Meet the UK’s 8 most improved runners

You’re about to meet Britain’s most improved runners of last year. They aren’t all young, gifted or superfast, but of more than 64,000 runners registered with Runbritain Rankings, our Super 8 bettered their performance in one of four key race distances (from 5K to marathon) by the greatest percentage between 2014 and 2015. One qualification. To factor out those giant leaps made by new runners starting out, all our Super 8 have been running for a minimum of three years.

So how did they do it? You’ll be heartened to know the answers are many and varied. Yes, upping mileage, joining a club and losing weight played as part, but there are less obvious take-home messages, too: George Gurney broke 2:30 in the marathon by focusing on intensity, not volume, while Lizzy Muggeridge found that working on her form helped her clock a new 5K PB. Running with a team helped Marcus D’Agrosa bag his first race win, while yoga helped Lorraine Kelsey to really stretch herself.

One thing all eight runners have in common is they signed up to Runbritain – the free website operates a handicap scoring system that allows you to see how you compare with others in your age group and monitor your progress. ‘Registering with Runbritain and claiming my handicap really motivated me,’ says Gurney. Over the next eight pages our Super 8 share the secrets of their success – a smorgasbord of fresh ideas and inspiration on how you can upgrade your own performance. It might just be what you need to propel you onto these pages this time next year.

'I added an extra weekly run'

Name: Delphine Watwood

Age: 30

Hometown: Plymouth, Devon

Occupation: GP

Club: Plymouth Harriers

Most improved at: Half marathon - went from 1:46:21 PB in 2014 to 1:32:42 PB in 2015

‘I started running at university, around eight years ago, but I had only ever done one run a week, alongside other exercise. I was worried about injuries. When I got a Garmin last year, I discovered my weekly run was 11 miles, not eight, as I’d thought. It showed me I was capable of more than I thought and I decided to see what would happen if I added an extra weekly run. I realised my knees could cope. I still only run twice a week, but I also do three swims – two of them straight after my runs, which I find really beneficial – and weekly BodyPump and BodyCombat classes. I think strength training helps a lot. But I also take more rest days than I used to. I used to do at least an hour a day of exercise, seven days a week.  But since qualifying as a GP 18 months ago I have a very busy job, which means I simply can’t do that now.

In 2014 I was taking part in races all over the country. Last year, I did more local events, through which I developed a wide social network of sporty people and discovered new routes. I also learned more about racing. For example, 18 months ago I would run a half marathon with a water bottle; now I don’t bother. I’ve also scrapped music for races and found it helps me stay more focused. Running the Bristol Half, where I got my PB, I tried an energy gel for the first time. It made a huge difference.

Another positive impact on my running last year came from a comment my father made: ‘If you do something over and over again, you are likely to get very good at it.’ I’ve done more than 50 halfs now. Sub-1:30 is a goal, but I’m currently training for Ironman Wales. I’m curious to see if cycling will improve my running.’

'I enjoy being part of a team'

Name: Marcus D'Agrosa

Age: 27

Hometown: Evemouth, Scottish Borders

Occupation: Mechanic

Club: Gala Harriers

Most improved at: 10K - went from 37:53 PB in 2014 to 33:53 in 2015

‘I started running in 2013, doing races just for fun and sometimes to raise money for charity. At the beginning of 2015 I started a new job, which gave me more time for training and racing, so I decided to try taking my running a little more seriously. A local coach, Henry Gray, invited me to train with his running squad – he’d been impressed with the times I’d achieved on my own and felt sure I could improve. I began doing two challenging high-intensity sessions a week with Henry's squad, as well as three nights a week on my own to get my mileage up. The training is tough, involving hills, beaches, distance repeats, sprints and longer runs, but I enjoy being part of a team. Pushing each other to do better delivers results. It’s competitive but we all encourage each other too, and it’s a good laugh.

I decided that putting all this effort into training would be pointless if I didn't cut down on or replace unhealthy things such as fatty foods, takeaways, sweets and alcohol – especially in the weeks before a race. I also began getting regular sports massages to avoid injury, which have been really beneficial.

In 2015 I set PBs in all my race distances and had my first two race wins. I like the 10K best because it’s not too long and a slightly slower pace than 5K. I find it a struggle to fit in the high mileage needed for half and full marathons.’

