10 Ways to Run Faster, Proven by Science
Whether you are a seasoned racer of just starting out – one thing unites almost all runners: We want to be able to go faster and further than we can today.
If you want to run faster read on for 10 scientifically proven methods that will make you faster:
Training Volume: Run More to Get Faster
A good way to get faster is to run more, with countless studies providing evidence. For example ,in a 2020 study runners with training volume and a long endurance run over 21 km had faster finishing times. (1)
Likewise another 2021 study found that the volume of elite runners’ easy runs as well as deliberate practice of shorter interval and tempo runs influenced performance positively. (2)
Running more often and including long runs as part of your race preparation is key to faster race times.
Ramp Up Training Volume Gradually to Avoid Injury
Keep in mind that rapid increases in training volume are a major source of injuries. Therefore take a look at your current volume, injury history, running form, time needed for recovery and previous successful increases and go from there. The common ‘10% increase per week’ rule tends to be too conservative for new runners that start with very low volume and too aggressive for runners that already manage a high volume program.
New runners that have been running for 2-3 months and see quick improvements should also keep in mind that their cardiovascular fitness increases faster than their ligaments and tendons strengthen which takes closer to 6 months.
Consequently listen to your body carefully and drop back the volume for a while to give your body time to adjust if niggles appear.
Closely related to training volume is consistency. To manage high volume you will need strong motivation and avoid getting injured; see more on these topics further below.
Training Intensity: Run Fast
Find the right training intensity for you
To run faster in races you must first get used to speed in training. (2) To determine the right intensity for your speed training start by identifying your training zones. A practical way to do this is a functional threshold heart rate test. For this test you run after a warm up, at the maximum pace you can hold for 20 min.
Record your heart rate during this 20 minute period and then multiply it by 0.95. This yields your functional threshold heart rate, which should be close to the maximum heart rate you can hold for one hour. Knowing this Functional Threshold Heart Rate (FTHR) is extremely valuable as based on it you can then map your training zones.
- Zone 1-3 are lower intensities,
- Zone 4 at 95 to 105% of FTHR straddles the Lactate Threshold and is used during tempo runs
- Vo2 MAX Zone begins at 106% and is the domain of intervals.
- Very short sprints would be considered Zone 6, Anaerobic Power.
Apart from threshold / tempo runs, intervals and sometimes sprints, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is another training approach that improves the performance even of already highly trained athletes. (3)
Keep your easy sessions easy so your hard sessions are not too hard
Having touted the benefits of running fast it’s also important to keep in mind that the majority of training (>75%) should happen at lower intensities. A mistake often made and best avoided is that every run happens at the same ‘comfortably hard’ pace, so many runners do not do enough ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ runs
Work on Your Running Form to Run Faster
Running form serves two main purposes in getting faster. First a runner with good form is less likely to get injured as volume and intensity increases. This creates consistency in training which makes the runner faster. Second there’s also a more direct effect of improved running economy allowing runners to go faster at the same perceived effort level. (4)
A few key things to keep in mind when considering your running technique are cadence, vertical oscillation, foot angle, posture, lean, shank angle and where the foot lands in relation to the body.
A coach or physio specialized in running form is a great starting point to get your running form analysis done. Another great option is Movaia’s online running form analysis service, which not only provides a running form analysis but also suggests corrective exercises and running form drills. (We may be biased but that’s what our clients tell us!)
Add Strength Training to Your Run Training to Get Faster
There is strong scientific support for the performance enhancing benefits of strength training for runners: Strength training improves running economy and prevents injuries.(5,6,7)
Important focus areas for runners are strengthening the feet, calf, glutes and core muscles
Do not relegate strength training to the off season or you will loose any strength gains quickly. One to two strength training sessions per week will help to increase power output and maintain lean muscle mass.
Scheduling strength training concurrently with running is possible with a bit of care. It’s a good idea to leave 8 hours between a run and a strength training session and ideally plan strength exercises focused on core running muscles for days without runs.
Smart Goal Setting and Pacing Leads to Faster Racing
Your fist step to smart pacing is to set realistic goals. These should be based on your recent training, test races and a good knowledge of the course profile and conditions on the day.
