Once bitten by the running bug, if we stick with it, in almost every case our early motivation is rewarded by gradual, steady improvements. Then the satisfaction of hitting a new time turns into a desire to beat it. The next target gets set, and the cycle is established.
But improvement isn’t always easy. Sometimes newer runners are not sure what they need to do in order to get better. Sometimes more experienced runners reach a plateau, when it becomes harder to beat that PB and finish times slip rather than improve.
So if you want to go that bit faster, how do you go about “stepping up”? How do you work towards becoming the best runner you can be? Here are nine strategies for reaching for your potential…
1. Don’t place artificial limits on yourself
One of the fascinating aspects of Roger Bannister’s 1954 sub-four minute mile is that it was broken just 46 days later by John Landy. Until then it had been widely believed that it was physiologically impossible for a human to run a mile under four minutes. Bannister proved it could be done. After Landy’s effort, many commentators of the time said that he had long been capable of it, but needed to believe it was possible, and Bannister’s breakthrough gave him that belief.
In running we have a habit of obsessing over times and other benchmarks. These can often provide a motivational drive, but we need to be aware of occasions when they threaten to limit us because we subconsciously set a ceiling on what we believe our capabilities to be.
To progress takes time, patience, and resilience, but it is also vital not to set artificial psychological limits on what you think you’re capable of running. This mindset issue can affect anybody, both those who haven’t yet come close to reaching their potential, and also those who are later in their running career. So be open minded about yourself.
2. Learn how to push yourself harder
To get better at anything you need to push yourself. You need to climb out of your comfort zone. And yes, that means some discomfort.
But does it have to be painful? Performance in distance running is strongly related to runners’ perceptions of pain, and the “pain barrier”. It’s worth remembering that the “pain” felt in endurance sport is different from medical pain (unless you are experiencing injury, at which point you should certainly hold back). It is really more discomfort, experienced with various degrees of intensity.
The good news about this is that you can train yourself to handle the discomfort better. There are three specific ways to do this:
i. Understanding what you are experiencing
Fascinatingly, runners often hold themselves back due to their fear of anticipated pain.
At a subconscious level, the brain will operate to preserve the body. It will encourage the systems of the body to conserve energy. When running, your brain is sending signals to the body to encourage it to stop when you start to feel tired, and alarm systems are going off in your body to indicate that your energy resources are running low. This is often experienced initially as fear, and later interpreted as pain. This function in the brain is sometimes also called The Central Governor, as defined in Dr Tim Noakes’ famous running bible “The Lore of Running”.
Interestingly, this process starts to happen very well in advance of there actually being any real significant depletion of resources. Unless you have an injury problem, the initial “pain” you are likely to experience during intense running is mainly a warning sign from the brain rather than an actual problem. You have the capacity to keep moving for a very long time after those first signals.ii. Training yourself to tolerate discomfort
First, you’ll need to accept that getting real improvements involves some hard work and discomfort. Fortunately, your ability to tolerate discomfort is, in itself, something you can train.
As you run more, your threshold for experiencing discomfort gets higher. In other words, you can tolerate more discomfort. You might assume this is just because you are fitter. In fact, it is also because you have trained your Central Governor to understand that the effort you are expending is “safe”, and consequently the alarm signals telling you to stop are delayed. This enables you to maintain your current effort, and even to push yourself harder.
In training, you can further develop this capacity to tolerate discomfort. Pushing your limits in key sessions is likely to make the biggest difference when it comes to racing. As we’ll discuss more below, allowing rest or easy sessions before and after key workouts can be a helpful way to get the best from yourself by being able to dig deep into your energy reserves when required.
iii. Positive mental attitude during discomfort
When you have pushed into the “discomfort zone”, there is still more you can do to deal with it.
This largely becomes psychological, a battle in the mind. There are various strategies you can develop for handling discomfort, such as distraction, use of mantras, counting, positive messages to yourself, and visualisation techniques.
Some of these techniques are discussed in more detail in our article on Mental Strategies for Long Runs (the techniques are good for shorter runs too!).
These techniques are much more effective if you practice them in advance of a race, ideally during training. When you are working hard, particularly during a long race, it becomes very hard to concentrate, so the more you have learned and practised your techniques in advance, the more easily you will be able to recall them and put them into action.
[For more on this whole topic, read our recent article on Extending Your Comfort Zone by performance psychologist David Harrison.]
3. Set goals and track your progress
It can be a very helpful focus to be working towards a particular race or other goal. For runners who race less often, this will be the main event on the horizon and probably the focus of a training plan. For those who race a lot, this is the ‘A’ race, often in amongst less important ‘B’ and ‘C’ races.
Having a clear goal provides a sharp focus, clear motivation, and helps you to shape your training appropriately to the event distance and terrain. And personally I find it really gets me out of the door if I’m just a little bit scared of a looming event!
