How to become a faster long-distance runner

When he watched his teenaged son run with a local track team, Ken Riess (Marketing ’91) realized his own running technique could use some work.

“I never hired a coach,” says the NAIT Personal Fitness Trainer instructor and accomplished Ironman veteran. “All I did was try and run faster without thinking about anything but moving my legs more quickly.”

When he saw how quickly his son progressed with proper instruction, Riess paid attention. He noted posture, the goals that guided the training sessions and – a crucial aspect of running that he believes goes often overlooked – the number of footfalls per minute, or cadence. “It’s helped leaps and bounds,” he says, no pun intended.

“We think we know how to run,” he adds. But do we? With the racing season underway, we asked the dedicated triathlete to share the secrets of picking up speed.

A simple strategy

“Training, in its most basic sense, is not complicated,” says Riess. The simple strategy: run long one day, short but hard on another, and keep the rest of the week’s runs relatively easy.

That strategy, however, is based on some technical stuff. Proper training builds 2 things: aerobic capacity or VO2 max, the measure of the quality of the cardio-vascular system, and anaerobic threshold, the point where that system falls behind, letting lactic acid build up and inhibit the muscles, thereby limiting the time you can run at a higher speed.

Raise your capacity and your threshold, the better your speed and stamina will be.

“Long endurance runs are going to help build our strength and [aerobic] capacity,” says Riess. The pace should make conversation possible, and increase over time as it gets easier to chat along the way. In addition to improving endurance, the aspiring speed demon should train the body to recover faster after reaching its anaerobic threshold. This requires high-intensity intervals – that is, “feeling the burn.”

Combining these 2 types of workouts, however, can lead to burning out, Riess warns. “That would probably be the biggest error people can make in their training.”

“Nobody runs in front of a mirror,” says Riess, though he thinks people would benefit from doing so.

Just as he enjoys watching his son train, he loves watching races and seeing the elegance of refined running mechanics: shoulders slightly back, head up, chest leading as if the runner were being “pulled forward from the navel.”

Mostly, though, he’s watching feet. Improving as a runner, says Riess, always “comes back to running cadence.”

Being conscious of foot strike can lead to more “economical” running. Rather than losing energy on great strides, tighten up. “You want a shorter, faster stride.” This means landing so weight is more evenly distributed across the sole of the foot rather than concentrated on the heel alone.

Try for 180 steps per minute, Riess suggests. Find a 200 – 300-metre stretch and time yourself while counting left-foot strikes. Strive for proper posture. “If you can’t maintain it at that pace you’re going too fast.”

Come to a full stop

That simple strategy above should actually read: run long, run hard, rest. Relax at least one day a week, after the longest run.

And remember that, when the going gets tough, the smart quit going. Riess might head out with plans for a 2-hour run and cut it off after 90 minutes, should things not feel right. “You’ve got to listen to what your body is telling you.” It’s the best way to achieve those leaps and bounds every runner dreams of.

Recommended reading from Ken Riess about running

As a researcher, Ken Riess loves to dig into subjects such as running. Here are his go-to resources on the subject.

Daniel's Running Formula - Authored by one of the world's top running coaches, Jack Daniels, this 320-page guide covers the mechanics of running and provides training programs to help reach almost any running goal.

80/20 Running - Writer, sports nutritionist and runner Matt Fitzgerald has welcome news: the secret to faster running lies in slower training. This guide explains why 4 out of 5 workouts can be "more pleasant and less draining."

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