“But I can’t Run Fast”

Ah yes, a common refrain often heard along with the corollary – “But I can’t run long distances.”

Let’s be clear from the outset:
1. You are what you train.
2. Everyone can improve on endurance and/or speed.

Though everyone has genetic make-ups that allow us to be better at different aspects of sports – quickness, speed, strength, endurance, hand-eye coordination – all of these aspects of athletics are also trainable. Everyone can improve from where they are and move in the direction they desire to go.

Of course there are genetic limits in play but the wonderful thing about genetic limitations is that we never really know when we’ve reached the end point.

To improve speed one must begin to run faster. It sounds like the chicken or the egg issue. Which comes first? The answer is that you must start to run fast now with what abilities you currently have in order to build on them to run faster in the future.

How do you do that? By running parts of workouts far faster as well as integrating repeats (such as on a track) which are far faster than any current racing pace interspersed with bouts of rest between each rep.

There is plenty of science behind how fast how far and how much rest but let’s not focus on that right now. Let’s focus on the specific question at hand. Take your race pace for a given distance. It doesn’t matter whether you are a marathoner, 10K or 5K runner or 800 meter runner. Figure out how fast your average pace is.

If you run marathons in about 3:29 then your average pace is 8:00/mile or 2:00 per 400 meters.

If you run a 5K in 20:00 you then average 6:27/mile which broken down further is about 1:37/400 meters (one lap of the track).

If you run 800 meters in 3:00 then you average 45 seconds per 200 meters or about 67.5 seconds per 300 meters or 1:30/400 meters.

Notice that we break your current race paces down to much smaller increments.

Now, you want to run this shorter increment faster than race pacing. And as you get accustomed to the workouts – FAR faster than race pacing.

In the above examples that might mean:
Our marathoner runs 400 meter repeats in 1:45.
Our 5K runner runs 400 meter repeats in 1:30.
Our 800 meter runner runs 200 meter repeats in 42 seconds.

Of course your current conditioning will not allow you to continue this pace for long so we now intersperse rests between each repetition.

Start with one to two minute rests between.

Gradually your goal is to do the following:
Increase the number of repetitions.
Increase the distance of the repetitions.
Decrease the rest between the repetitions.

With this strategy anyone can get faster.

There is far more to the science of calculating correct paces and doing repeats and speed work but this general approach will work – immediately.

Addressing the corollary; if you gradually add distance to your training you will be able to run farther. It must be progressive and gradual to minimize chances of injury but it is as simple as just doing it. Body types do not matter – body builders and football players have run marathons. The bigger issue is that people can’t run “longer” because they really don’t want to.

If done correctly (gradually) there is little chance of injury. By the way, distances run (i.e. longer or more miles of training) have a stronger correlation to causing injuries than speed of training. There is no reason even beginners should not do faster running as part of their training.


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 - trailrunningclub.com. 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 Running-Advice.com. 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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19 Responses to “But I can’t Run Fast”

  1. run4change says:

    I love this post. This method/way of getting faster has worked SO WELL FOR ME. It is of course difficult to run fast at first but as you become conditioned, it becomes easier and you increase reps. THis in-turn increases belief in your ability to run fast. This in-turn allows you to push closer to what you ACTUALLY can do. Some with the distance but the distance was never a problem for me but I did increase the distance exactly how you say: GRADUALLY. It just seemed easier but in the end it is all by degree.

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    Good points. You are very right about doing increases your belief which feeds into doing more which makes you faster which makes you believe you’re faster. Gotta start somewhere.

  3. Kari says:

    This is great information. I was with you all the way to the end and did the math on how fast I run 400 and 800 meters, which by the way is waaaayyyyyy slower than anything you have up there. I’m just starting out and have run a couple of 5Ks, but not even under 30 minutes yet (my best time was 32 minutes). So, I’m trying to figure out how much to speed up for the 400 meter repeats. This just says far faster. It looks like it can be anywhere from 7 to 25 seconds faster. How do I know how much faster to try for in each 400 meters?