Goals don’t have to be races. They can involve any sort of challenge or personal aim. A few criteria might help, for example that the goal should be:
- Ambitious but not unachievable;
- Something that motivates and inspires you; and
- Intended to help you improve your running (since we’re talking about “stepping up” here).
Track your progress towards these goals so that you have a better understanding of your improvements (or lack of!) and an ability to spot any patterns. Keeping a training diary, whether electronic or physical, can be a great way to look back at your training and work out the reasons for good or disappointing performances.
Analysing room for improvements in your training schedule can be key to building progress into your running and racing. It’s important to be flexible with incorporating changes where they might be needed. Maybe ask for someone else’s input (ideally an experienced runner), because that process of trying to identify improvements is much easier if you can benefit from a different perspective.
4. Train smart
Any good training plan should be specific to your main goal. So a marathon plan will involve plenty of long runs, while a 5k plan will involve short, fast training. Crucially, the most important weekly sessions should be clear to you, and should be prioritised over the other workouts. If these sessions are high quality, because you are able to put a good deal of energy into them, they will pay off. This may involve allowing a rest day after the key session, and often even a lighter day before.
If you don’t already include various types of speedwork (intervals, tempo sessions, fartlek), or strength sessions (hills, distance, core workouts) then now is the time to start finding out about these and experimenting. Don’t be anxious about these if you haven’t tried them before; they can really add fun and colour to training, and can make a dramatic difference to your running. If you already build these in, you’ll be well aware that these are the sessions that make the biggest difference, so don’t skip or avoid them, and make sure these really are high quality workouts.
If you are unsure of what the priority sessions should be to suit your goal, seek some advice from a coach or good training book.
A vital part of training smart is also about looking after yourself. Rest is as important as training: it is the time when you recover and when the training adaptation takes place in your body. If you over-train, you risk jeopardising all your hard effort by ending up exhausted or injured.
5. Avoid getting stuck in a rut
If you feel you are already training in a way that is goal-specific (as described above), but you are still struggling to improve, perhaps it is time to try something new.
If you have been trying to set a new 5k or 10k PB for ages, following the same schedule every week, perhaps it’s time to try something new. Take a holistic look at your training, and think about whether you are incorporating enough strength work, for example. Be experimental – what happens if you lengthen your longest run each week? What happens if you try a different type of interval session? What happens if you focus on a different race distance for a few months instead?
You’ll need to be patient with yourself here too, because improvements following changes to training are likely to take a few months to manifest themselves. And avoid changing too many things at once so you don’t risk injury or over-training.
6. Join a club
If you’re not already a member of a club, consider joining one.
Joining a club can be a positive step for the following reasons:
- You are much more likely to push yourself harder in training sessions than you would on your own;
- They are a great way to meet like-minded people;
- They are sociable, and make training fun;
- You can be inspired and motivated by club-mates;
- You will come across new ideas and training tips; and
- You have other people to discuss your running with who are genuinely interested (rather than wearing that long-suffering, tolerant, distracted smile of your non-running friends, you know the one!).
If you want to join one, take a look around at the different clubs local to you. Running clubs can be very varied in nature, from the mainly-sociable to the highly competitive. Be clear on what you want from a club, and try to find one that most closely matches your needs. Most clubs will let you go along for a couple of trial sessions before signing up, so make the most of that and try out a handful if necessary until you find the place where you are most comfortable.
The best way to get better at anything is to do it more often. This applies to racing as much as anything else.
Racing is different from training. It feels different, and you perform differently. You are likely to run faster for various reasons: you’ve geared up for it, you have your “race head” on, you are surrounded by other keen runners, there are the cheering spectators, expectations from supporters, even the race entry fee… all the little details add up to making you feel and run in a different way from training.
The more practice you get at the race experience, the better you learn how to deal with it. You come to learn how to judge race pace, what “going off too fast” feels like, how to avoid the stresses of the toilet queues, and much more. All of these factors will help you to refine your race day performance and get the very best from yourself.
8. Be patient
Big improvements in performance rarely happen overnight. Running to the best of one’s potential will usually take years of steady building. Running demands consistency and persistence to gain gradual improvements.
This shouldn’t be a depressing thought, because it can result in many years which promise steady PB improvements, which is a thoroughly rewarding experience. In fact this need for patience can help us to take the pressure off ourselves to achieve overnight breakthroughs, and act as a reminder to take enough time to enjoy running for its own sake.
In our fast world of instant one-click communications, and society’s expectations of quick success for minimal effort, I think this can be a wholly refreshing and invigorating aspect of running… and one which makes any real success even sweeter when it eventually comes. You have really earned it!
When you have improvements, celebrate them.
Building your self-confidence is important so that you can keep a positive frame of mind, and believe that further improvements are possible. Think back to the first point about not placing artificial limits on yourself – use your successes as an asset in your armoury.
More importantly, those improvements are hard won, so enjoy them.