The second step is to execute a race plan that keeps the effort level near identical throughout the race. This is a much faster way to race than starting fast and burning through your stored glycogen and mental reserves fast before then struggling to the finish line.
This has been proven time after time by the performance of world record holders to non-elite runners in marathons: The best efforts are typically negatively paced (i.e. with a faster second half of the race).
As a matter of fact a study of world championship and olympic races between 2013 and 2017 showed that all men’s and women’s races beyond 800 meters distance were won by athletes with a negative split pacing strategy. (8,9)
Run in Carbon-Plated Super Shoes
If you only invest in one piece of equipment to make your run faster then a pair of carbon plated super-shoes might be your best bet. Since the introduction of these supershoes every single running world record from 5K to the marathon has been broken – you guessed it – by athletes wearing super shoes (or super spikes).
They have been scientifically proven to make most runners faster by an average of 2% and increase running economy by 4%. This is due to their low weight, super-springy foam, high stack height that literally makes your legs longer and the stability the super stiff carbon plate provides. (10)
Run Faster with Music
Listening to music is not allowed in all races but you may benefit from bringing your favorite tunes along where it is legal. Fast-paced music in your ears will make you run faster than a run with similar rate of perceived exertion without music according to a study conducted in 2016. (11).
As a bonus slow music sped up the recovery, leading to lower heart rate and blood lactate levels at the end of the post run recovery protocol.
Eat Smart to Run Fast
Nutrition could be your biggest performance enhancer: A 2013 study concluded that non-elite marathon runners that followed a scientifically based nutritional strategy achieve a 5% faster race time than those that followed a freely chosen diet. (12)
Manage blood sugar with the right mix
The key goal for a nutrition program for athletes is to manage blood sugar well. If this is done successfully this approach
- minimizes cravings,
- maximizes recovery,
- provides a steady flow of energy,
- mental focus and
- increases the likelihood of meeting body composition goals.
To achieve this pay attention to the ratio of carbohydrates (as found in rice, pasta, bread, fruits & vegetables etc) versus protein (as found in tofu, milk products, eggs, nuts etc) you eat. This is to avoid sudden increases in insulin (and resulting low blood sugar, low energy levels and cravings) if carbohydrates are consumed without protein.
Not all carbohydrates are born equal either, those with more fiber tend to cause less pronounced swings in blood sugar.
The right mix depends on the training phase
Depending on the specific training phase and intensity of training or competition the ideal composition of meals will shift. During lower intensity phases a high proportion of food ideally comes from fruits, vegetables and proteins. For periods focusing on higher intensity whole grains and sports nutrition products (only to be consumed shortly before, during and after exercise) become a bigger part of an athletes’ diet.
If the focus is on weight loss rather than high end performance the nutrition would focus on fruits, vegetables and proteins, similar to the ‘low intensity’ diet.
How many carbohydrates do you need?
During low intensity exercise you do not need to consume any nutrition for sessions of 60 minutes or less. For longer and higher intensity workouts you will need between 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour to top up glycogen stores. These glycogen stores would be depleted after 90 to 120 minutes of exercise.
The ability of the body to process food is limited during exercise as blood is shunted away to muscles. This makes digestion hard. Nutrition during exercise therefore needs to be practiced during training. This way you can identify the type and quantity of food that works best for you under race conditions. For fluid intake the best guidance is to ‘drink to thirst’.
After training it’s time to replenish carbs (1-1.2 grams / kg of bodyweight), proteins and electrolyte to speed up glycogen store recovery. This is relevant if the next training session is within less than 16-24 hours, which is how long it would take to fully replenish glycogen stores based on a standard diet.
Carb loading for peak race performance
Since Higher glycogen concentrations correlates with less fatigue and better performance you should aim to maximize glycogen storage during before races. Research indicates that the best carb-loading protocol consists in ingesting 7-12 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight in the 24 hours before a run OR
10-12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight within 36-48 hours leading up to the race. (13)
This leads to supercompensation, i.e. higher glycogen storage than usual, if implemented simultaneously with a pre-race taper.