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    Of course here without complete assessments I can give you only general guidance. So, with that a 32:00 5K is about 10:20/mile. That is 2:35/400; which we would call “current 5K” pace. With that we’d pair it with “goal 5k pace” to figure out workouts.

    Let’s say you want to be running 9:00/mile for 5k – which would be 27:54 goal time. It also means your 400s would be 2:15.

    With novice runners I would start with 200, 300 and 400 meter repeats at the GOAL pace and bypass current pace entirely. At the current fitness level your biggest jump in fitness will be running 20-25 miles of running per week consistently. Of course at least once a week you would integrate an interval workout as described above and then progress it as your fitness improves.

    You should see VERY good results within only 4-6 weeks. I’ve had 5k runners move from 28/29 minute range down as far as 24 minutes within 12 weeks.

    You’re heading in the right direction… tell me how it goes.

  5. Kari says:

    Thank you for the response! That is very encouraging. I would like to be able to get my pace down to a 9 min. mile. I started out at about 11 to 12 minutes 6 months ago and can now (sometimes) maintain a 10 min. pace so maybe 9 is actually achievable. I will try the speed workouts and see how it goes. Thanks!

  6. onyerbicycle says:

    After another frustrating weekend where run time was the weakest of 3 triathlon events, I was uplifted to come across this old post of yours. Thankyou. I shall use this as a foundation for
    improving my run times this winter – can’t keep doing 32mins (or worse) for 5k.

  7. kid who kniws nothing of running terminology says:

    Hi I dont know if youll ever read thid but oh well as of right now I can jog 8miles now when I did five I got 45 min any who for some reason when I try running at full.speed it never feels satisfying and I can only go at it for maybe 40 yards it seems to me that the world is faster than me plus even for a short distance I feel fatigued yet I can jog what I consider long distances the exact opposite I can run long distances yet to me I can not run fast of course ill try the training but I would like your input

    • Dean Hebert says:

      It appears you are trying to run at two speeds – either jogging very easily for which you can run up to 8 miles or an all out sprint for 40 yards. The problem here is that you are not training at the right paces for your workouts to progress. There are too many things to address in a response here to you. You need a good assessment (time trial at least) and a comprehensive plan written for you. Read over the many posts I have here and you will learn about pacing and what you need to do. Ultimately, a novice runner without good a good coach helping; will have a difficult time applying much of the information into your workouts. So, some of this will end up trial and error. The good news is that you have decent conditioning to be able to run 8 miles.

      • Kid who knows nothing about running terminology says:

        Thank You! For the advice and most assuredly ill read the posts and hopefully ill be able to use them to my benefit, also sadly i do not know what a time trial is however i do know the last time i was timed doing 1 mile i had gotten 7:21, 4 times of course this was befor i could even do 3 miles but if that is not a time trial i’m sure it is in one of your posts, once again id like to thank you for your time =”)

      • Dean Hebert says:

        A mile time trial is a good start. If 7:21 was an ALL OUT mile time trial then your quality track repeats should be done about in the 7:45-50/mile pace or about 1:56/400 meter repeat. That’s your start for improving your conditioning and running speed as a distance runner. There is or course a LOT more that goes into it… but at least you now know how fast is fast for distance running quality work.

  8. Running4Lisa says:

    Hi Dean, love the article. I think I’m going to incorporate this method once or twice a week. I’ve done a lot of unstructured speed work but nothing to consistently gauge progress, except running 5k races about once a month. I’ve been running 3 or 4 times a week (usually 3 or 4 miles, sometimes longer) for over 5 years and seem to be stuck around 24.5/25 minutes for 5k. Up until now, I’ve slowly progressed over the years from my first 5k time of around 31 minutes a few months after I picked up running. But I’ve been stuck at this for at least 6 months now.

