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How to Get Really Good at Running

Want to get good at running? Find out how to advance from a good runner to a really good runner with these tips!

Listen to the podcast version of this post here.

If you’ve been running for a while and you are still improving, you’re probably doing a lot of things right.  You’ve learned to take your easy days easy.  You run fast once or twice a week.  You’ve built the endurance to handle solid long runs.  And you understand the importance of good recovery, sleep, and nutrition.

But what comes next?  How do you advance from being a good runner to a really good runner?  You’re not a beginner runner any more and you are ready to take it to the next level and stretch to your potential.

Getting Good is Fun

One of the most exciting times for me as a runner was when I realized, “hey, I’m pretty good at this!”  I’d run a couple of marathons at that point and I was getting better and better at it.  Every race was a new PR and it was just thrilling to imagine how far I could take it.

In the progression from my first marathon finish of 4:02 to my last marathon at 2:58, my improvement in finish times was huge at the beginning.  I shaved off 22 minutes between my first and second, 12 minutes between the second and third, and then 15 more minutes between the third and fourth.  

And then I got stuck.  

good at running get faster

I finished the Chicago Marathon in a high 3:11 and change and only shaved off about 30 more seconds in Boston the following year, still coming in at 3:11.  It would take me another full year to improve and then an additional year after that to finally get my dream goal of a sub-three marathon finish at age 42.

I’ll tell you exactly how I was able to do it, but let’s get back to you first.

Don’t Fix Things That Are Still Working

If you are beyond the beginning stage of endurance running and are ready to get stronger and faster, the first thing I have to tell you is enjoy it!  When your fitness is at a point where you can really enjoy a good run, it’s really an amazing feeling.

The next thing to do is look at how you got here and if everything is still working.  If you are still improving, you might not need to make a whole lot of changes.  Simply having more experience as a runner will make you a better runner.  To a point.

Mileage

Next up is your mileage.  Endurance running is in its most simplistic terms all about endurance so the more you run, the better your endurance will be.  Again, to a point.

Your body can’t handle big jumps in mileage, or at least not for any length of time, so adding mileage is best done gradually over seasons.  A nice progression would be to look at your average weekly volume over the past year and then add 5-10 miles to that over the next year.

So if you typically run 30 miles a week, start to bump that up so your average is 35 or 40 for the year.  Don’t do it all at once or all in one week, but just a little at a time.  If your easy run day is four miles, for example, bump one of those up to 5.  Then in a couple weeks, bump another run up to 5 miles.  Over several weeks, all of your new normal easy runs are now 5 miles instead of 4.

Frequency

Another way to add mileage is to add a running day.  If you currently run 4 days a week, try adding another short run day.  Don’t increase your mileage or intensity on your other days until you know that you have easily adapted to the extra day, which could be a few weeks or even a few months.

Long Run Length

The next piece of the mileage equation is your long run.  For every distance below the marathon, you want your long run to be longer than the race you are training for to really smash those plateaus.  For the 5k, your long run should be at least 7 miles, 10 miles for the 10k, and half marathoners should be logging a few 15 milers at the end of their training cycle.

Once you get to the marathon distance, your long run should be in the range of 18-22 miles.

Build a Durable Body Outside of Running

Some runners are just naturally able to handle more miles while others reach their stopping point at a much lower number.  Part of that is probably due to genetics, but I would argue that a lot of what makes a runner better able to handle the miles is all the stuff you do outside of the run.  Strength training, mobility, good sleep, good nutrition, enough recovery, and stress management are all key factors in your ability to handle the miles without injury and burnout, so make sure that you have a good handle on those as the miles add up.

Strength training, in particular, is one of the most crucial to your progress and durability as a runner.  Aim to spend 60-90 minutes a week lifting heavy things and putting them back down again.  Of course more of your emphasis should be on your legs, but your entire body works hard running so be sure to get every muscle on board.  Your strength sessions can be broken up any way you like, whether it’s two longer sessions a week or 10 minutes everyday.  It’s all beneficial as long as you are consistent.

Run Fast (At Times) to Run Faster

By now you know that lots of easy running will help you get faster at endurance running.  But you’ve also got to run fast every so often.  You don’t need very much fast running compared to your easy runs, but you do need to work hard at least once a week and sometimes more.

Part of what holds most runners back is that they run their easy days at a medium pace, or god forbid, run marathon pace every time they run.  You might not think that you are doing anything wrong, but speed is a finite resource.  When you spend your speed on a non-speed day, you are stealing your limited reserves of speed for the week.  Then when you go to cash in on your speed at the track, it’s no wonder that you come up short.

