How fast can I get? How soon?

Natalie poses two great questions: Perhaps you may not know the answer… probably no one does. In high school I ran a 25 minute 5k (I know really slow), but I think I could have been faster because I wasn’t doing any strength training and had pretty poor nutrition that really took a toll on my running. My goal is to reach a 21 minute 5k, but I’m not even sure if that is in the cards for me. Do you think it’s possible, with the right training for me to get that fit, or fast? If not, how do I keep from getting discouraged about being a slow runner. I love running, but I’m very competitive, and feel defeated. Perhaps, I just need to let go of the dream of being a fast long distance runner. What do you think?

And also, do you know how long (approximately) it takes for someone to get back into shape? I know it probably depends on the person, but I’ve been weight lifting (which I had never done before) and running and I’m discouraged by how far I have come… I know I have made improvements, but I thought I would have met my 5k time by now. Does this kind of thing take years?

Your first question is an age-old one. I am asked regularly “how fast can I get” or “is it possible for me to run xx:xx time.” Therein lies the beauty of running. We are not dependent on an opponent who is stronger, quicker or bigger than us who will hamper us from performing. We are free to be the best we can be. There have been efforts to estimate physical limitations for bipeds. I have seen projected “fastests” for various distances. But it is pseudo-science in a way. Think about it, if the 5K world record is 12:37:35 (Bekele) who is to say someone won’t run 12:36? If someone runs 12:36 who says someone else can’t run 12:35? 12:34? I hope you get my point. Though I’m quite sure there are in fact physical limitations to how fast ANY individual can run (without defying physics); NOBODY knows what that limit is!

So, until we endeavor to run faster we’ll never know what we are capable of. And until the end of our running careers we’ll never know our “fastest.” Even then, we can look back and most likely say “if only I had done this or that a little differently, or if I didn’t get that injury, I could have run even faster.”

I have a 56 year old man I am coaching right now, who came to me to run 5Ks “fast”. He has a long history of soccer playing and is a good athlete, very strong and fit. Before he signed on he wanted me to “guarantee” my coaching would make him a 19:00 5K runner by the end of this Fall (5-6 months). Of course, I cannot guarantee any such thing (and steer far away from anyone who says they can!). I can only guarantee that I provide the scientifically based training and that I have skills to tailor that science to individuals with excellent dialog and feedback. He has progressively improved from 27:00 or so to a 23:00 5K in 4 months. He now realizes how much work is needed and has found a new respect for running. He has modified his goals and is looking to race “fast” in the Spring. He is very happy with his progress, enjoys progressing and still has me as his coach.

I share this little story to show you that you are not alone – regardless of age – and progress no matter how small is in fact progress. “Fast” is a relative term. The people running in back of you currently see you as “fast” and only wish they could run as fast as you. So it’s important to define “fast” for yourself.

Concrete goals help you define “fast.” They are created to keep us on track. They must be realistic. Chopping minutes off a 5K time might be reasonable over time for a 30:00 5K runner but not for a 15:00 5K runner. They also have to take into consideration an athlete’s desire to do what it takes to get there. The more lofty your goals the more critical every component becomes – diet, sleep, cross-training, strengthening, race strategies & pacing, etc.

But it is in the journey we live life. (Ok… I know, it’s philosophical.) Having goals can’t be all-or-nothing. Don’t set goals so far in the future they are barely a glimmer in the distance. That does not feed motivation. So, to keep from being discouraged and to feel progress: set multiple goals (A, B, C, D goals – perfect day and moons in alignment, good day, acceptable effort day, satisfactory making progress day); set long term, intermediate and short term goals. All goals must mesh – support each other and make logical sense.

Other ways to challenge yourself is to compete against yourself and your past times. Chart your progress in a log or on a calendar. Run different races on different courses. Set process goals such as consecutive weeks of “x” miles or workouts; consecutive weeks with a speed workout; etc. If you follow through on the process (assuming your training program is solid), then you will progress. It reduces some frustration because it keeps you focused on today – today’s workout – which is all you control… not tomorrow’s performance.