'I paid more attention to form'

Name: Lizzy Muggeridge

Age: 42

Hometown: London

Occupation: IT coordinator

Club: Mornington Chasers

Most improved at: 5K - went from 30:17 PB in 2014 to 23:54 in 2015

‘Last year’s improvement took me by surprise. It had been three years since I’d got my parkrun PB. In 2014 I didn’t break 30 minutes once and then, in 2015, it suddenly felt like I was getting faster without trying as hard. I ended up bettering my PB eight times! A number of things contributed to my improvement. I decided to lose weight specifically to see if it could help me run faster, figuring there wouldn't be as much of me to lug around. I went from a size 12-14 to a size 8 through logging my calories and making better food choices. Like many runners, I used to think I could eat what I wanted, and had got into bad habits. I’d have something like a ciabatta with bacon and cheese, a coke and crisps for lunch. Now I’m more likely to have soup, crackerbread and salad. I feel healthier overall and my immune system is stronger.

I also started to pay more attention to my running form. I got a new Garmin which produced all this data – ground contact time, cadence etc – and that made me think more about how I was running. I attended a training day and read around the subject a lot and focused on picking my knees up, not slouching, maintaining a high cadence and keeping my ankles ‘floppy’.

My other times have come down, too. I slashed 35 minutes off my half marathon time from 2013. I’m now in training for my third marathon and hoping to go sub-4. I got just under 5:30 in 2014, so it would be a huge PB.

My improvement has given me renewed enthusiasm and motivation. It’s inspired other people, too – I’m in my 40s, and after not getting a PB for three years I’ve smashed all of them. It shows you should never give up.’

'I cleaned up my diet'

Name: Stephen Watkin

Age: 35

Hometown: Liverpool

Occupation: IT consultant

Club: Penny Lane Striders

Most improved at: 5K - went from 20:48 in 2014 to 17:33 in 2015

‘I do two club runs a week with Penny Lane Striders. The pace groups are based on your 10K time; in March last year I somehow managed to scrape a time that put me in a faster group. The only thing worse than falling behind the group is having them stop and wait for you and when both these things happened, I made a concerted effort to claw myself away from the back.

First I cleaned up my diet. Running had already helped me lose five stone since 2011, but I still had a bit of blubber to lose. I’ve got the sweet tooth from hell and I tend to snack on a lot of junk food. Getting that under control helped me shed almost two stone in three months. It was like taking the brakes off and I saw a gradual improvement in my times. But my running really came on after I took part in a multi-day endurance event, the Tour of Merseyside, totalling 52 miles. Before that, I'd never really run back-to-back days but I learned that I could train more often without dropping dead.

For the rest of the summer, I began cycling on the days I wasn't running. I try to average 20mph for an hour and a half or so just so I’m doing something every day – and I only take a rest day when I feel like I need one. I'm not sure cycling itself helps with running; it's more about getting a sweat on and burning calories.’

'Cross-training really helped'

Name: Lorraine Kelsey

Age: 31

Hometown: London

Occupation: Accountancy

Club: Clapham Chasers

Most improved at: Marathon - went from 4:15:34 in 2014 to 3:33:19 in 2015

‘I moved to London in September 2013 and the club I joined was in a different league to the one I’d been with in Manchester. I found myself at the back of the pack and had no choice but to run a bit faster, just to keep up. I also did more intervals and hill work. I wasn’t running any more miles than I had been before, but when I did Marrakech Marathon in January 2015 I managed to take 17 minutes off my time and go sub-4 for the first time. I then joined Clapham Chasers, where I was introduced to trail running. We regularly go out and do 16-20 miles at the weekend. I’ve always preferred long distances – I feel it takes me about six miles to really get going.

I began to do more cross-training – yoga four times a week and commuting by bike four days a week, an 18-mile round trip. I didn’t do either specifically for running benefits but without them I don’t think I would have improved as much as I have. Twice during 2015 I knocked eight minutes off my marathon time.

I’ve learned a lot more about my body in the last 18 months – that I benefit most by mixing road and trail with cross-training, for example, and that I respond better to four quality sessions than I do to running six days a week. And because I know what works for me, I don’t feel guilty about not running as much as others do.

I’m not PB obsessed, I run mostly because I enjoy it and I still enjoy going out eating and drinking – I never refuse chocolate or Prosecco! But I am motivated by my progress last year to see what I’m capable of if I really go for it.’ 

'I set myself a goal'

Name: Andrew Hayhurst

Age: 37

Hometown: Littleborough, Greater Manchester

Occupation: Accountant

Club: Royton Road Runners

Most improved at: Half marathon - went from 1:51 in 2014 to 1:31 in 2015

‘My world was rocked in 2014, when I discovered my wife was having an affair with one of my best ‘friends’. My marriage ended and I suddenly had a big void in my life. I could either drown my sorrows or do something constructive – so I signed up for the 2015 Manchester Marathon. I’ve always struggled with motivation without having a race to train for. But with the marathon on the horizon I threw myself into running, going out four times a week instead of once or twice. In an effort to be more social, I got more involved with the running club – interval training at the track every week, entering more races and joining the cross-country and relay teams.

