7 ways to have a running breakthrough

Try one of these strategies to take your speed and strength to the next level.


by Jenny Hadfield
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Tara asks: I’ve been running for a year now and I want to focus on improving my speed this year in the 10K and half-marathon distances. How can I set myself up for running and racing faster? I run four times per week.

A breakthrough in running by definition is an instance of achieving success in a particular run or race. You’ve already begun to set yourself up for faster runs by investing a year in developing your base. When beginners try to start running and then a month or two later try to improve speed, it often leads to injury. Here’s how to have a breakthrough year (without getting hurt).

1. Set long-term goals

Rather than put all your eggs into one basket (or race), plan several race opportunities to allow yourself to build up speed, strength, pacing skills and overall experience. You might break next year down into two core seasons. January to March is for training, then in April to June, scatter a few shorter races (5Ks and 10Ks) and one half marathon near the end. Then, take July to recover before starting to train again in August to September. Again, you might plan some shorter races first and finish with a mid- to late-autumn half marathon.

2. Run consistently

This is the number one way runners improve their performance, one step at a time, one mile at a time, one day at a time. When you’re consistent, you develop and maintain a solid base of running fitness from which you can improve. Planning your year out into seasons and including training, racing, recovery and maintenance cycles is a surefire way to run consistently with less risk of injury.

3. Progress gradually

Pro runners progress their running over years of training and racing seasons. It can be tempting to add a ton of mileage or speed workouts, but when you progress by too much, your risk for burnout and injury skyrockets. You would be surprised at just how small the increments of progression need to be to help you run faster. For instance, you’ve been running easy to moderate effort for all four weekly workouts.

Aim to include more variety by running one workout that is longer and easier for endurance, one workout that is shorter and harder (i.e. one-minute speed intervals), one that is moderately hard (tempo), and one easy and shorter run (40 to 45 minutes). Make sure to treat the interval runs like a spice rather than an entree. A little goes a long way, especially as your body learns to run hard and fast.

4. Raise your redline

When you train to raise your redline (anaerobic threshold), you are able to run faster while preserving glycogen stores. Tempo workouts are run at a sustained effort at or just above your threshold. 

5. Run longer

Long runs are the bread and butter of a long distance program as they build muscular endurance and aerobic capacity. That said, it’s easy to get caught up in running a lot of long runs, but for many, doing so leads to fatigue and lack of progress. An effective way to train long is to alternate a shorter long run (five to seven miles) with a longer building long run (eight to 14 miles).

This allows you to build your longer runs every other week, for your body to adapt and recover, and for you to work on other areas of running fitness. As you develop your long run base, you can begin to weave in race simulation runs for the shorter long runs.

6. Be the hill

Hill workouts build strength, fitness, and mental focus. Weave hills into your easy runs and learn how to run hills efficiently by maintaining an even effort going up and down. Run harder hill repeats or hilly tempo workouts to boost strength and fitness. Like speed, treat hills like a spice at first and sprinkle them into your regimen to avoid injury.

7. Improve your cadence and form

There are two easy ways to improve both your running form and your cadence. The first is to perform a head-to-toe inventory while running and focus on these cues:

  • Your head should be over your shoulders, eyes looking forward.
  • Neck and shoulders should be relaxed - tightness here is a huge energy suck.
  • Arms bent (don’t worry about the exact degree just yet) and swinging like a pendulum from your shoulder. Still confused? Stand with your feet hip width apart and arms long and start swinging them. You’ll notice they follow a natural arc from your hip to your centerline. Now bend your arms and keep swinging with relaxed shoulders - this is it!
  • Relax your hands - you’re not getting ready for a fight! If it helps, think of something delicate in your palm (bird, a crisp...)
  • Hips should be under the shoulders. Think of natural alignment from head to toes. Watch other runners for this one and you’ll see what I mean. If they are bent or slouched forward, they are out of alignment.
  • Your feet should land with short, quick strides roughly under your hips.

The second way is to focus on your feet. Once you learn how to run in alignment and with less tension with the head-to-toe inventory, the next step is to dial in your cadence, or the number of strides per minute. During the heart of your run, count the number of strides (or steps) your right foot takes in one minute. According to Coach Jack Daniels, the general rule of thumb for efficient running is 90 strides per minute for one foot, or 180 for both.

The key is in knowing what your cadence is, and if you’re in the 70s to low-80s, you’re likely trying to cover too much ground with each step - a common newbie mistake. If this is the case, practice running with shorter, quicker steps. Like proper alignment, dialing in your cadence will have a profound effect on your energy management and efficiency down the road, but it will take time to learn. The more gradually you make changes to your current program, the more likely you are to see see progress next year. 


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