Beep beep. So now we have some basic ideas about how we learn to stop worrying and love running. We get how this makes us fitter and happier, but now we’re starting to get itchy about getting faster.
We’ve been nibbling at the edges with various plans from the Women Run Arkansas clinic, Cool Running (Couch to 5K) and the pages of Runner’s World. But how does it all work, and what if I just want to be a little faster for myself, not a great age-group racer or big medal winner?
As with most things in running, getting faster is easier said than done — though mostly it takes Patience. The simple truth is that it’s difficult to run fast without running well, particularly if you also run far. Bad mechanics will bust you up if you persevere with them. There’s also a chicken-and-egg aspect to this, because the best way to teach yourself to run well is by running fast. Your body will streamline its motion the harder you try to make it work.
The typical short-term training plan for beginners works by applying principles tested at the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training, which is why you’ll often hear of a FIRST marathon or FIRST 5K plan. For many people, the FIRST plan is also for their first race, so sometimes the notion that these are clinically verified methods gets lost in the excitement of the newness of the effort.
The essence of most of these plans is that less is more: The beginner does not need to run the high, hard mileage of the elite athlete, but can do very well with natural gifts by mixing three types of runs: speed, tempo and endurance. You run three days a week, with one day for each kind of workout. Each day, you warm up, do the meat of the workout, then cool down. These workouts also arrange themselves by difficulty and mileage: Speed is the hardest and shortest; tempo is medium in length and intensity; endurance is gentlest and longest.
The speed work, which is short stretches faster than your target race pace, hones your mechanics. That pays off in all of your running. It is not so much to make you faster in a short burst, but to make it easier for you to continue longer and more comfortably at any pace. Your medium or jogging speeds seem so much less a strain after you’ve done some speed work. Your breathing isn’t as labored; you don’t get that panicked “I can’t do this” feeling as readily.
Tempo runs are faster than your jogging pace, but slower than a target race pace. The shorter the tempo run, the closer you should go to your goal race pace. You are teaching your body to carry on under mild duress. The pace you can withstand improves as you continue with this speed-tempo-endurance plan.
Endurance runs are longer and slower than races. You take it easy, but you keep going. As time goes on, you’ll find you are comfortable (or at least capable) longer and longer. The endurance runs train your body to use fuel efficiently and strengthen your heart and lungs.
Underlying this all is learning the value of mediocrity. Children and newbies tend to think the way to win races is to go like crazy, to be the hare. But slow and steady really does win the race.
You want to run at the fastest speed you can maintain for the duration of the race, which is usually nowhere near the fastest that you can go. The fastest humans ever go a little faster than 20 mph — for about 200 yards. The fastest human mile is a little faster than 15 mph; the fastest marathon (26 miles) is a little faster than 12 mph. A 10-minute mile is 6 mph.
If 6 mph seems plenty fast to you, target 5 mph and see if you don’t feel much better running a 12-minute mile. Practice short bursts at 6 mph and long runs at 4 mph, and it will get easier and easier to run the medium at 5 mph. Pretty soon, you’ll feel comfortable maintaining 5.5 mph, though you still may not be able to go much faster than 6 mph in your short bursts. You raise the level of your mediocrity.
Again with the paradox: The road to excellence goes through enhanced mediocrity. The goal is to be the best mediocre you can be.
We go from the cartoon dynamic of the Road Runner — Beep, Beep — to the fairy tale wisdom of the slow and steady tortoise. Most everything you need to know about running you learned as a child.
Run for fun. Speed (whatever that means for you) is child’s play.