Like most people I set some goals at the start of this year. One of them was to reach new 5k and 10k PRs. I knew the only way to improve my race results was to improve my running speed.
To plot the best path to achieving this, I started with research. There’s great advice out there in books and articles of people’s experience (especially on Grit Camp!). I quickly saw that it was different methods that worked for different people. So I’d recommend looking around, getting a trainer and getting your form tested before you start making any changes. Ask more experienced runners for help too.
The year isn’t over yet and I’m already running my fastest times. So keeping in mind that we all respond to different stimuli, here’s what helped me improve my running speed and what helps me continue to improve:
1. Increasing my mileage
This year I have run more than I have in the past 26 years! At the end of the day, OCR is 90% running. It took some time before I learned to love it and I now run more often and for longer. I went from 2-3 runs a week to 4-5, aiming for a weekly distance of 40 – 45k run.
This isn’t a huge amount compared to some others but it’s more than double the load I ran last year. I’ve built up my endurance and can now maintain a higher, faster pace for a longer period of time. It helped that I got a Garmin sports watch and started using the Strava running app. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Using a running watch/running app
I’d noticed athletes looking down at their watches at the start line of every race I’ve done over my first two years of running. However, I never took the time to invest in them myself until this year. I’m now using a Garmin Forerunner 15 and I regret not getting it sooner. It’s led to a big change in my speed.
How can a watch do that, you might ask? There’s a couple of reasons. Firstly; it keeps me motivated. As soon as I got it, I was out on the trails testing it out.
Whenever I feel unmotivated to run, I check my Strava (running app) where I can see how hard the athletes I follow are working, and this gives me a boost too. Strava is a great place to log the runs from your sports watch for easy access and tracking your progress.
The second reason watches are great is that they help you pace yourself. To do speed work accurately, you need to be out in nature and not on a treadmill, and off the treadmill you need some way of tracking how far and how fast you’ve sprinted.
Speaking of speed work, it’s what helped me progress the most to improve my running speed.
3. Adding intervals (speed work) to my training
Treadmill, track, trails, outdoors… Speed work can be done just about anywhere! I will mention a couple of my personal favorite workouts which, once added to my routine, started shaving minutes (not seconds) off my 5k and 10k runs.
About two months out from the start of my OCR season I do two interval workouts a week, and during the season I drop it down to one.
My two favourite protocols are:
- 2k warm up. 1 minute on the treadmill (above race pace), 1minute off (complete rest). Repeat this 8 to 10 times and then a 1 – 2km cool down. Above race pace is usually a 1mph (1.6kmph) more than what you’d run a race at.
- 2k warm up. 2 minutes on the treadmill (race pace), 1 minute off (complete rest). Reapeat this 8 to 10 times and then finish with a 1 – 2k cool-down.
Both of these protocols are where I added the most speed. They give you a feel for how fast you should be running so you can improve towards it.
The speed work protocol I like to do outside is:
2k warm-up, 800m repeat x 2, 400m repeat x 4, 200m repeat x 6, 1 k cool down. The repeats should be at your fastest. Also, keep the pace consistent for the full length. I usually do this once a week (subbing one of the treadmill protocols).
Make sure to spread out your speed workouts so they’re at least a couple of days apart and avoid them in the 2-3 days leading up to a race.
4. Running hills
Oh hills, how I love to loathe them. It’s the hardest running workout you can do! I find repeats to be the best protocol for hill workouts. I like to find a hill 400 – 700m long and do 5 – 6 repeats of the hill as fast as I can. As I mentioned hill training can be hard so I like to sometimes attend a group training. There’s a group called November Project with locations around the world who do free workouts three days a week. Where I live, one of those days the workout includes hill repeats. Working out with other people helps keep me motivated, and given there are people of all fitness levels, there’s someone for everyone to partner with.
Another way I like to train hills is to find a good trail (about 5 – 7km) with a few steep climbs and some rolling hills. I’ll do an all-out effort on the up and while running downhill, whereas I’ll focus on my form when running flat. I’ll also add a few repeats at the end of this run where I can work on my uphill and downhill running form.
There are more types of hill training but these two are my favorite. I try to do at least one per week usually, and two per week leading into the OCR season (similar to my speed work set-up).
Hill training helps you increase your endurance. When I added it to my routine, I was amazed at how much easier my regular (flatter) running routes became.
Hills are also great for helping build leg muscles and strength, which will in turn improve speed.
5. Improving my running form
This is an area in which I did a huge amount of research. I am not a running coach so I won’t break down proper running form here. I’ll just say that I did my research, sought help from coaches and experienced runners and then started working on my form hardcore.
Working on my form made running further and faster more comfortable. Although essential to sports like OCR, running is still a skill few practice and even fewer master. Do just one run a week where you practice your form. Even if it’s just a portion of a bigger run, the difference will be astounding. I recommend getting a coach or trainer as this will help you make the most improvement.
That’s my top 5 areas. There’s a few other things you may want to consider if you want to run faster:
- Your shoes – get a measured and well-fitting shoe. My personal favourite is TOPO.
- Compression clothing – My calves and quads can feel tight and painful even though foam roll. However, since I’ve worn compression gear during my runs, I’ve noticed I recover faster. My go-to are SKINS, and for compression socks I use CEP.
- Your strength. Obviously this is required for obstacle races. Make sure you’re doing your deadlifts, squats, lunges and kettlebell swings. Lateral movements (e.g. curtsey squats, side walks with resistance bands) Don’t forget core strength, planks are a runner’s best friend!
- Terrain. Train on all types of terrain, trail, road, treadmill, grass, sand etc. The human body is an amazing machine – it will adapt quickly. Keep it guessing and you will see improvements.
Improving your speed and race times does take time and dedication. However, even if you have just 20 minutes to train on a given day do it. Get that workout in. One of my good friends, a trainer, told me that consistently good beats inconsistently perfect. It’s true! Consistency is everything.
I hope my experience helps you and, if you ever want to chat about running or OCR, feel free to reach out on my social media.