How I Became a (Relatively) Quick Runner

Or: Heart Rate Monitors are the Best. Seriously.

November 22, 2015Filed under blog#fitnessMarkdown source

A few weeks ago, I ran the City of Oaks half marathon event for the third consecutive year. I finished at 1:24:58, which comes out to be about a 6:29/mile pace. I finished 20th overall, out of thousands of half-marathoners. If that seems fast to you, well, it seems fast to me, too.

People often ask me how I run so far and so quickly. I always laugh when they ask, because for my part, I haven’t thought of myself as particularly fast—the guys who finished first in my race this year ran over a minute per mile faster than me.1 The best half-marathoners in the world are running a 4:30/mile pace! But I grant that a 6:29/mile pace is, in the grand scheme of things, pretty quick.

That leads me to the other reason I don’t tend to think of myself as fast: my training approach.

My half marathon times have always been pretty good,2 but it is not because I am particularly athletic. As I mentioned in my first post in this series: you can ask my high school football coaches. I was never particularly quick, and even now my best mile time is somewhere around 5:30. I knew people even in high school who were in the mid- to low-4:00 range. Still, going sub-6:30 for 13 miles is no joke, and if you had told me even five years ago—after I started running!—that someday I would run the race I did a few weeks ago, I’d have laughed in disbelief.

But it really is all in the training. I have two things going for me, and only two: I train smart, and I train consistently.

Consistency first: year-round, I am doing some sort of workout six days a week. Throughout the winter and spring, that will look like a mix of running, spin classes at the gym, and swimming as I prep for another triathlon. From now till the end of January or so, I’ll just do pretty much whatever I feel like in that mix, while keeping at it. From February till whatever point early next summer that my triathlon is, I’ll dedicate two workouts a week to each of the sports. Then I’ll slowly transition to nearly-all running. Through the fall, I will run 5–6 days a week, cycling for a commute when weather permits one of those days instead.

That right there is the single biggest factor in my performance. If anyone did 30–45 minutes a day four days a week, an hour one day a week, and ninety minutes to two hours another day a week, he would get quicker rapidly. If he did that for five and a half years (as I have been), he would likely be in very similar shape to me.

As for training smart, I basically just follow the Maffetone method. Most of my runs are easy, aerobic runs. Even at the height of my training for a half marathon, when I am running 45–50 miles each week, 80% of my miles are at a conversational pace. (I’ve carried on fifteen-minute-long phone conversations on runs before!) My long runs include a hard, roughly race-pace finish for the last three or four miles, and I do one hard run a week which is half aerobic and half pushing harder than race speed.3 But overall, I run a slow-for-me pace most of the time. I use a heart-rate monitor to help me stay in an easy, aerobic training zone, and I simply don’t go over that.

That slow-run training pays off in a couple ways. First, it builds up my body’s ability to process energy aerobically (see the Maffetone method article for details). Second, it’s much easier on my body—I simply don’t have the joint problems or soreness that many runners do. Third, it is much easier mentally, because I can enjoy my runs and not feel exhausted after them. That means it’s much easier to do them day after day, and that takes me back to the consistency point from above.

So if you want to run fast: run a lot, and usually run slow.

  1. The top finisher came in at 1:10:03 (to my 1:24:48)—a 5:21/mile pace. The record on the course—which isn’t a perfect match for what we ran today, but pretty similar—is 1:04:21, which is about a 4:55 pace. That’s blisteringly fast.

  2. In my first, in December 2011, I ran a 1:36:32, which is about a 7:23 pace.

  3. I also occasionally through speed work days; this fall I did one day of hill repeats: a quarter mile pushing hard up a hill, a quarter mile easy back down the hill, and a minute of rest. Five miles of that is tough; I’d like to do more in future years.