By James Mitchell
As a runner we generally throw ourselves into a few categories, typically based on where we might finish the race; the front of the pack, middle of the pack, or back of the pack. Since I started running, I have been predominantly a middle of the pack runner moving from the back of the middle pack to the front of the middle pack, and now probably somewhere in the middle of the middle. It is a funny thing that we runners are identified by these labels, while many are content being where they are, we inevitably compare ourselves to others. This can be dangerous, but it can also push us toward being the better versions of ourselves. Certainly, I will never run a sub-two hour marathon, but I can appreciate the drive in those aiming to break that barrier, and can be inspired to make myself a better runner.
How do I get better at running? I always thought it was by running more often, and that is certainly part of the solution, because if you go from running once a week to three or four times a week you will probably see some gains. I experienced this while training for my second marathon, as I ran 4 days a week for 16 weeks leading up to the race and I ended up running my second marathon much faster than my first. Running consistently is great, because it builds a habit and gets you beyond just carving out time once a week, but running more allows you to build upon what you had previously done, and you will build strength by just running. However, “just” running will only take you so far.
Much of that “just” running is going to be done at relatively the same pace. When I tried to replicate the results of that second marathon, I tried to push myself to run further and faster, and thought that the trajectory of my marathon times would continue to go down. While I got in better shape, the times would go down, but soon plateaued. Furthermore, I found that I became more vulnerable to injury. I found a number of training seasons interrupted by injury. At that point, I knew I needed to change my training tactics.
The change began by reading and seeking advice from more seasoned runners. From here I was bombarded with running terms such as fartleks, speed work, strides, tempo runs, long slow distance, among others. It was rather daunting trying to tackle all of this on my own, but the main piece that I took away is that the best way to get faster is by running at different paces. Each of these training techniques serves to improve your running strength, speed, and overall running efficiency.
Once I regularly built these changes in my pace, I noticed that I was able to run faster, longer, and injury-free. I may not be a front of the pack runner, and as I age I may have to manage the effects of aging, but by working through various workouts, I am able to maintain speed and when I really devote myself to the work, I see improvements and a drift closer to the front of the middle pack.
If you would like to incorporate these training methods, then you should check out your local running communities and groups, as they often will host workouts at various tracks in the area, often times free of charge, or at the very least included with membership.