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If you want to run fast, run fast - expert triathlon coaching tips by Dr Laurence Birdsey

Updated: Feb 22

Lots of us want to complete the run leg faster, but how do you get that 10 km, or half marathon time faster? Here, Dr Laurence Birdsey explores how us at The Complete Athlete coach you to run fast.

We've all been there. You've built up the volume of runs, and you're trying to push the pace on every time you head out the door. Maybe, you've hit a road block through consistent training, maybe you're coming back from injury, or you're just not as fast as you used to be! Well, do not fear! There are lots of mistakes people make when trying to run fast, and through this article I hope you find something that opens the door to you getting than run leg faster!

Tip #1 - The key to going fast is going slow

Weird start, right? But it's true. Think about your training effort, or energy, as pennies. You've 100 pennies to spend across the week, perhaps across 3 runs. If you want to go fast one day, that's going to cost you a LOT of pennies. You can't magic up more pennies, which means you can't spend them all on a long hard run, for example, and need to distribute them unevenly across the week.

So, if you want to run fast in a session, you have to run slow in another. All too often, when we analyse athlete's training, the speed of runs is all too close. Easy, long runs are too hard, and fast runs are too slow because of this! So, look to separate your speeds out, and slow down to speed up. Top runners do this - it just sounds fast to you running 5:40 miles for easy runs, but they are genuinely easy.

Give it a try, and I assure you it will help. In fact, I haven't come across anyone who hasn't benefitted from this. It's remarkable how easy you can go and still get the benefits! I was fortunate to support a British Athletics camp in Iten, Keynya. There, these great runners (<61 half marathon) would go out run on road runs and get left by those visiting on a training camp. But, once they got on track the locals burn everyone away, literally leaving them in their dust (incredible dirt track there). So, run like the Kenyans, fast!

So, what sort of pace is easy? Easier than you think! The graph depicts a typical blood lactate curve. The first red line is the top of Z1 (or Z2 depending on zones) and often becomes the target. But it's too hard! For this athlete, dropping down to 14 or 15 km/h at a push will reap all the rewards, meaning efforts can be done 20+ km/h! Aim for an RPE of <12 (using the Borg 6-20 scale), an intensity where you could have a conversation with your running buddy!

Tip #2 - Ego is the enemy

Sounds easy. Next time you head out for a steady, easy, or long run, just drop 10-20 s per km off the pace. But we know, it's not that simple. Group runs, running with your mates, strava, wanting to beat your times, are all reasons to not slow down. But that's just your ego talking. And it's an ego about running slowly!!!

So, in order to run fast, by running slowly, you have to drop the ego. You have to say to your fellow runners, I'm running easier on purpose, so I can run faster. It's not easy, but you'll have the last laugh when you drop them in some efforts, and when you improve your run leg more than them!

"If you want to run fast, run slow"

Tip #3 - Fast is fast

What speed is fast? Fast is hard? Is 5 min ks fast? Or 3 min perhaps? I recently ran a research study, and some of the participants maxed out the treadmill at 25 km/h. But even that wasn't that quick for pace hit in their event, the 1500 m.

So, when we say run fast, what do we even mean? It's tricky, but it's definitely not pushing the pace of hour long runs so you're running harder and harder. And don't confuse hard with fast, they're definitely not the same. To be able to run fast, you need to be fresh (linked to running slower in other runs) and think about training quality, not quantity.

The point is, you've got to genuinely push the pace on, and not just press it a fraction or run harder each week. To improve aerobic endurance, typically we'd be looking at somewhere around 50% between the speed at 2nd threshold (lactate turn point) and speed at maximum aerobic capacity. For example, a 45 min 10 km runner would need to be intervals at perhaps around 15-16 km/h to push aerobic capacity on. So, running just ahead of current pace (i.e. new target pace) might not be quick enough, and you need to be a little loftier in ambitions.

But, running at any speed requires your muscles to generate power. So, a great way to build speed, is to be powerful (i.e. running really fast), which is where sprint, repeated sprints and hills come in. For example 6-10 x 80m off walk back recovery, 6-10 x 200 m off 30-60s rest at the end of a session, or 6-10 x 10-15 s hill sprints of 3-4 min recovery. This is also why strength training can be useful; increasing force production per stride allowing you to run quicker for any distance.

Previous training will also affect your ability to run fast (this is what my PhD and research focuses on). Typically, running after a hard bike session for example will mean you're not as quick, yet sometimes running the same day, or even a couple of hours after a previous session may mean you're faster. The best thing is to try it out, mix up training session order, and work out how to maximise training session quality.

There's lots of ways to skin it, and it depends on training history, physiology and goals, but you've probably got to run faster than you think! Running, swimming and riding easier in steady sessions will definitely help, but it's highly complex. Fortunately, we're well versed in this, with extensive experience working with a range of athletes, a strong understanding of the scientific principles underpinning this and great at keeping you injury free!

Tip #4 - Reset

If you've found yourself doing lots of efforts, and not getting anywhere, then it might be time for a reset. What do we mean? We'll yes, high intensity interval training is important, but doing that too often, or for too long can lead to stagnation. Fatigue, not overloading, or just not getting enough volume in could all be factors.

Work out how to maximise training session quality

So, instead of doing even more efforts, you might find that 4-6 weeks of pulling back the intensity, doing easy/ steady runs, perhaps with some light intensity, might just be the reset you need. You'll build volume and fitness back up, freshen your body and mind up, and then be ready to hit some hard efforts again. We often use this, perhaps after a key event, or mid-season even, to reset and then re-load.

Tip #5 - You're not as young as you used to be

This is an important one, unfortunately! Our bodies change as we age, and if we don't stress our bodies appropriately, we can lose muscle mass, strength, our fast twitch muscle fibres, as well as aerobic capacity.

This means, that whilst you were younger you might not have needed to do speed training, the reduction in fast twitch fibres and strenghth might mean that's exactly the thing you need to do! However, remember, you're not as young as you used to be! So, you can't just head out the door and do sprints. You need to ease in to it, gradually stress your body, to avoid inuries and reap the rewards.

This might be just the reason that you can't quite do what you used to do. Whether that's the volume of efforts, or the speed, you can't just train as you used to, instead you need to look at what you need to do now.

Triathlon Coaching at The Complete Athlete

We all want to get our run leg faster, but sometimes, it takes doing something a little different to get that breakthrough. These are just some of the approaches you can take. We're highly experienced in this, through our work with international-standard triathletes, Olympic champions and professional sports people, as well as age-groupers, completors and those looking to stay fit.

Interested to learn more? Then check out our triathlon coaching packages:

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