Have a coffee – it’s a legal performance enhancer
A special shout out within the realm of nutrition shall go to caffeine. Caffeine is a legal and proven performance enhancing substance, that can improve time trial endurance performance by 2 to 4%. (14)
Like with any nutrition taken before or during intense exercise try the effect of caffeine on your performance before race day as its impact depends on individual factors, for example daily use of coffee and body weight.
The right time for caffeine is within the hour before a race as well as during a race and it can be consumed either as coffee or as an ingredient to nutrition or hydration.
Manage Your Weight
Contrary to popular belief when running the majority of energy is not spent on forward propulsion:instead about 70% of the metabolic cost of running is dedicated to supporting body weight: (15)
It is therefore not surprising that leaner body types lead to faster race times. It’s important that body composition, i.e. the percentage of body fat is a better predictor than BMI, which does not consider build and muscle mass.
Interestingly race time only seems to be impacted by higher body fat values, once bodyfat reaches relatively low values further reductions seem not to make any difference. (16, 17, 18)
This is important as not providing sufficient energy to support a runners energy needs can lead to severe health issues, often summarized as RED-S. This acronym stands for relative energy deficiency in sport, describing declines in health and performance if not enough energy is supplied to an athlete. This syndrome affects athletes of all ability levels and genders.
Find Your ‘Why’: Mental Training for Running Performance
Mental skills to improve performance can be trained just like physical running skills. Understanding your goals and motivation will help you to remain committed to your training even when the going gets tough or when barriers from your life outside of running appear. Mindfulness training also helps to deal with anxiety on race day and reach a flow state to perform your best. (19,20)
Mental training alone will not make you win races but it will augment your performance and can easily make the difference among elite runners where physiological performance predictors are often very similar. A relevant quote from outside the world of running would be from Tennis Player Novak Djokovic: ‘Of the top 100 players, physically, there is not much difference. It’s a mental ability to handle the pressure, to play well at the right moments.’ (21)
Your brain limits your performance for safety: the central governor theory
Especially relevant for endurance sport is the idea of a ‘central governor’ in the central nervous system monitoring physiological signals during exercise to prevent overexertion by limiting your performance. This contrasts to another idea where fatigue exclusively originates from specific motor units in muscles.The central governor model allows mentally trained athletes to shift the limits and keep going when the ‘central governor’ begins to shut down performance. (22, 23)
Newest psychobiological models focus on how psychological factors such as motivation, willingness and cognitive perception influence perceived effort and endurance performance. (24)
In simple terms an athlete that is more motivated is willing to go harder for longer than an athlete that is less motivated, even if physiological conditions are similar. To truly understand your goals, to know your ‘why of exercise’ will pay dividends on race day.
Build confidence to race harder
Also believing in your ability to succeed will allow you to race harder. This belief and confidence often comes from
- bringing past success in training or racing to the forefront of your mind
- visualizing success by creating mental imagery of you reaching your goal
- looking at relevant role models
- feedback from coaches and training partners
Consciously influence how you perceive your effort
Cognitive perception of the effort can be influenced by tactics such as self talk focused on technical aspects such as running technique cues (‘Run tall’) or motivational self talk (‘You got this’).
Another way to alter cognitive perception is through the way the runner thinks about their physical experiences for example whether they interpret a situation as a threat or a challenge. The latter is often associated with better performance and comes from your trust and confidence in your ability to handle the situation based on your training and experience.(25)
If you tie your identity closely to the outcome of a race and feel less well prepared you are more likely to perceive it as a threat, inducing potentially an excessive performance reducing level of anxiety.
Smile to run faster
Even simple physiological changes in our facial expressions, posture or breathing have the power to change the way we perceive our environment and our effort. If you ever wondered why some world class runners smile during hard efforts a 2017 study may hold the answer: Smiling while running improved running economy (reduced oxygen consumption by 2.2 %) compared to a non-smiling baseline scenario. (26)
So don’t neglect your mental game and try to practice these mental skills in your training sessions so you can rely on them on race day.
Seize the Day and Get Faster
Check your training and racing regimen to see if you are already applying all of these methods to run faster. If you are like most runners you can either introduce new ways to run faster or finetune existing ones. If you want to start with one thing today – why not sign up for Movaia’s running form analysis to improve your running form.
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