I started doing core and strength work – planks, pull-ups, chin-ups and dumbbell work. Initially, I struggled to hold a plank for one minute, but soon I could last three minutes or more. I also became more conscious of my diet. Meat was often replaced with fish, alcohol reserved solely for the weekend, and takeaways went altogether. 

My progress snowballed. I found myself level with people at the club who had always been better than me. I breezed through sessions that I’d struggled with before – it makes you start to reassess your goals. I’d run my only other marathon in just under four hours, so my original goal for Manchester was 3:45, but soon sub-3:30 became a realistic goal. I ended up running 3:25:49. A week later, I did a half marathon, knocking over 14 minutes off my previous best and showing me I could go quicker on fresh legs. When I did Rochdale Half Marathon in August I took a further five minutes off.

The more I ran, the better I got and the better I got, the more I felt motivated to keep up the diet changes and training. I achieved times last year I never considered myself capable of.’

'I increased and reduced mileage'

Name: George Gurney

Age: 24

Hometown: London

Occupation: Financial services

Club: Avon Valley Runners

Most improved at: Marathon - went from 2:52:07 in 2014 to 2:29:02 in 2015

‘I’ve always been sporty. I did my first marathon in 2011, achieving a ‘good for age’ place for London. But I got shin splints and had to defer my entry until 2013. I ran 2:59:55, and improved on that the following year. That’s when running took on another dimension for me – I started to take it more seriously and do some research into how to improve.

It’s tempting to look at Mo Farah and think you should be training 150 miles a week, but it’s exceptional, not the norm, to be able to train that much and not get injured. My brother is an accomplished Ironman athlete and he advised me to do less running and more cycling.

After reading Jack Daniels’ book, I increased the intensity of my training and reduced my mileage. Runners often get stuck thinking about volume, but that won't improve your speed. I started doing regular tempo runs and long intervals – maybe 10K of 1– 2km or two-mile reps. I also put tempo miles into my long runs. But I offset this higher intensity by reducing my mileage. In my peak training month before Bournemouth, where I ran my PB, I averaged 45 miles a week. And I never ran on consecutive days. I might do a hard tempo one day and two or three hours on the bike the next. I also use the cross trainer a lot – it mirrors running a bit more closely than cycling. Cardiovascular cross-training is not only good for endurance, it helps to flush out the waste products that cause so much soreness. Following it up with a cold bath every day, I was able to do tempo or intervals every other day in peak training.

I’ve learned that it’s better not to make myself do a set distance if I don’t feel up to it. Before, I’d think, ‘You must run 18-20 miles today,’ but now I go by feel. A few weeks out from Bournemouth marathon, I did eight miles easy then 14 miles at race pace, just because I was feeling really good.

Another thing that made a difference was fuelling. In my third marathon, I only took one gel and I crashed and burned. So before Bournemouth, I trained with gels regularly so I was used to it. I finished first British male, fourth overall. This success has all been self-taught; I hope that with coaching I can improve further.’

'Running with a faster group pulled me along'

Name: Helen Clapham

Age: 48

Hometown: Barton upon Humber, Lincolnshire

Occupation: Dental hygienist

Club: Barton and District AC

Most improved at: 10K - went from 56:27 PB in 2014 to 49:47 in 2015

‘I took up running three years ago, aged 45. I had no motivation to run on my own so I joined the beginners’ group at my local running club, doing a weekly walk-run session. As I got fitter I started to go to the Tuesday track session and the longer Sunday run. With this routine I steadily progressed through the pace groups – running at the back of a faster group definitely helped ‘pull me along’ and improve. I came second in the club’s handicap series at the end of 2014. The encouragement, support and advice from other club members has been invaluable.

I started training for my first marathon in January 2015. Training five days a week - a mixture of speedwork, hill training and longer steady runs – instead of my usual three days, increased my mileage from 20 miles to up to 45 miles some weeks, which has definitely benefited my fitness. I have a sports massage every month and do stretching and strengthening sessions at home. I think this has helped reduce injuries and build core strength as I suffered a few strains when I started running.

At the end of 2015, I won the club’s handicap series, achieving a PB in the 10K. When I first started running, I wanted to break one hour for a 10K – I never thought I’d achieve sub-50. I’ve improved other distances too. My confidence has grown and I have more self-belief than I ever did.’