Once you can run comfortably without stopping for 45 minutes two or three times per week, you’re ready to shift your focus to performance. Runners tend to peak between the ages of 26 and 35, but if you took up running later you may still be hitting PBs in your 50s.
Do speed intervals every week
Speedwork strengthens fast-twitch muscle fibres, teaches the heart to deliver oxygen-fuelled blood to your muscles more efficiently and toughens your mind against discomfort. The result: long runs feel easier, you can endure fast runs for longer without suffering and when the pain does come, you can handle it.
Start with this: after a 15-min warm-up, run one min fast, one min slow, repeat 5-10 times. Progress to this: after a 15-min warm-up, run 8-12 x 400m fast, with 200m jog breaks in-between. Aim for 15-25 minutes of fast running.
Work on your kick
Many PB dreams are dashed near the end of the race, when you’re fatigued. Practise pushing when tired by making the last mile your fastest in one run each week (on a long run or tempo run). On interval day, dig deep on the last few reps. And always cool down: running easy for 15 mins after a hard run teaches you to press on when your energy is low.
Eat mostly carbs
If you’re running faster, longer and harder, fuelling matters: consume too little and you’ll burn lean muscle and compromise your immune system. A 10st (63.5kg) runner burns roughly 100 calories for every mile he/she runs, so make sure you get plenty of carbs (2.7g-4.5g per 500g of body weight, per day) from wholegrains, fruit and veg. If you’re trying to lose weight, tally the number of calories you burn in a day, subtract 500 and consume at least that many to avoid underfuelling and the risks it brings.
Boost your immunity
High-intensity training suppresses the immune system for up to 24 hours, leaving runners vulnerable to upper-respiratory infections. Within 30 minutes of a tough workout, take in 10-20g of protein (which stimulates production of white blood cells), colourful fruits and vegetables (rich in anti-inflammatories and antioxidants) and probiotics (which are found in foods such as kefir and Greek yoghurt). Also, make sure you get enough rest: research shows that people who sleep for less than seven hours per night are three times more likely to catch a cold as those who sleep more than eight.
Focus for a fast finish
Studies have shown that elite athletes who focus on their effort race faster than those who let their minds wander. Break your race or tempo run into chunks (miles, fuel stations, lamp posts) and check in with yourself at each one to ask: How do my legs feel? Can I push harder, or should I back off?
These tips came from our expert panel:
Greg McMillan, world-renowned running coach and exercise physiologist
Frank Shorter, winner of the 1972 Olympic marathon and still running regularly at the age of 67
Dr Jordan Metzl, sports medicine specialist and author
Dr Jim Afremow, sports psychology consultant and author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive (Rodale, £10.68)
Kim Mueller, elite runner, new mum and sports nutritionist