Speed Training: How to Run Faster

This article is part of our series: Training for Trail Running.

 A woman trail running in a mossy forest

Whether you run for fun or to stand atop the podium, increasing your speed is a goal you’re likely to aspire to. There are many philosophies for how to go about getting faster. In this article, we discuss several methods to help you run faster, including:

  • Changing your pace to boost your training
  • Running at the track to focus on speed workouts
  • Increasing your lactate threshold so you can keep up a fast pace without crashing
  • Working on form and technique
  • Doing plyometric exercises to build explosive speed with box jumps, wall hops and more
  • Eating and drinking well because proper nutrition and hydration are key to any training program
  • Resting to ensure your body can get the most out of each workout

Your first step, as it is with any new training program, is to consider your health and fitness level. If you have any concerns, consult your physician. After that, you can train solo, but taking some classes, joining a running club and/or finding a coach or trainer usually helps you progress faster, and it’s often more fun.

Find a Running Class or Club at REI
You can also get technique help from trail-running classes and clubs:

 

Change Your Pace

a trail runner checking her pace

Training at different paces is standard practice for serious runners and an effective way to work on endurance and speed. With a basic understanding of pacing, you’ll be able to get the most out of your workouts.

Training Based on Race Pace

Experienced runners will usually train at various race paces, such as a 5K or 10K race pace. (Race pace is simply the pace at which you can run a race of a certain distance.) Race paces serve as good benchmarks in a training plan and can help you determine other paces to run at.

To figure out your race pace for a distance you’ve run, you divide your finishing time in minutes by the distance in miles. For example, if you finished a 5K in 21 minutes, you’d divide 21 minutes by 3.1 miles to get 6.77 minutes per mile (which equates to 6 minutes and 46 seconds). You can also use an online race time predictor to do the calculations for you.

Once you know your race pace, you can use that as a point of reference to determine these other training paces:

Pace

How to measure it

Slow, easy pace

About 2 minutes per mile slower than race pace

Tempo pace

25 – 40 seconds per mile slower than race pace

All-out pace

Sprinting pace

Training Based on Heart Rate

If you’re new to running, you can train with a heart rate monitor. For example, the pace of an easy run should be at about 60 – 65 percent of your maximum heart rate. To learn more, including how to calculate maximum heart rate (HRmax), read our article, Heart Rate Monitors: How to Choose and Use.

Here’s a breakdown of different types of runs and the corresponding heart rate, as well as an alternative way to estimate your heart rate:

Run type

Percent of HRmax

How to estimate it

Easy run

60-65%

You can carry on a conversation

Long run

70-80%

You can speak sentences

Tempo run

85-88%

You can speak single words

Speed run

90%

You can’t speak comfortably

 

Running at the Track

a runner's feet on the track

Many of the best runners make speed workouts on a track a mainstay of their training. Their reasoning is simple and sound: You don’t get faster without running fast.

To increase your speed, try to do at least one track workout per week. There are many different formats of track workouts; here are a few examples to get you started (keep in mind that the length and intensity of your track workout is very dependent upon your experience and fitness level as a runner):

Sprint the straights: If you’re a novice runner, don’t overdo it. After warming up with a couple easy laps around the track, increase your speed on the straight sections of the track and then recover with an easy run on the turns. Do about four complete laps.

400 meter repeats: One lap around a standard-size track is 400 meters, and doing multiple laps at this distance with a short rest in between each one is an excellent way to build strength and endurance to increase your speed. To get the most out of the workout, run the laps about 10 seconds per mile faster than your 5K race pace. Aim to do 10–12 400-meter laps with about a 30-second rest in between laps.

Mile repeat cut-downs: The idea here is to quicken your pace with each successive mile that you run. Start by running one mile at a pace that’s about 10 seconds slower per mile than your 5K race pace, then rest for about 2 minutes. Run your next mile 10 seconds faster than the previous one, then rest again for 2 minutes. Follow that up with one more mile, again 10 seconds faster than the previous one.

Ladder workouts: This is an interval-style workout where you either increase or decrease the time or distance of each repetition. Because ladder workouts are fairly strenuous, they are usually recommended for dedicated runners who have been training for a few months. You can tailor the time, distance and pace of each repetition to fit your needs but here’s an example:

Ladder up and down in the following sequence: 200 meters, 300 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters, 400 meters, 300 meters, 200 meters. Run each lap at an all-out pace and follow each one with two to three minutes of complete rest.

 

Increase Your Lactate Threshold

During any run, your body produces lactate. On an easy run, your body keeps up with the lactate production and converts it to glycogen to be used as energy. But, as you run harder and faster, your body produces more lactate and if you run too fast or for too long at a certain pace, your body meets its lactate threshold where it won’t keep up with the production and your performance will decline and you’ll need to slow down.

