This month’s question comes from Janet, a 42 year old mom who runs 20 miles per week:

I started running again about 3 years ago and I’ve been mostly injury free as I trained to run a 5k and have since worked myself up to running half marathons.  I’ve done three of them and my times are pretty flat at around 2 hours, even though my mileage has gone up.  What can I do to get faster beyond increasing my mileage while not putting myself at risk of injury?

Janet, this is a great question and one that I hear a lot.  It seems that most of the people in the running community, if you ask them about their goals, won’t tell you about a pace-related benchmark but will tell instead tell you about the next race they are registered for – and that they are training to be able to finish the race with no talk about actually “racing” the event.  The same thing happens in the triathlon community: someone finishes their first sprint tri and they immediately register for an Olympic or a 70.3 hoping to finish so that they can put the sticker on their car.  I can relate as I used to be the same way. It usually takes a long time and a lot of injuries to both body parts and ego before most athletes understand the concept of adjusting their race schedule to fit their fitness, instead of the other way around.

We have a number of elite runners working at RunLab and they’ve all chosen to specialize in a distance and get really good at it.  Lucas, our Accounting Manager, is world-class in the 800m.  Rory, on the other hand, is just seconds away from qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the half marathon.  No one would argue that one is a better runner than the other – they’re just different.  That said, Lucas isn’t suddenly trying to race the 5000m just because he can finish an 800 and Rory isn’t going to head to Leadville just because he can run 13 miles in about an hour.  They’ve made a conscious decision to get really fast at a specific distance so that they can “race” it.

With TriRock coming up on Monday and then Kerrville just after that, triathlon season is about to wrap up for the season. With all of the triathletes we treat at RunLab, you often hear people laugh at themselves for doing the sprint distance race instead of the longer option because “it’s so easy…” or  “it’s just a mini-tri” .  I’d completely disagree – if you actually sprint the “Sprint” distance it should wreck you.  The same can be said for a 5k. I am exhausted every time I run either. Yes, the recovery time is shorter, but by the end of the race you should feel like you left every ounce of yourself out there on the course (hint: you should not feel like running home afterward)

If you can do a half marathon at 9:00 pace, of course going out and running at 5k in 27:00 will feel easy.  Doing it in 21:00 will likely cause you to break.  And that’s the point. Most recreational runners spend an inordinate amount of time in the grey area, not committing to making their easy runs easy or their hard runs hard, which leads to a lot of “junk” mileage. Great for mental demons, not great for performance improvements or injury prevention.

Janet, to get faster in a half marathon, you have to think about getting faster at shorter distances first and “building a bigger engine” to accommodate those faster speeds.  Instead of going out to do the same 5 mile loop from MoPac to Congress and back in 45:00 every day, do the South Lamar Loop and go really, really fast.  Do that once a week and before you know it your workout will take you back to the Congress bridge at 7:30’s instead of 9:00’s.

Something else that my husband and I do a lot is to “walk the bridges”.  It’s exactly what it sounds like: every time we get to a bridge we walk it.  It allows me to recover just a little bit, get my heart rate down and then run faster again when the short walk is over. I have made a lot of improvements in fitness as well as kept my old knee injury at bay by incorporating some good old fashioned walk-running into my routine, the trick is that the run portion has to be a run, not a leisurely trot at your same-old comfortable pace.

The added bonus of all of this is that it doesn’t involve having to increase your mileage by a lot (which is more likely to cause injury).  Instead, your mileage will likely drop in the beginning – and that’s ok!  Run less, run faster and then stretch out your runs.  I think you’ll be happy with the results.

– Dr. D