There are only a few things you need to do to be sure to hit your running goals. You don’t need to worry about whether you have that perfect pair of shoes that only weighs 100 grams. You don’t need to worry about “perfect” running technique. You don’t even need to worry if your fitness tracker is recording your run!! For most people, there are just four things you need to get right if you’re going to see your running improve.
- Be consistent
- Have a good training plan
- Eat well
- Get enough sleep and recovery
#1 Be consistent with your running training
First and foremost is consistency with your training. The other three things actually feed into this. Three or four good weeks of training does not a personal best make. You need to be consistent week on week, month on month, and yes, even year on year, to really see the results you want.
I’ve coached many runners to personal bests across a number of distances. Those runners who’ve hit their goals are the ones who have been most consistent with their training. I’ve seen someone knock 5 minutes off their 5k time over nine months this year, whilst hitting a half marathon PB along the way. Another of my consistent runners achieved his goal of running a marathon and running a sub 20 minute 5k this year, another couple have done marathon PBs. I can’t list them all here, but these results are fairly typical of people I coach who can get some good consistency with their training.
It takes commitment, and it takes wanting to get faster more than you want the other things that could stop you from being consistent.
#2 A good training plan that suits your fitness level and your life-style
If you don’t have a training plan that suits you, then you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball as far as getting consistent goes. Get a smart, realistic training plan that’s optimised for you. Whether you have a professional coach design a plan for you, or you design one for yourself, a good training plan will:
- Start you at a point that suits your current level of fitness
- Advance you at a pace that is not too hard and not too easy. Yes, like Goldilocks, it needs to be just right.
- Have some recovery built into the plan
- Take into account the amount of time you really have to train. If you can only run 3 days a week, your plan needs to reflect that. Don’t plan to run 4 days a week, then miss 25% of your training when reality sets in
- Vary your training to keep it interesting
- Include a base training phase before becoming more race specific
Having a coach can take care of all of that for you, and it can definitely help to get you to the next level more quickly, but whether you choose to use a coach, or whether you design your own training plan, just having a plan to follow will help you to be more consistent.
A word of warning if you are designing your own training plan. Be a little conservative when you’re advancing your training. If you overdo it, you’re risking injury or burnout. Either way, you can kiss a PB goodbye if you’re not able to train due to an overuse injury. If you don’t give yourself enough rest time, your training could actually lead to a decline in performance. So make sure you construct a plan that works for you, build in training that advances you at an appropriate speed, and allow some recovery time.
#3 Eat well
If you eat well at least 80% of the time, your running is likely to improve. Eat whole, unprocessed foods, lots of vegetables and 1-2 pieces of fruit a day. “If it comes in a pack, put it back” is a great mantra!
You can eat not so well the other 20% of the time – though a 90/10 ratio would be better. That’s more than a whole day a week when you can eat junk. Viewing it that way can make it a little easier to steer away from stuff you know is not good for you most of the time. The more whole food you eat, the better you will feel. If you feel good and have more energy it’s much easier to train consistently. Your body will function more efficiently – and you’ll run faster.
#4 Sleep and recovery
Sleep has a restorative effect on the human body. It’s true. Unfortunately, sleep can also be illusive for some of us, particularly as you get older. If I had the answer to the sleep problems of the western world, I’d be a very rich woman. Sadly, I don’t, and I’m not, so I’m not going to attempt to try to address sleep issues here. Suffice is to say, if you do have sleep issues, it’s important to try to do something about it.
Sleep is important if you want to run faster. It’s important for your race performance, it’s important for your training. It’s important for injury prevention, (and it’s important so that you can be a nice person).
When you’re sleeping, your body restores and rebuilds. It’s super-compensating for the stress you’ve been putting it under. Your body makes itself stronger, in expectation of the next load you’ll subject it to. If you don’t get adequate sleep, and if you don’t build recovery into your training plan, your body will struggle to get stronger in response to your training. And if you’re not recovering well and feeling a bit under the weather most of the time, you’re not likely to leap out of bed every morning to go for a run.
What type of running training can you do to get faster?
Let’s say you do have these basics covered. How do you know what type of training will help get you faster for your next race? That’s a big question, and difficult to answer on an individual level here so I’ve set out some general guidelines and tips below to help you figure out what you need to do.
One of the things I will say about recreational runners is that we do find it quite hard to fit in all the running we need to do to get faster. It’s pretty common that recreational runners’ times get proportionately slower as the distance gets longer. It’s just much harder to find the time to train for a marathon than it is to find time to train for a 5k. And it might take a few years of training, consistently, before you get good at marathons.
Assess your strengths and weaknesses by using the age graded percentage tables
The first thing to do is to assess your strengths and weaknesses.
You can discover a couple of things about your running using the age graded percentage table.
- What distance you are naturally better at- which event you have the most potential in.
