I’m good to go. That way, I can think about running instead of numbers. Because, maybe it’s just me, but I can’t even count after even one interval of sprinting.

Stop Running So Much

I write about this A LOT. Here. Here. Here. And Here. Overtraining is a huge hindrance to your body’s ability to make progress towards any type of running goal, improving running speed or otherwise. When your body is tired, it’s hard for it to perform at its best. While the theory is simple, we often believe it doesn’t apply to us. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times I’ve been overtrained, yet still yelled at my body for being slow.

signs you're running too much

If you’re looking to improve your running speed, dial in your training. Be sure you aren’t running too hard too often or that your mileage isn’t creeping up too quickly. When you want to improve your running speed, the best thing you can do is let your body rest. If you’re new to speed work, your body will be in for a shock. Running is hard work, and speed work takes it to the next level. Overdo it and your body could become fatigued and strained to the point of injury. While sprint workouts are important for your progress, they should be done in moderation with enough time for rest and recovery buffered in.

Dial In Your Diet

I’m offering this advice carefully, as I don’t believe that improving running performance is worth the cost of decreasing your enjoyment of life. Believe me, I eat a lot of cake. That being said, the food you put into your body plays a big role in how your body performs. When I eat cake, I realize there may be consequences for my running goals. That’s just how it is. Life is full of costs and benefits and we often have to decide what’s most important to us at any given time (this is something I write about extensively in my book, What Next?). In my opinion, shaving a few seconds off your mile pace isn’t worth turning down your best friend’s birthday cake.

That being said, diet plays a big role in how you feel and how your body performs. Occasional indulgences aside, you may be accidentally sabotaging your diet on a daily basis. Take a look at your go-to meals and see if there are any tweaks you can make to optimize your nutritional intake without jeopardizing your enjoyment or happiness. Maybe it’s as simple as switching from vanilla to plain yogurt. Or, maybe you start using spinach in your salads and make your own vinaigrette dressing. Or, maybe you start using natural fueling options during your runs. Small changes such as these could give your body a little extra umph when you lace up your shoes and get ready to run.

woman in bakery

In addition to your food choices, it’s also important you’re eating the proper amount of calories. It’s amazing how many runners underestimate their calories and leave their bodies with a lack of fuel as a result. While we all know that eating too much won’t do you any favors from a running standpoint, don’t forget that eating too little can be just as detrimental. Hone in on the right amount of calories for your body and lifestyle and you’ll find it easier to reach your pace goals.

Reel in Your Goals

Whenever I sign up for a race, my mind jumps immediately to the thought of crushing my PR by at least 10 minutes. If you’ve read my book, Better Running Goals, you know that my ego is loud and obnoxious. When I set a goal, I want to set a big goal and crush it like the Hulk in a country club.

While I admire my own careless ambition, it’s problematic to say the least. While I’m a proponent of celebrating progress in all of its shapes and sizes, I struggle to appreciate the laying of one stone when I have my sights set on the whole palace. On a weekly (sometimes daily) basis, I need to remind myself to take a chill pill and be grateful for what I’m achieving, no matter how small it may be.

If you’re frustrated by how you’re improving your running speed, take a second to consider whether your goals are so big so as to blind you from the progress you’re making. While you might not be Usain Bolt tomorrow, you’re likely faster than you were yesterday or last week, and that’s something to be proud of.