Committed runners frequently want to improve their pace in their favorite distance, and that is an admirable goal. If this is you, it’s important to establish a realistic new pace goal, with intermediate smaller goals along the way to get you there.
There are many factors that impact how fast a runner you may become – some of them within your control, and others not so much.
First, let’s go back to Physics 101 to understand the difference between speed and velocity.
Speed is the rate of change in distance with respect to time. Think: miles per hour.
Velocity is the rate of change in displacement with respect to time. Think: minutes per mile
Notice that the key difference between these is distance vs. displacement. Simply stated, distance is the total amount of ground covered by an object in motion. Displacement, however, is the net change in position of an object in motion.
Here’s a simple example:
If you place a car on rollers and hit the gas pedal, the speedometer will tell you that you’re going very fast – 65 to 70 mph or more. However, the car itself doesn’t move in space or change position, meaning it has no velocity. Technically speaking, running on a treadmill is also a zero-velocity activity (which is perhaps why treadmill readouts are only in miles per hour?)
Therefore, with respect to running, we’re generally more interested in improving our velocity – but for simplicity’s sake we’ll refer to this as “pace” going forward.
Biomechanics and running
Biomechanically, running pace has three key components:
- Stride rate (how many steps are taken in a given time period – typically, one minute)
- Stride length (how much distance is covered with each stride)
- Strength, force and power production (defined later)
There are some key interrelated factors that influence how these measures work together to create the most efficient, and thereby fastest, running pace.
Running form (aka gait) is the first of these. Improper running form can biomechanically impede a faster pace. For example, a prominent heel-strike at the beginning of the stride, with the foot landing on the heel out in front of the body’s center of gravity, creates an enormous braking effect. It reduces forward velocity, as well as placing enormous stress on the ankles, knees and hips. A mid-foot strike, where the point of landing is on the ball of the foot beneath the body’s center of gravity, allows for the most effective transfer of ground force energy up through the leg to the muscles.
The relative strength of the runner’s leg musculature has a significant impact on the amount of power produced with each stride. Albert Einstein said, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” Therefore, the force of the runner’s foot as it meets the ground transfers (or “changes”) energy into the muscles and tendons, propelling the entire body both up and forward.
Running pace is directly related to the magnitude of this force. For example, an Olympic sprinter can push off the ground with a total peak force of more than 1,000 lbs. In contrast, the average person can apply 500 to 600 pounds of total peak force. [Reference: http://www.thepostgame.com/features/201107/usain-bolt-case-study-science-sprinting]
A strong core is also critical to improving running pace. The core consists of the abdominals, lower back, gluteal, hip and inner thigh muscles. These core muscles provide the structural foundation of the entire body. If the foundation is unstable and weak, everything that attaches onto it (i.e. the hips and legs) will also be unstable. As just described, when the runner’s foot strikes the ground, energy is transferred to the foot, up through the calf to the thigh and finally to the core. This causes the spine and hips to rotate, which then drives the opposite leg forward to take the next step. If a runner has a weak core, their “foundation” will be unstable, and they will waste unnecessary energy during a run. In addition to preventing fatigue during a lengthy run, a conditioned core helps maximize the efficiency of each stride.
Things you can do to improve your running pace
The most efficient way to improve your running pace is through a comprehensive program combining strength, power, and endurance (cardiovascular strength) training, along with specific corrections to any running form issues.
Strength training: Target the large muscles of the legs, including the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings. Choose exercises that involve multiple joints and require core stability to perform (meaning choose body weight, dumbbells, stretch cords/bands and other freestanding exercises over machines.) Examples include squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, calf raises, and toe walks, incorporating movements in all planes of motion (forward, sideways, and rotation).
Core training: Focus on core exercises that target the low back, the gluteals, the obliques and transverse abdominus (deep low belly abdominals) using a variety of modalities. Avoid basic crunches on the floor or an incline bench, and any type of abdominal machine. Instead, try planks, Russian twists, kettlebell exercises, BOSU™ balance trainer, and suspension trainer exercises. Yoga is also a highly core-focused form of exercise that also improves flexibility and spinal stability and develops breath control.
Running form: Have a video running form analysis performed by a professional. It is truly enlightening to see yourself running on video, as you’ll notice issues with your form you never knew you had. After evaluation, identify specific form drills that will address your particular issues, and practice them before every single run.
Endurance training: Build cardiovascular strength in order to maintain that faster pace for longer distances through a combination of easy-pace runs, short intervals (speed work), and long slow distances efforts. Increase total weekly mileage and per-run mileage by no more than 10% at a time.
Warm up and cool down effectively: Never start a run with cold muscles and allow plenty of time to cool down afterwards. These are crucial elements for any type of physical activity and will help produce greater results while decreasing the risk of injury. Warm up with active stretching that includes dynamic movements such as walking lunges, toe touches, hip rotations, and leg swings. Cool down with static stretches, holding for at least 20 to 30 seconds.
There are two factors in running pace over which you have no control: age and genetics.
As we age, our musculature loses strength and connective tissues become less flexible due to lower collagen production. While a strength training program can improve muscular power at any age, recognize that someone in their 20’s will almost always run faster than a person in their 60’s. There are exceptions, of course, but overall this is the case.
Our individual genetic makeup is another factor influencing running ability. Certain individuals are simply more genetically predisposed to run faster and more efficiently. Whether it’s body shape (e.g. longer legs), more muscle tissue, greater aerobic capacity, or other factors, some people are just born to run.
Lastly, a word about setting a running pace goal. As with any goal, a running pace goal should be SMART (specific, measurable, attractive, realistic, and timely). Becoming a faster runner takes a significant commitment of time, dedication, and patience. Some experts estimate it takes years to shave 1 or 2 minutes off of one’s pace, no matter how fast you were to begin with. So be realistic, set small intermediate goals, and above all, be kind to your body and proud of your own achievements.