We hear a lot about the importance of speed in distance running. Speed work, closing speed, sprint speed. And generally speaking, a more economical runner is a faster runner. If you watch the best runners on the planet you’ll see them regularly closing the final 400m of 5k and 10k races in 53-55 seconds. It’s easy to watch that and think you need to improve your speed to run faster. And yes, being fast does play a role when you are closing races in 53 seconds. However, the more important factor at play, even at the highest level, isn’t foot speed, it’s strength. The runner who gets to the last lap more comfortably and better able to utilize their speed is often who wins the race.
Speed vs Strength
For most of us mortals who don’t finish our races with a quarter mile under 60 seconds, the strength element is even more dramatic. The most highly trained athletes on the planet race much closer to their maximum speed than the rest of us. The efficiency seen at that level is due to greater aerobic development and a more efficient means of movement. The two go hand in hand.
For most runners the best thing you can do to improve your economy of movement is to spend a little bit more time running. It’s not true for everyone, and it’s not feasible for everyone. But if it sounds overly simple it’s because it is. That advice doesn’t make for catchy headlines, but it’s true. (But you can still slap a catchy headline on it, right? And don’t worry we’ll get to the fun stuff.)
Additional time spent running easy aerobic volume will help develop the aerobic engine that dominates distance running performance. Additionally, it will enhance your body’s adaptation to the movement. The more your body does something the more efficient it becomes at that task. It’s just like a jump shot: practice makes perfect.
I emphasize the aerobic strength element because it is the single most important aspect of training. When discussing how to run faster and improve economy it’s easy to get distracted and neglect that fundamental component.
Weight Training to Run Faster
Before I introduce my three favorite elements you can incorporate immediately in your training program, I want to briefly mention two additional training tools that can provide significant economical gains: weight training and faster interval work. Traditionally distance runners have been told they should do high-repetition-low-weight gym work. However, most of the research indicates if you’re going to spend time in the weight room you should be doing low-repetition-high-weight work. This type of training doesn’t build muscle mass the way higher repetition training does, but does develop neuromuscular strength that translates to better running economy.
It is important to note, high-rep-low-weight can be valuable in a rehab protocol. Being able to nail down proper technique and form is critical, and starting with low-weight is the best way to do that. However, if the goal is to improve strength to be able to run faster, then the end-game should be to get to low-rep-high-weight training.
But that’s an entire article in it’s own right, so let’s leave it there for now.
Incorporating some shorter, quicker intervals within a training program, typically with significant recovery, is another way to improve economy. During our running vacations we do a video analysis of everyone running at an easy pace and then again running at a quicker pace. Inevitably what we find is everyone is a bit more efficient running quicker. Which is why everyone should just run fast all the time…. just kidding! Seriously though, as part of a complete training plan, interval training is an important part of improving running economy.
Your body is amazingly adaptable to varying demands placed on it. When you ask more out of your body it finds ways to perform that task more efficiently. One of the simplest and most effective ways to improve your economy is to include strides at the end of your easy runs a few times a week.
To properly execute a stride, take a couple minutes after your run to catch your breath and then run 15-35 seconds at a time. Begin slowly and accelerate to 90% of full speed for the final few seconds. Do between 4 and 10 repeats making sure to take enough time between each to fully recover. The purpose is to stimulate the efficiency of movement you tap into when running quickly and reinforce that behavior through repetition.
This engages the neuromuscular system in a similar way to weight lifting. Think of that process as your body improving the communication and coordinated action between your brain and all your muscles. The benefit of strides compared to weight training is that it is running, so it’s 100% specific to your goal. The difference between the shorter strides and fast intervals is you are maximizing peak efficiency without inducing fatigue. Fatigue creates a different training stimulus and can cause you to lose efficiency. Strides are not intended to be a “hard” workout.
Use Hills to Run Faster
For an added benefit, do your strides uphill once or twice a week. The economic benefits of running quickly are amplified when running uphill. The added difficulty of running uphill increases muscle recruitment, further improving your efficiency. Hills also improve mechanical efficiency by emphasizing proper posture and foot strike. The enhanced muscle recruitment will, over time, become part of your natural muscle recruitment pattern, even when running on flat ground.
Long Run Pickups
The final tip is to include some pickups late in your long run. The idea is to pickup the pace for one to several minutes at a time toward the end of the long run. Target anywhere between 10k and marathon effort on the pickups. In between each pickup you should resume your normal long run pace for 5-6 minutes. The pickups recruit fast twitch muscles late in the run when your slow twitch fibers are fatigued. This strengthens the fast twitch fibers and helps improve running economy and leg speed through increased muscle recruitment.
The goal isn’t necessarily to improve your sprint speed, but to close the gap between your sprint speed and your race speed. You may not be closing your next race at 3:40 mile pace, but improved running economy will help you to run faster and stay healthier. Strength = Speed.