    I ran an 8k recently in a time that I expected compared to my 5k time, but my mile time trials have always been much slower than they should be. I feel like it’s my leg strength that’s limiting me more than cardiovascular fitness. Anyway, there’s really no excuse for someone 5’9 140 lbs. to be running that slow after 5 years training, even for someone around 40 years old. Do you think upping mileage to 20-25 miles a week like you mentioned to someone earlier, including the interval workout, would help me also? And, if so, is it enough to possibly knock a minute or so off my current 5k in a couple months?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      You are on target. With 4 runs a week you need the balance of faster and longer running in order to get that 5k race faster. A typical week might look like this:
      1. Run 4-5 miles easy
      2. Run 12×400 @ your goal 5k pace; right now you are at 2:00/400 (8:00 mile pace). You might try running these in about 1:55/400 with a 1:00 rest. Warm up 1 mile and cool down 1 mile for a 5 mile day. This is the workout to apply the principles detailed in the post.
      3. Run 4 miles but run the middle mile at your GOAL 5k pace: 7:40. You may need to start with only 3/4 of a mile. The rest of the miles can be easy.
      4. Run an easy long run of 6-7 miles.
      That will give you just over a 20 mile week AND give you the quality you need. To progress, keep adjusting to your conditioning.Don’t get stuck month after month doing the same thing. You’ll break through big time.

      Come on back in a month or two and drop a line on how it goes!

  9. Running4Lisa says:

    Thanks for the advice! I wasn’t expecting such a quick reply. That schedule looks like something I can handle without burning out. I’m going to follow it as closely as I can for 6-8 weeks and see what happens. I’ll definitely come back and post results. Do you think it’s ok on the longer runs to take maybe a one minute break every mile so it won’t seem so long, or would that defeat the purpose of the run? Thanks again!

    • Dean Hebert says:

      For those long runs try to get as much in without stopping as possible and as few breaks as possible. But, physiologically there is little effect from a short break in a long run. It is both mental and physical training. Like you said “it won’t seem so long” that is a mental view of a long run. Gotta get that reframed… and that will happen through pushing through further and further each time.

  10. PoorRunner says:

    Hi Dean, stumbled upon your article after googling why I can’t run fast (ha). I did a physical assessment a while back where I ran a 17 min mile and a half. Grant it I was going up small hills and running against the wind but it’s still a terrible time for me. I really want to be able to shorten my time to at least a 15 minute mile and a half, but I always have a hard time with my breathing. Any time I try to quicken my pace I feel like I’m breathless and I get an uneasy feeling at the bottom of my stomach. I’ve never been a good runner, not even as a child and I was hoping you may have some advice for me. I see everyone else around me improve at what seems like a fast rate while I just lag behind. Please and thank you for any advice you may share.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      First some perspective… You are not alone and you are not a poor runner. I know many others slower than you. Those behind you probably wonder how you can run so fast. Here is a simplistic answer and approach. If you really want to improve you should entertain having a tailored schedule designed for you (which is something of course that I do.)

      Second, stop trying to run a mile and a half fast. You have to attack this in small pieces then build up to putting all together in a 1.5 mile run.

      Start by doing short interval training. You run at about 11:40/mile pace. But for intervals you need to go at your GOAL pace (10:00/mile) or FASTER to get faster. You don’t get faster by going slower.

      Now given that, if you are running very modest mileage each week (i.e. less than 15 miles) then you will greatly benefit from more miles. So, one aspect is that you don’t have the aerobic base and the BIGGER aspect is you are training slow so you run slow.

      Here’s how to start. One day per week do 6×400 on a track (400 is one lap). Rest for 1:30 between each one. BUT run each of those @ 2:30/400 (10:00/mile goal pace). If you can run the last one faster than all the rest. Push it.

      On the 3rd week increase to 7×400… 6th week to 8×400 9th week to 5×600 (lap and a half) then by week 12 or so 4×800. You could by week 6 make this workout twice a week. I guarantee you’ll be faster and run your 1.5 in 15:00 or less.

      And, work on your self talk. You have to believe that you can run faster or it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Good luck… drop me a line on how you progress I’d love to hear.

      • BetterRunner says:

        Thought I’d make an update on my running. Did a mile in 10 minutes, improved my run by 2 minutes in just under a month! Thanks for the advice!

      • Dean Hebert says:

        Congrats! Keep up the good work.. I’ll bet there is more improvement on the way!

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