- What distance you are better at right now, and therefore where you need to focus your training for certain race distances
How to discover which distance you are naturally better at
- Go to the age graded percentage calculator
- Select a race distance and enter your time as well as the age you were when you did that time.
- Calculate your age grading and make a note of it.
- Do the same for each each distance you have a race time for
For this exercise to be really meaningful, you have to have been well trained for a particular distance at the time of running it. The fact that you could only manage a five hour marathon but your 10k PB is 40 minutes may be more of a reflection that you were under trained for the marathon, rather than that you are not suited to it.
And conversely, if your 5k PB was hit when you were training for a marathon, it’s likely your potential in the 5k could be even faster, as you would not have been doing 5k-specific speed work when you were training for a marathon.
But, assuming you can enter some times for races where you were training pretty well for that race distance, this can give you a general indication of what you’re likely to be better at, shorter or longer distances.
You may see a trend here – you might have a tendency to have a higher age grading over the longer distances – say half marathon, or even a marathon, but not be so great at 3 or 5 k-ers, or vice-versa. The event where your PB yields the highest age grading is the event which you are likely to be naturally better suited to.
( I’d probably leave off a marathon time unless you are a reasonably experienced marathoner, as it can take a bit of time to get good at them!)
Discover what you’re relatively better at right now, and what you need to focus on
- In the age graded tables, enter in recent times over different race distances, along with your age.
- Make a note of your age grading for each race distance
This will give you an idea of what you’re currently better at, relative to other distances. This will most be likely the distance you’ve been training for. The distance with the highest age grading is the distance you are relatively better at right now, but is not necessarily the event you have the most potential in.
If you’re like most recreational runners, your age graded percentage is likely to get lower as the race distance increases. Often this can be put down to not enough running, or not enough of the right kind of running.
Adjusting your training focus
Do you need to adjust your training for your chosen distance?
Using the second method where you enter recent race times into the age graded calculator can help you to train better for your chosen distance. Looking at what you’re good at now can help you decide where your training can use a boost. Focusing on what you’re not good can really boost your performance, even if that seems a little counter intuitive.
Here are a few examples:
Goal distance: 5k
Best age graded percentage using recent race times: half marathon
Focus should be speed work to get a faster 5k time. You will probably have a pretty good aerobic base if you’ve recently done a half marathon, so you can drop the mileage a bit and introduce some more speed work into your training. You’ll still want to make sure that around 80% or your training is easy. This number may decrease by a few percent as your goal race gets closer.
Goal event: Marathon
Best age-graded percentage: 5k
The focus needs to be on building an aerobic base, and teaching your body to burn fat for fuel. You can find out more about how to do this by downloading our free booklet on long run pacinghere.
You can include a faster workout once a week, but the focus is on building your mileage. Around 90% of your running will be easy runs with the aim of gradually building the distance of a long run to somewhere over 30kms. (Exactly how long is dependent on how your training has gone)
Goal Race: Marathon
Best age-graded percentage: Marathon
Focus. You could do with building a 6-10 week block of 5-10k training into your schedule. Shifting the focus onto a shorter distance for a while can help with some running specific strength gains, and will place the focus on a different energy system for a short period of time. You need to shake your body up from time to time and place different stresses on it to see improvements continue.
Or… you could simply focus on what you don’t like doing
Often I find the training that people like doing the least is the type of training that will give them the edge when it comes to setting a new personal best. For example, some of our marathoners could run long, slow runs every day of the week and never get bored. Some have a real aversion to shorter races, and yet, a 6-12 week block of training for a 10k could be just the thing they need to get faster over the longer event.
Conversely, if you want to run a half marathon and you find anything more than a thirty minute run is too much, preferring to churn out 200 metre repeats, you’re going to need to focus on building an aerobic base. You’ll need lots more slower running over longer distances.
Choosing a distance where you have the most potential
Look at the age graded percentage for all your personal best times. The distance you have the highest age grading for will be the distance over which you have the greatest potential (as long as you had trained appropriately for each distance when you set your best time).
Lots of factors come into consideration when you’re choosing what distance to train for of course, such as what you enjoy the most, how much time you have, whether you have any susceptibility to injury that needs to be taken into account, as well as the type of challenge you want to set yourself. But… if you’re really keen to get as good as you can be, choosing the distance you’re best suited to and training the house down with a distance specific training schedule, should see some good improvements.
If you’re wanting to get faster, keep it simple. Don’t focus on the small stuff. Go for big ticket items. Getting the basics covered is something that many runners can lose sight of. Those four basics are crucial if you want to step your running up to the next level, as is getting a bit more strategic about your training.
If you’re happy not to be striving to be faster (and there’s nothing the matter with that), you can get away with not being so on top of training strategy, but, the way I look at it, you’re going to be spending time running, so you may as well be doing the type of training that’s going to help you reach your goals faster.