How to Run Faster: A Running Coach’s Guide

How to Run Faster: A Running Coach’s Guide

Running Coach in Laramie, Wyoming

How to Run Faster: A Running Coach’s Guide by Matt Hartsky, CSCS, PES, CPT

I was curious to see what a quick google search would retrieve for the phrase, “How to Run Faster?” To my surprise, almost every article from the results included lists of “tricks” or at best, tips that you could do right before, during, and immediately after your runs like warm-up, hydrate, keep it fun, run with friends, start slow, fuel up, check your posture, focus on breathing, set small goals, take care of your feet, cool-down and focus on recovery. Unfortunately, while all practical, most of these involve ideas runners can employ to be more comfortable during their runs, instead of ways to build themselves up so they can run faster by becoming stronger and more efficient at running. 

When training for the marathon under the guidance of legendary Coach Joe I. Vigil, he would often remind us we should be working on speed all the time, because even as long-distance runners, our ability to run fast over long distances was ultimately limited by how fast we could sprint the 100-meter dash. In essence, the faster the base of speed, the athlete could potentially train the appropriate systems and run to their potential over longer distances.

If we can agree that speed work can make us faster, let’s dive into what determines running speed. Each step you take while walking or running requires you to drive off the ground to continue moving forward. This movement requires your body to produce force. The more force your body can produce, the more efficient and effective you will be at covering distance with each stride. The amount of force your body can produce is dependent upon how strong your muscles (and tendons and ligaments) are. This means that strength will ultimately determine how fast and efficiently you can potentially run. 

Speaking of efficiency, as a Strength and Conditioning and Performance Enhancement Specialist who also happens to be a running coach in Laramie, Wyoming, I believe becoming more efficient is a critical by-product of becoming stronger. The stronger you become, the more force you produce and the more control you gain over your body, allowing you to focus on better technique including foot strike, stride rate or turnover, hip and leg lift, torso posture, arm swing, and breathing. All of these are components of the total running package that contributes to running faster.

So, we can get faster and more efficient with focused and running specific strength training. But those aren’t the only black and white benefits of getting stronger. A 2017 study published by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning reported several effects of a forty-week running-based strength training program included the improved ability for the body to use oxygen during running, also known as VO2Max.

In addition, being injured and not getting to do what we want to do is no fun, yet many runners I know avoid taking steps to prevent this frustrating downtime in hopes it won’t happen to them. There is no doubt a more balanced and well-rounded body created by strength training will lead to fewer injuries and keep you doing what you enjoy.

With so many upsides to strength training for runners, let’s look at exactly how you can go about getting stronger in ways that help you to run faster and more efficiently while avoiding injuries.

What Body Parts Should Runners Strength Train?

As a former national-class runner, I can tell you I certainly saw myself as an athlete. Unfortunately, in my prime running days, I followed the law of specificity that states, “If you want to be a good runner, you have to focus on running-specific training.” While I believe this is still true, what I’ve realized as I’ve gained more experience as a coach is that the law of specificity doesn’t say you must ONLY focus on sport-specific training, because doing so leaves the athlete unbalanced, susceptible to injury, and unable to reach their maximum athletic potential. Fast runners are more athletic and athletes are strong from head to toe.

While strengthening the entire body is in play for runners, it can often be beneficial to focus on areas needing the most balance first. Prime targets for strength improvements in runners include the entire core, glutes and pelvic muscles, hamstrings, lower legs, ankles, and feet.

Training the Core

The core is often mistakenly thought of as only including the abs when in reality, is made up of a series of inter-connected muscles that includes the transverse abdominis, which are the muscles that stabilize your spine and sides; the erector spine, which are the muscles that support your lower back; the obliques, which are the internal and external muscles that wrap around and support your abdomen; the rectus abdominis, which are the “6 pack muscles” responsible for moving the body between the ribs and the pelvis; and the muscles around the scapula, hip flexors, and pelvic floor.

As with most athletic-focused strength training, the more functional the movement, the more it translates into improved athletic strength. Move beyond crunches to exercises that involve placing the most stress on as many parts of the core as possible. Great examples of core strengthening exercises for runners include hanging knee to elbow variations, standing Russian twist variations, plank rotation, and knee tuck variations.

