How Can I Run Faster?

By Karen Hancock

I’ve been asked this question a number of times, usually by relatively inexperienced runners. James is a typical case. He said he always ran at 8 minutes per mile, and no matter what he did, he never seemed to be able to run faster. I really doubt that. I expect if James were to enter a one-mile race, he would be able to run it at something like 6 or 6:30 pace. If so, he doesn’t lack the basic ability to run faster; his problem really is how to run faster for longer distances: he needs to work on his speed-endurance. And to do this, he needs to run outside his current comfort zone.

A simple approach to running faster, suitable for novices

The simplest way of building speed-endurance is simply to run faster. If you find that you are doing most of your runs at a 'comfortable' pace, then simply build into your runs some sustained segments of a few minutes each which are distinctly 'uncomfortable'! But how do you know what is a comfortable pace for you? Well, if you can talk in full sentences as you are running, you must be feeling pretty comfortable. On the other hand, if you struggle to get out more than a word or two, then you know that you are running at an uncomfortable pace. Over a measured course you should be able to work out these paces in terms of minutes per mile – say 9 minutes per mile = comfortable, and 7 minutes = uncomfortable.

Another good way to do get out of your comfort zone would be to tag along with the 3 parks runners on a Wednesday night who are aiming at a pace about 30 seconds faster than your current speed. Even if you can only keep up with them for 15 minutes to begin with, you are teaching your mind and body to cope with running at higher speeds and with more discomfort. Each week, add another 5 minutes to the time you spend hanging on with the faster group. Your body will adapt and get stronger as you spend more time running out of your comfort zone.

A more structured approach: theory

If you want a more scientific approach, you will need to work on the factors that the current state of knowledge suggest limit your speed-endurance. There are three:

  • VO2 max: is the maximum volume of oxygen you can use per kilo of body-weight. It is mainly genetically-determined, though it can be improved a bit through losing excess body fat and through VO2 max training at close to your maximum speed or heart rate. I will give more advice on this in my next article.
  • Lactate threshold [1]: Lactic acid (or lactate) is a by-product of the process of burning energy to fuel movement. When combined with oxygen (through breathing in), lactic acid produces energy and carbon dioxide (which you breathe out). You are producing lactate all the time, even when just ambling down to the shops for your Sunday newspaper. But at slow paces, the rate of lactic production is low enough that the body can clear it as it's produced. As you increase the speed, you begin to overwhelm the body's ability to use or clear it. So, the faster you run, the greater the rate of lactate accumulation. At some point as you increase your speed, the lactate concentration in your muscles and blood stream will become so high that your muscles can't operate, and you start feeling pain – especially in the quadriceps (thigh muscles). If you're racing an 800m, you feel as if the track has turned into treacle in the last 200 and no matter how hard you try, you can't increase your speed. What has happened is that you have gone beyond the point at which the rate of increase in lactate production rises exponentially, overwhelming the body's clearing mechanisms [2]. What lactate threshold training does is to shift that point where the steep rise begins to the right (see Figure 1).

Lactate vs Speed graph

Most untrained people have a lactate threshold of 40-55% of their VO2 max, but the trained athlete can operate at 90% and more, which means they can run faster before the lactate concentration gets the better of them.

  • Running efficiency: more efficient runners can run faster at any given level of effort, so it's always worth trying to improve your efficiency through working on your form. Again, this will be the subject of a future article.

Where is my lactate threshold? (LT)

Assuming you don't have access to a lab, there are two methods of determining your LT:

  1. The Heart Rate rule: If you're into training with an HRM, one guide is that your LT pace is the pace which gives you 85-92% (opinions vary) of your maximal heart rate. I personally think the 85% guide is a bit low, and some authorities offer 90% as the appropriate threshold. For me, 85% gives me a pulse of 145 bpm, but I find my long runs – which I run at a comfortable, conversational pace - average 145 bpm. The 92% limit to me feels closer to what I think my LT threshold feels like (comfortably hard) and is about at 10-15 bpm faster than my long run pace.
  2. Use Race Performance: Alternatively, you can use your race performance as a guide to your LT threshold. Your LT pace (and heart rate) will be about the same as your race pace, for races that take you about one hour. For most Serpies, this will be a bit slower than 10k pace, and a bit faster than 10-mile pace. This is the most accurate method.

How can I raise mine?

You need to get mind and body used to coping with running on the edge of lactatfe build-up and beyond, and by so doing, nudge it up a bit. In other words, you need to get used to running at a higher level of perceived effort.

A number of writers argue that it is vital to do LT training at exactly LT pace, and no faster, else you're training in "no man's land" [3][4]. I disagree. I think any running done beyond your comfort zone will improve your speed. If you run at close to LT pace, you will be primarily nudging up that threshold. If you run faster than that, you will be both dragging up that threshold and doing something towards working on your VO2 max and probably your running efficiency too. Either way, you'll get faster.

There are also a few authorities that recommend limiting your LT training to no more than 10% of your weekly mileage. I can find no scientific basis for that rule, and I don't think the Kenyans stick to it. In fact, the evidence is that the more you run beyond your comfort zone, the greater and faster will be the improvement in your speed. The only limits should be imposed by your own propensity to get injured or ill and your other training priorities (e.g. long runs to build endurance). I wouldn't recommend doing your long runs at your LT pace, simply because you'll probably find it too difficult. But there are probably some Africans or even Paula herself who do this at least once in a while, or for at least part of their long run.

Although I am advocating simply increasing the pace on some of your standard runs as a way of increasing your speed-endurance, there are times when you might prefer a more structured LT-raising session. Here's two for you to try:

  1. Threshold (or Tempo) runs. Pick a route that takes you 40-60 minutes at a steady pace. Run easily to warm up for 10 minutes. Then run 20-40 minutes at your LT threshold pace. Finish off with 10 minutes of easy running (followed by stretching, of course). This requires concentration and a fair amount of motivation to do on your own, but does toughen you up mentally.
  2. "Sandwich session": Pick a reasonably level route that takes at least 45 minutes to run. Run easy for 10 minutes to loosen up; increase your effort to your LT pace for 10 minutes; run easy for 5 minutes; then run for another 10 at LT pace, before running home. As you get fitter, increase the sandwiches to 2x 15 minutes at LT pace, so you are doing a total of 30 minutes of LT running, with a 5 minute easy running recovery. Then you can introduce variety by doing shorter efforts but more of them, and with shorter recoveries: e.g. 3x 10 minutes (3:00 recovery); 4x8 minutes (2:30 recovery); 5x7 minutes (2:00 recovery).

Test out whether the training is working by racing. And if you set a pb, you'll need to revise your LT pace estimate upwards. Let me know how you get on.

Karen Hancock
Level 2 Endurance Coach

September 2004

[1] Allen D and Westerblad H: "Lactic acid – the latest performance-enhancing drug", Science 20 August 2004, quotes recent research which calls into question the conventional wisfdom that lactate accumulation limits performance. However, even if our understanding of the causal mechanism turns out to be wrong, the training advice in this article will help you to run faster and has been tried and tested by many levels of athlete.

[2] Note that lactate clears quite quickly if you do slow down or stop. Muscle biopsies show that even after an intensive interval session, concentrations are back to normal within an hour. Ice baths are not – contrary to some opinion – aimed at helping lactic acid to disperse. They simply help reduce post-exercise pain and stiffness brought on by swelling in the muscles due to cell damage.

[3] Daniels, J: Daniels' Running Formula, Human Kinetics, 1998.

[4] Pfizinger, P and Douglas S: Road Racing for Serious Runners, Human Kinetics, 1998.