Set yourself up for success by being as fresh, fueled, and pumped for your speed days as possible.

Manage Your Fears of Success and Failure

The next thing that holds runners back on their speed days is fear.  It could be fear of injury or fear of failure or even fear of success.  I’ve coached athletes that would become positively sick with anxiety before a track workout. 

If that sounds like you, the first thing to remember is that your workouts are not a test.  They are a practice.  The only way you can fail at a track workout is to not go.  Yes, you are going to miss your splits at times.  You’re going to screw up the instructions.  Your watch is going to go bananas.  You’re going to go out way too fast and burn out spectacularly.  All of those things will happen.  And they are all fantastic practice for the days when everything goes right.  So don’t take yourself or the track too seriously when it comes to your performance.  Show up, work hard, and use what you learn to be better next time.

Now for those runners that are afraid to run fast because of fear of injury, let’s address that.  If you are currently injured, you should be afraid of injury and you should get better before running hard.  But if you are healthy and are afraid of re-injury, the best way to handle that is to build your confidence with baby performance steps.  Gradually add and increase speed so that your workouts are challenging, but never over the top.  Eventually paces that were once out of reach become manageable and your confidence grows.  Then take another baby step, get faster, grow more confidence, and repeat.

Learn Speed Control

Besides improving your speed, the other thing you are working on on your hard days is speed control.   When you learn to meter out your effort so that every interval from your first to the last comes in at the same pace, you are teaching your brain a powerful pacing lesson that will translate to good pacing on race day. After all, speed is not very useful if you can’t control it.

Track workouts, or short interval training, are not the only kind of speed that endurance runners need.  You’ll also want to be sure that you are running stamina runs, which is speed plus endurance.  These could be tempo runs, speed in your long runs, or longer intervals.  How often you add tempos to your schedule will depend on your fitness and recovery ability and more is not always better here.

A very typical weekly schedule for an intermediate to advanced marathoner would be a track workout on Tuesday, a tempo run on Thursday, a long run on Saturday or Sunday.  The other days would be shorter easy runs and most runners will need at least one or two days of no running.

Rest and Cross Training

Elite runners are famous for not taking full rest days very often and that can work for advanced recreational marathoners at times as well.  But this is a high-risk choice, so make sure you are maxing out your other options first.

A better idea if you simply are too healthy and have too much energy to take a full rest day is to add a cross training day.  Choose something low impact yet highly aerobic like swimming, cycling, or the elliptical.  The very best cross training for runners is deep water running or aqua jogging, so if you have access to a pool, that’s your best bet.

Less Might Be More

Now, in order to improve as a runner, you might not have to keep adding more and more.  It might simply be about changing a few things up.  For example, you might not have more time in your schedule to add more miles.  Subtracting miles might actually be the best choice when you are time crunched so that you can spend a few minutes strength training or making healthier meals or simply destressing from your busy life.  Running all the miles all the time, even if you do have the time available and you’re not getting hurt can start to have a diminishing effect.

And that’s what happened to me.  

I was doing everything that I’ve just told you to do and then some.  Because I didn’t have any obvious injuries, I added lots and lots of easy miles and reached a peak of 90 miles a week, with track on Tuesday, tempos on Thursdays, running long on weekends.

Physically, I was in great shape, but the grind got to me mentally.  The thing that turned it all around for me was letting go.  I dropped my weekly mileage by 10-20% and cut the second speed day a week.  My ambition to reach my dream goal never wavered, but my fixation on doing everything right all the time was getting in the way.  I had also stopped having fun.

Give Yourself Grace

Giving myself grace with my running allowed me to relax about the outcome and really settle into the fitness that I had worked so hard to build.  I knew the race of my life was inside me; I just had to let it come out.

And, if I’m being completely honest, I needed a little luck.  I needed many things out of my control to go right on race day.  And that’s why the concept of settling into your fitness is so important.  You need to be really solid where you are in order to take advantage of the race day you are given.  If you are always striving for far out of reach goals, it’s far easier to be disappointed because if one little thing goes wrong (and it will), you miss your shot.  But if you race with confidence built from the fitness you know you have, it’s a far better race strategy than just hopes and dreams.

Becoming a really good runner, whatever that means to you, takes a mix of ingredients that will look different for every runner.   So if you are getting the same results doing the same things you’ve always done, it might be time to change the recipe.


If you’re ready to finally take your running, nutrition, and mindset to the next level, I’ve got you. Find out what truly personalized, well-rounded coaching can do for you.


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