Training the Glutes

Runners are notorious for having weak gluteal muscles. The glutes are responsible for stabilizing the lower back, sacroiliac joints, pelvis, knees, and ankles. When any of these areas become unstable, there is a risk of internal rotation or hip drop, which can cause strain and impaired movement for the entire body, while also increasing the risk of injury to those areas. 

Highly recommended exercises for the glutes include hip thrust, reverse deficit lunge, Bulgarian split squat, sumo squat, glute bridge, butterfly glute bridge, single-leg glute bridge, cross-legged glute bridge, banded walks, Copenhagen raises, side-lying clam, and banded donkey kick.

Training the Hamstrings

Weak hamstrings are also a common occurrence in runners. Weak hamstrings typically mean the quads are more dominant and this not only reduces the opportunity for optimal speed development but also sets the athlete up for a host of injuries including those to the knee. Research has also clearly shown the hamstrings to be a prime contributor to the amount of force a runner can produce. The stronger the hamstrings, the greater the potential force. 

Move away from the traditional leg curl to develop these force generators and instead focus on building your posterior chain with RDL’s, single leg RDL’s, stability ball curls, suspended curls, GHR curls, and nordic curls.

Training the Lower Legs, Ankles, and Feet

Building the muscles of the lower legs, ankles, and feet is crucial for developing efficient foot strike, forward drive, and forwarding off nagging injuries. Take your shoes off at the park or in your living room and run. What hits the ground first? For most people, it is their mid or ball of the foot. Likewise, watch the foot strike of a sprinter and it will also typically be mid-foot. This is the optimal and most efficient landing and push-off zone for humans. Unfortunately, we’ve become accustomed to thick heeled shoes over the years and our lower legs, ankles, and feet have become week, making this drive a chore. Coach Vigil used to point to the difference in the lower leg, ankle, and foot strength of athletes in less developed countries who grew up running around barefoot, compared to week Americans who grew up with fancy thick heeled shoes.

You can start building the small muscles of the feet, as well as the calves, with a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises including single-leg calf raises, calf drop stretch, toe spreading, marble toe lifts, toe spelling, towel curls, and heel-toe walks.

Additional Training for Strength, Efficiency, and Speed

Plyometrics are another excellent tool for building strength in a highly functional and athletic manner. Plyometrics can include movements from rapid foot placement and mild hopping with an agility ladder to bounding and jumping. Always try to follow the proper training continuum which would have you safely master simultaneous two leg movements before moving on to alternating or single-leg movements. 

In addition to the more obvious and highly beneficial shadow jump rope variations, runners can also benefit from a wide variety of other jumping exercises including squat jumps, ankle jumps, double leg bounds, depth jumps, hurdle hops, and long jumps.

Considerations for Strength Training for Runners:

  • Many runners fear lifting will add too much bulk or mass to their frame. Unless you are training heavy, frequently, and eating a considerable amount of calories aimed at promoting muscle growth, this would be extremely difficult amidst a running schedule, and especially for women.
  • Strength training for runners should focus on lifting with controlled form and excellent technique in rep ranges that are known to produce strength.
  • Runners should avoid turning a lifting session into a high heart rate, heady breathing session- you get enough of this specifically through running workouts.
  • Runners should follow a periodized strength training program, just like their running program, by focusing on building up their work capacity and strength during the base building period.
  • Bodyweight or the lightest weight possible should be mastered before moving onto heavier weight. 3 sets of 10 reps with perfect form, with 2 minutes recovery between sets, should be a very generalized place to start.
  • Beginning with one day of strength training per week should be adequate for most runners. After the first few weeks, spreading this out to 2-3 times per week should allow for better specific recovery and the opportunity to accomplish more strength work each week.
  • Running at faster paces like intervals, lactate threshold or VO2Max work can be impaired by strength training within 48 hours beforehand so plan accordingly.
  • If you plan to run and strength train on the same day, run first. Optimally, you would also want to have several hours between your run and your strength work.