Knowing how to improve your performance can sometimes feel like a stab in the dark but these science-backed running tips will help you run longer and faster. Whether you are training on the road or on one of the best treadmills there are some fundamental techniques that can help to boost your stats.
We spoke to accredited sport and exercise scientist, Alan Ruddock, to uncover his top tips on how to improve performance.
Alan Ruddock is an accredited sport and exercise scientist and a fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. He's also the laboratory director for the Sport and Physical Activity Research Centre in the UK city of Sheffield. He has provided physiological support for Olympians, Paralympians, World, Commonwealth, European and British champions in a range of sports and has co-authored over 30 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts.
1. Manage your training load
Whether you are aiming to run further or faster the starting point for any runner is to correctly manage training load (the amount you run) and distribution (when you run). Getting this wrong is likely to lead to injury or exhaustion which will cause a disruption in training and ultimately affect results.
“Most runners don’t manage load as well as they could do and tend to get injured. If you have a spike in training load that increases injury risk, you might also have less energy left for recovery,” says Ruddock.
A balanced programme will gradually build the load of each session, which is the intensity and duration of the activity. Ruddock says measuring sessions by time rather than distance will help to avoid overloading the body.
Another effective ways to measure the intensity of a session is by perceived effort. This means reflecting on how hard a session felt out of 10.
A review in Frontiers in Neuroscience concluded that measuring perceived effort was a reliable and consistent way to manage and monitor training load.
It is also vital to have the correct distribution of sessions across a week so there are not too many intense or long runs. This means minimising the number of sessions that are 7/10 or more in perceived effort.
If you're trying to keep an eye on how much you're running, investing in one of the best budget fitness trackers could help. These cheap bits of kit can record runs directly to your phone and will give you an overview of your exertion during a session.
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2. Build in speedwork
If you are trying to run faster then you will need to build some speedwork into your training programme. The key is not to do too much and to focus on quality over quantity.
“To improve your 5k time one speed session a week will maintain and improve [performance] while two speed sessions will create [muscular] adaptations. Doing two speed sessions may make it easier to manage your load and distribution than doing three. If you do three speed sessions then you need to get the recovery right in between sessions and you shouldn’t do this many sessions a week for too long,” advises Ruddock.
An ideal session would be running at 90% of your max heart rate (around 8/10 effort) for four minutes, before resting for two minutes. This can be repeated four times or more.
Closer to a race day it is worth including some tempo runs where you run at race pace or slightly faster for a shorter distance than the race length.
Polarized training (where you split your session between high- and low-intensity bursts) can be a great way to get the balance right during the race preparation period. A 2022 review published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise recommended 70-80% of training hours were spent on low intensity running and the remaining time on high intensity training such as fast repetitions.
It should be noted that some exercise scientists disagree with the conclusions in the above review and think 'pyramid' training is a more accurate term for effective training schedules. This means spending a smaller amount of time on very intense exercise (the top of the pyramid) and more evenly distributing efforts across moderate and lower intensities (the bottom of the pyramid.)
Whichever approach you adopt, remember that muscular adaptations and improvements occur when you are recovering so you need to build in rest days or days of lighter cross training like swimming. It is also important to have weeks when the training load drops, before building it back up again.
3. Don’t skip strength training
Strength work may not have a direct correlation with speed but building it into your weekly routine will help to prevent injury.
“Strength work can improve robustness which reduces injury risk which increases consistency of training,” explains Ruddock.
Strength and conditioning can involve using body weight to perform running specific exercises such as squats and lunges before moving on to using light weights and resistant bands.
It is also a great place to incorporate plyometric training which is explosive movements to support harder running efforts such as overtaking or powering uphill. Skipping, squat jumps and lunge jumps are all great plyometric exercises.
A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that an intensive course of explosive strength training significantly improved 5k times in well-trained endurance athletes.
This article is not meant to offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or healthcare professional before adopting any diet or treatment.
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Lily Canter is a freelance money, health and lifestyle journalist with more than 20 years' experience. She writes about fitness for Fit+Well, Tom's Guide, T3, South China Morning Post, Runner's World and Trail Running magazine. She focuses on personal finance for Yahoo! Finance UK, Metro, The Guardian, and loveMONEY. In her spare time she is an ultra-runner, canicrosser and UK Athletics running coach. She also co-hosts the award-winning podcast Freelancing for Journalists.