By training at a pace that brings you close to your lactate threshold, you can potentially raise your threshold, which can help you to maintain a faster pace over a longer distance. Doing speed track workouts are a good way to work on increasing your lactate threshold.

 

Work on Form and Technique

a trail running demonstrating proper foot strike from

Poor form and technique can keep you from hitting top speed. Here are a few key things to think about and work on:

Avoid heel strike: Every time you heel strike it’s like you’re hitting the brakes. Heel striking not only slows you down, it can also waste energy. Strive for a midfoot strike that keeps your foot directly under your body.

Increase turnover: Turnover is the number of steps you take in a minute. To figure out your turnover, count how many times one foot hits the ground in one minute and multiply that by two to get your turnover rate. The magic number you’ll hear discussed is 180 steps per minute. (It’s pretty common for non-elite runners to have a turnover rate that’s slower than that, so don’t beat yourself up over it if yours is.) Also, you don’t have to hit 180 exactly, but striving for a faster rate will get you closer to the optimal balance of stride length and frequency, which can improve your efficiency and speed.

Use video: Athletes of all kinds have long been using video footage to help them refine technique and form. Runners can benefit from this, too. Have a friend film you with their smartphone or digital camera, then review the footage and look for ways to improve your technique.

To learn more about form and technique, see our article Trail-Running: Form and Technique Tips.

 

Build Explosive Speed with Plyometric Exercise

Plyometric workouts are essentially jump training. Doing plyometric workouts (also called “plyos” for short) are a great way to train your fast-twitch muscles fibers and build your explosive speed. With all plyometric exercises, the idea is to exert your maximum effort in short intervals of time. Here are some examples of good plyometric exercises (you don’t have to do all of these). Start by choosing three or four exercises and doing them two or three times per week:

 
an exerciser demonstrating the box jump plyometric exercise

Box jumps (quads, hamstring, calves, glutes): Box jumps train your fast-twitch muscle fibers for quick reaction times. Squat downward and explode up while swinging your arms to leap onto a box that is about one to two feet high. Step down. Do three sets of 10 reps, with one to two minutes of rest between sets.

 
an exerciser demonstrating skipping for plyometric exercise

Skipping (quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves): Skipping helps develop your lower-leg strength and improve explosive speed. Pick a point about 15–20 meters away and skip to it. Focus on propelling your body up and forward. Swing your arms as you skip to warm up your shoulders. Turn around and skip back. Then rest for a minute or two and repeat. 

 
an exerciser demonstrating the single-leg hop plyometric exercise

Single-leg hopping (quads, calves, ankle invertors and evertors): This exercise develops calf and quad strength while also improving your ankle strength for better balance. Stand on one foot and hop to a point about 15–20 meters away. Switch feet and hop back to the starting point. Repeat. You can also do side-to-side hops to develop greater lateral stability.

 
an exerciser demonstrating the broad jump plyometric exercise

Broad jumps (quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes): Broad jumps are an excellent way to improve your lower body power. Start with your legs about shoulder width apart. Swing your arms forward and up and rock onto your toes. As your arms swing back down and behind you, lower your butt and bend your knees in preparation to jump. As your arms start to move forward, explode off the ground to jump forward as far as you can. Absorb the impact of the landing by bending your knees and then go right into your next jump. Make sure you land with your knees over your feet and your back straight. Do three consecutive jumps then walk back to the start and rest. Do five sets with rest in between each set.

 

Get the Right Gear

a pair of trail running shoes

Make sure you have the appropriate gear for running, especially footwear. Old, worn-out running shoes can cause discomfort in your feet, legs, knees, hips or back, which can prevent you from running at your best.

Learn more in our Trail-Running Shoes: How to Choose article and our When to Replace Your Running Shoes article.

 

Eat and Drink Well

a trail runner stopping for a water break

Staying properly fueled for fast runs is extremely important. If you don’t eat and drink right, you may suffer from fatigue, muscle cramps, nausea or worse, which will prevent you from hitting top speed. Here are some basic hydration and nutrition guidelines to follow:

  • Pre-hydrate: Drink 17–20 fl. oz. about two hours before you run so you’ll start off properly hydrated.
  • Maintain hydration: Drink about 7–10 fl. oz. (or a few good long drinks) of water every 10–20 minutes while running.
  • Eat up: For runs lasting about an hour or more, consume 200–300 calories (mostly from carbohydrates) per hour while running.

Learn more in our Hydration Basics for Trail Running article and Nutrition Basics for Trail Running article.

 

Rest and Recover

It’s important to allow your body time to recover after hard workouts. As a general rule, don’t do back-to-back days of hard workouts and give yourself at least one day off of running per week. Proper rest can help prevent overuse injuries, restore your energy levels and keep your motivation high.

To give your body a break from the pounding of running, try doing some light cross-training on your rest day or between hard running days.