You mention weight training and detraining effect, so I will add a comment on that. It does seem to help novice runners in building general body strength. It may even prevent some injuries. So, keep doing it. You are young and should progress for years to come. In the short term a week off usually takes two weeks to get back where you were. In the long term, strong established athletes who maintain their general conditioning will return to former levels more rapidly than those who aren’t. The more you have “let yourself go” the longer the road back. If you were pretty sedentary after high school then I would consider that you are starting from scratch – be patient. It’s something I personally fight anytime I take time off. I ‘remember when’ I would bounce back so fast. I can’t compare being 52 with when I was 22. Likewise, even though you are relatively young (20s) you aren’t a high school athlete any more. Forget what you once did or used to do. Work on being the best TODAY you that you can be.

As with so many inquiries, without a complete history and assessment it’s difficult for me to get too specific. I also may not know other issues (health or otherwise) that impact how you will progress. But, always remember to get faster you ultimately have to do fast running. (The cramps you previously mentioned you get should subside over time.)

Let me share one more running life lesson. No sooner to do you hit a target goal – achieve what today you define as “fast” and you will think to yourself… “you know, I think I can do a bit better than that…” The cycle doesn’t end. And now we’re back at the original question… just how fast can I get?


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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3 Responses to How fast can I get? How soon?

  1. Seoirse says:

    Hello, first of let me say i love the site… its hard to find a good site about running. So, let me give you a bit of backround first, i have been running (with goals in mind) since i was about 15 at which age i was winning about everything i enter into from 1500m to 10000m, from the age of about 17 it went to bodybuilding and i stoped that at 19/20 years old, from there i joind the Army (Irish) and was a the top level of fitness in my platoon. While on a mission in Africa (where food was limited to basic meals but water was in abundance) i hit my fastest speed in the 10k which was 30:02… that was in 2002, six years later, 30 years old and a running habit thats on and off since then, im just hitting the tarmac again and just about getting 18min for 6k (which i my books aint so bad for such a long absence).. its only been my 7th day back but i wanted to know realistically… is it possible (even though in my heart i know it is) to do a sub 30min 10k at 30 years old??? Will it take a year or so to get back to that level of speed? OH and I wonderd what type of rest time should i be giving my body… now im thinking of 5 or 6 consecutive days running and 1 or 2 days rest or “easy” day (walk). What do you think? Thanks in Advanced.

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    This is an excellent question. First off, You have a great advantage having already attained a very high level of fitness in your past. Almost any accomplished athlete will have an easier time getting back into a sport than someone learning and training from scratch for the first time. Your 30:02 is a very solid time and the fact that you can do in the 18s for 6k right now is a very good indicator you will get back.

    Also, it is reasonable based on many examples that your best times could be in front of you. Runners in their early 30s are still VERY capable of setting PRs. Many Olympians are in their 30s.

    As for working out and taking rest days, you already are doing something right to attain 18 in the 6k and in the past do 30 for 10k. You are young enough that unless something has drastically changed, I would continue similar training schedules. In fact, it could be argued (and has been) that you could in fact handle harder training. Take rest days when you really need them; don’t run garbage miles just to “get a run in” or just to “get miles.”

    There is no way to know exactly how long this full return will take. But within a year I would expect your times to steadily drop. I think racing will be a key element in your progress. Use races to gauge progress and to evaluate your weaknesses/strengths. That will allow you to tweak your training and continue your progress. 5k races are an excellent distance to test yourself because you can recover quickly and get right back into training.

    Thank you for being a faithful reader. Drop a line on your progress. If your results get posted online or you have a training blog… drop me links. Keep up the great work. You’re on your way back!

  3. Seoirse says:

    Thanks for the swift reply… as it happens today is my rest day! I keep a log but its only on “paperback” at the moment, i dont have a website where i keep my progress posted and updated, sorry. But i will keep you posted for sure. At the moment i live in Brasil and the weather hot so i run in the evening… around 6:30 or 7, a question i would like to ask about that is… whats the best time for running? Maybe its just a personal thing (i.e when you have the time is best) but as for hormones or the like… at what time does the body have the most energy or drive? I hear lots of things but not sure as to wich is correct, for example I hear its better to run in the morn because your body will continue to burn cals, but if that leaves me hungry all day then its not really of benefit to me, and then there is the argument of evening is better because you have all your glucose stored up and can run better for longer, but then i find that after a run i am restless for a few hours and have trouble sleeping. So what really is the best time to run? In Africa ( i dont want to sound like a “spinster” talking about past runs but…) i would run at mid day in the blistering heat and found that best… is it really just a matter of when you have time then thats the best or is there a “scientific best” time to run? Again thanks in advance. Seoirse

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