Improve Running Performance

After a few races, most runners become hooked and look for ways to improve running performance. Self-improvement is a fun and exciting adventure. It’s a great feeling when you achieve a personal record (PR)!! And it doesn’t take long after celebrating one performance that you’ll want to set your next running race goal.

If you want to improve your performance, you’ll likely focus on stamina or speed…or a little of each. You’ll want a training plan that improves your overall fitness level gradually. As you introduce these changes and improvements in your training, your muscles will get more efficient and productive at the running motions and the removal of wastes in the muscles (lactic acid).

Measuring and improving our fitness level can be a bit complicated on paper. Our fitness level can be measured by the amount of oxygen that our bodies use while exercising at our maximum capacity. This is called VO2 Max and it’s usually measured in units of milliliters of oxygen per kg of body weight per minute. Many elite athletes will have in-depth medical studies conducted to test their VO2 Max and gauge its improvement during their training. Thankfully for us, there’s a simpler way...

If we want to improve running performance, we need to find a way to increase our ability to do more work with less effort. Studies show that we’re able to improve our VO2 Max when we workout for 20 plus minutes, three times per week at 60-85% of our maximum heart rate (MHR). You can figure out your MHR by subtracting your age from 220, or use this heart rate calculator to determine your MHR and various levels of intensity.

If you have access to a piece of fitness equipment with a heart rate monitor, these are also good tools for monitoring your heart rate. By periodically doing similar workouts, you can measure your heart rate to see if your body is applying more or less effort to do the same amount of work. Keep in mid that your heart rate can get elevated by a number of outside factors, including physical and mental stresses. Therefore, it’s near impossible to draw an accurate conclusion on your running improvement from just one or two workouts. So monitor your heart rate over the long term to get a more accurate assessment. If interested, there’s also a very good site, Sports Coach, which has a lot of good information on the science and physiology behind running performance.

Now that we know the science of the matter, here are a few physical measures that we can take to improve running performance. The workouts below are strenuous and should be combined with an ample amount of rest and recovery. It’s the stress plus the rest that leads to improvements that we all seek. Try adding these to your weekly routine and you’ll be sure to improve running performance:

  • More Miles!:
    Running more mileage does more than just increase your performance for the long races. I found that my 5k times improved quite a bit when my weekly mileage climbed into the 40+ range. The long slow distance runs improve your muscle’s efficiency at burning the glycogen and fat stores and can help prolong the on-set of lactic acid build-up. Even if you’re goal race is a middle distance run, you can improve running performance by gradually increasing your mileage. Be conscious of your mileage increases and try not to increase your long run more than 2-3 miles over your previous week’s long run, and make sure that the total weekly increase doesn’t exceed 15-20%.
  • Hills
    Hills are tremendous way to build leg strength and ultimately improve running performance. Look at hills like strength-training in disguise. Focus on running form and treat each hill as an interval. By running hills, your legs will are going through the running movements against gravity…which is more efficient and effective than stationary leg lifts and leg curls in a gym. Hill intervals are used by almost all of the world’s elite distance runners as a method to improve their efficiency, strength, and ultimately…their times. Find a good hill that’s 200-400 meters long with a decent upgrade slope. Start with 2-3 intervals based on your fitness level and increase by a repetition or two each week during the strength-building part of your training plan. Make sure that you get a good 1-2 mile warm-up and cool-down jog in before and after any hill interval training to prevent injuries.
  • Intervals
    Intervals are like a dress rehearsal for your race and they should be the foundation of your plan to improve running performance. Interval distance should vary based on your goal race. For example, ¼-mile intervals are good repetitions for a 5k race, while mile intervals are more suited for a marathon. Like the hill intervals, start with 2-4 repetitions and increase weekly. The interval portion of your training plan is the heart of the schedule and should take you to the taper period (2-3 weeks) prior to your goal race. The goal for your intervals should be 70-85% effort with sufficient rest between each repetition. The pace for your intervals should be slightly faster than your goal pace for your race. For example, if you want to run a 3:10 marathon (7:15 pace), your goal mile intervals should be run at a 6:30-6:45 pace; of if you want to run a sub-20 minute 5k (6:27 mile pace or 1:37 ¼-mile pace), try running your ¼-mile intervals around 1:20 – 1:30.

  • Strength & Cross Training
    Adding some calisthenics and cross-training to your routine can also improve running performance by strengthening the supporting cast muscles. Strong arms and abs may not win a race for you, but weak ones can help you lose it. The same goes for the muscles on the front of your leg – they may not be the prime movers in running, but they assist, and you’ll want all the assistance you can get when gunning for your PR! Add some basic exercises like squats, bike riding, elliptical, leg lifts, calf raises, toe curls, pushups, pull-ups, and crunches to your repertoire. It’ll be a nice change of pace from running and it’ll increase your performance level.

When you start trying to improve running performance, you’re going to want to cram as much in as you can in the shortest time possible…that’s natural. But if we try to streamline this process and reduce the rest or if we introduce too many hard workouts in a short-period of time, we will become more prone to injury and could set ourselves back many months. So please take the time needed to make gradual improvement and increases in stress – you’ll make out much better in the long run!

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