There are a lot of articles out there claiming to give you a fast track toward becoming a faster or better runner. Whether the advice is to "do these 5 exercises" or "run this specific workout", they all make an assumption that everyone is equal. And obviously, we are not. Now, since the target audience of such publications is typically a wide range of people, I understand that they have to generalize. I've made arguments before against taking a given workout from an article and just throwing it right into your plan - most of these publications don't make any disclaimers about where your fitness should be prior to implementing a given workout. Anyways, my point is that there are a lot of articles out there touting specific workouts to be "better" but what I'm talking about are actions you can take, rather than the workouts themselves. I truly believe that there are millions of combinations of workouts anyone can do to get faster - its the actions you take surrounding those workouts that create the blueprint for being faster.
1) Don't "taper" for your long runs or key workouts - I'm sure most people, myself included, like to glance ahead and see what kind of crazy workout is in store for them down the road. With that in mind, most will prepare their efforts based on ensuring your optimal conditions going into that workout (ie feeling rested). As a result, you knock the workout out of the park - success! Well, not quite. See, the purpose of training is to create stress and while recovery is an important part in getting stronger, you shouldn't place special importance on being well rested going into particular workouts. Many workouts, including some of the more challenging ones, are specifically designed for you run them in a fatigued state. The success of your training lies in the entire package of workouts you do, not one single workout. So while adding additional rest in place of perhaps a recovery jog the day before might make you crush that key workout, you'll be creating less stress (ie doing less work) over the course of the week, month, or training cycle. And while quality is certainly more important than quantity, many people see training success in terms of hitting their long run or key workout. Doing so can create a false sense of confidence going into a race, because you hit a particular workout. My point is that you need to approach training one workout at a time - they are ALL important and no single workout is necessarily indicative of performance, save for maybe one race simulation type of workout during a particular training cycle. If you want to create slightly less stress, you can cross train or try to increase the recovery period between workouts, such as running one workout in the morning and the other the next day in the evening, giving you up to 36 hours of recovery between each. Doing so maximizes your recovery period, while still maintaining consistency.
2) All easy runs should include sets of strides at the end - For those not familiar with strides, they are a series of short sprints (but not all out) that help to develop neuromuscular coordination and efficiency at high speed. These are executed by running for 20-30s on a flat or slightly downhill section at a speed that you would consider as fast as you can go with perfect form. You want to concentrate on keeping your form perfect by having a compact stride, shoulders relaxed, but a strong powerful effort. When you are done with one rep, you can slowly jog or walk back to the start. Remember, these are not done for conditioning, so you want to be fully recovered before starting the next one. By practicing strides, you improve your technique, increase muscle firing in the neural pathways (ie recruiting more muscle fibers), and strengthen your musculoskeletal system. As an added bonus - if you run your regular workout, followed by 4-6 x 20-30s strides, you'll likely be adding an additional mile to your run. If you are looking for easy ways to increase your volume, this is a great way to start.
3) Conduct strength and mobility exercises before/after every workout - I know this sounds like a tall order, but we're talking a matter of 5-10 max minutes on each end and the benefits far outweigh the cost of not doing anything. I've talked plenty about mobility work before, and also about strength work. Well, pre and post run, these two combine to form a strategy for injury proofing your body. While anyone can still make stupid training mistakes, building general strength and continually working on mobility ensures your muscles remain in balance along with the appropriate level of elasticity to properly function. In other words, they give you extra insurance in case you do make training mistakes. So what do we mean? For strength work the first step I'd recommend is the lunge matrix.
It is simple and takes only a few minutes to do. Now, you certainly don't need to start doing as many reps as is done in the video, but eventually building up. I do a version of these before EVERY run. It targets all the different planes of motion and prepares your body for the workout at hand, while simultaneously building strength.
On the mobility side of things, I've also mentioned before about Active Isolated Stretching. I do these with daily, whether I run or not, but also as part of my warm up and cool down. It just feels good and I believe helps to warm up when done before workouts and to help speed recovery by promoting blood flow when done after.
4) Run at paces based on your current fitness level - This may sound repetitive, because I've said it before, but I'm going to say it again. You can't just magically pull up a goal time or pace out of thin air and decide you are going to train for it. Well, you could - but I wouldn't advise it. First, you'd likely be hurt before you reached the race. Secondly, because you'll likely get burned out from the stress running at paces above your ability will cause. And third, you likely won't be targeting the proper aerobic systems when you are training, which if you are training for a marathon, is very important. None of these options are ideal. So if you are a 4:00 marathoner looking to run 3:30, you can't just go from running miles at 9:00 to 8:00. You need to train yourself appropriately at your 4:00 baseline fitness and over time, you can make improvements. Now I say this not to imply that someone who currently runs a 4:00 marathon can't train for their next marathon to break 3:30. It really depends on your background, running history, health, etc. People do it. But if you want to do it safely and realistically, then you need to be able to prove your fitness in order to attempt that goal pace. You do this by training and then incorporating testing protocols to determine if your fitness has improved. And it is through these tests (or races) that you "earn" the right to train at faster paces. Want to train and run faster? Prove it first, then adjust your paces accordingly.
5) Don't be afraid to hurt- Common running advice out there might lead you to believe that all running should be roses and daisies and you should stop running at any signs of pain. Well let me let you in on a little secret - running hard hurts. Now mind you, my definition of hurt might be different than yours, which is where I think people go wrong. If you run consistently, you are going to get muscle tightness. That's part of the game. And sore muscles do not mean you need to stop running until they feel loose again. You WANT some tightness there to provide the elastic recoil as part of your natural running gait. Acute pain that impacts your running gait is not the kind of pain we are talking about. In general, I mean muscle tightness, which is normal. But my point here is that, if you want to run faster, you have to run faster (at paces relative to your fitness - see #4 above). And running faster hurts. But that's the only way you are going to race faster. You need to get familiar with that feeling, otherwise you'll back off every time you get to that point. Learn to deal with the hurt and pain of going hard, and you will become much better at running.
So there you have it, 5 things you can do today to get faster. Got any other thoughts? I'd love to hear them!