30 Small Habits to Increase Running Speed (for Hobbyists)

Photo by afiq fatah on Unsplash

One of my goals for the year is to run a marathon in under 3 hours. That’s roughly 6:50 minutes per mile, for 26.2 miles. It’s far from a record-setting pace but it’s aggressive, even for seasoned runners.

Why?

I’ve never done it before.

In the running world, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is noteworthy. Unlike typical races that allow entry for anyone who registers, the Boston Marathon has entry standards.

“Qualifying for Boston” is more highly regarded than actually participating in the race itself.

Given my age and gender, I must complete an official race in under 3 hours (3:00:00) to qualify. For a non-elite athlete, that’s fast.

Boston Qualifying Times as of January 2022

I ran my first marathon in 2021 with an official race time of 3:33:00. To qualify for Boston, I’ll need to drop 33 minutes from my race time.

When measuring in hours, shaving off 30 minutes may not seem like a lot. Well, it is. Dropping from 3:30:00 to 3:00:00 is the difference of an entire minute per mile, for each mile of the run’s 26 miles!

There are thousands of running plans online that boast great results.

I’m not planning on using any of them. Instead, I’m overlapping a series of small improvements. While individually unremarkable, the cumulative effect of each improvement should compound to help me achieve my goal.

I’ve divided the habits into three key categories: train, fuel, and recover.

As you review, notice one important detail: each item represents an input, not an output. While my goal is ultimately an output (run a 3:00:00 marathon), my primary focus involves the inputs that I believe will lead to that result.

By focusing on the collection of small wins, I hope to find the adaptability and redundancy that most programs lack.

(Beside each item, I noted the frequency with which I hope to perform each action)

Train

Feel the Pace

Running faster is not comfortable but it can become familiar. Our bodies should become familiar with the physical strain, leg turnover, and pounding of our target race pace.

These are three techniques to “feel the pace”:

  • Treadmill Work (weekly)
  • Cycle Speed Work (weekly)
  • Track Days (weekly)

Diversify Training

Running requires your entire body but it does not train your body evenly. Mixing up training and isolating key muscle groups reduces injury and increases performance.

Personally, I also prefer a more muscular physique than the typical “runners build”. Non-running activities help.

  • Bodyweight movements (daily)
  • Increase core strength (twice a week)
  • Cross-cardio such as swimming or biking (weekly)
  • Strength training (weekly)
  • Improve balance & lateral movement (weekly)
  • Hill workouts (weekly)
  • Run with groups (weekly)

Fuel

Improve Nutrition

Have you ever thrown gasoline on a fire?
How about a wet log?

Fuel impacts output.

Both in training and racing, what we eat and drink is an essential part of long-distance running. Good investments compound throughout training while poor choices can leave us feeling stuck.

Better eating leads to faster recovery, which promotes harder training, thus greater improvements over less time.

  • No alcohol (daily)
  • Reduce meat and cheese (daily)
  • Increase vegetables (daily)
  • Supplement vitamins and minerals (daily)
  • Pack healthy snacks (daily)
  • Fast often (weekly)

Warning: Food is the one area that provides most people with a lot of opportunities for improvements but it can also lead to a lot of antisocial behaviors. Everyone handles this tension differently, but these are my rules about food:

  • No convincing. It’s not my job to change others’ behavior.
  • Be polite. I will not ask someone to accommodate my food preferences. If I choose to eat in public, I must work with what I have.
  • Excellence, not perfection. When I screw up, cheat, or deviate from my intentions (it’s inevitable), I will forgive myself and move on immediately.

Stay Hydrated

About 60% of the human body is water but 100% of our muscles and organs depend on water to function. It’s important.

Our pee shouldn’t be yellow and our lips should not be dry. These are our bodies' warning signals that we need water. Maintaining consistent hydration helps move oxygen and nutrients throughout our bodies.

Too much water in too short a time can be damaging, so it helps to also work-in electrolytes as well.

  • 1 gallon of water (daily)
  • Electrolyte supplement (daily)

Test Variations

Calorie intake during exercise is one of the biggest shifts that occur when runs exceed 2 hours. Yes, you need to eat during long runs and races.

The calories can come from gels, liquids, and traditional food.

The first thing I hear from people when they learn about during-workout consumption is some reference to the childhood adage about waiting 30 minutes before swimming.

Fortunately, running presents no risk of drowning. If you're using the right food source under the right conditions, you shouldn’t experience cramping either.

How, when, and what you intake for calories is a key part of a winning strategy. Everyone’s body reacts differently. Blogs, articles, and books provide a good starting point for during-workout eating but personal experimentation is ultimately required.

My simple rule: On any run over 10 miles, bring calorie sources to test.

I try to experiment with the following factors:

  • Format. Gels, solid, or liquid?
  • Frequency. How often should I consume during the run?
  • Volume. How much can I ingest at once?
  • Packaging. How easy to carry, handle, open, and discard?
  • Heart rate. How hard can I push and still eat?
  • Taste. Do I like to eat it?

Recover

Imagine a bouncy ball. The faster it bounces back after being thrown, the sooner you can throw it again. How we treat ourselves after workouts will impact the speed at which our bodies bounce back.

Improve Mobility

  • 2 activities per day (daily)
  • Stretching Sessions (daily)
  • Mid-day Walking Phone Calls (daily)
  • Yoga (monthly)

Increase Circulation

  • Foam Rolling (weekly)
  • Epsom Salt Baths (weekly)
  • Massage (monthly)

Sleep

  • 9:30 bedtime (daily)
  • 7+ hours / night (daily)
  • Weekend Naps (weekly)

Conclusion

As a software engineer, I spend my days working with computers. The backbone of modern computing is a concept called ‘distributed computing’. It’s described as a system consisting of multiple components across multiple devices, but running as a single system.

Doesn’t that sound like the human body?

Instead of adopting a traditional, linear running program, I look forward to seeing how these 30 small habits work together to increase my running speed.

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CTO at Fast Company’s World Most Innovative Company (x4). Author of “Code School”, a book to help more people transition into tech.

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Morgan J. Lopes

Morgan J. Lopes

CTO at Fast Company’s World Most Innovative Company (x4). Author of “Code School”, a book to help more people transition into tech.

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