Improving your performance doesn’t have to mean bashing out hours and hours of extra training – you just need to be a bit clever. If you’re short on time, struggling for motivation or just fancy mixing up your training schedule, these tried-and-tested tricks are sure to assist you in getting that (slightly less) hard-earned PB!
Do you always knock out the same run and get frustrated that you are not getting any faster? The trick could be as simple as cutting the length of your run in half. “Try some fartlek sessions, which means increasing your pace for parts of your run, such as running fast between lampposts, and then taking a few minutes to recover,” explains Tara Shanahan, a run coach for the online women’s running community girlsruntheworld.co.uk. “By challenging yourself out of your comfort zone, it forces your body to adapt so you get fitter and faster.” You could also vary your routes to include some hilly and off-road runs, which will all force your body to work harder and make you fitter.
Your cadence is the number of times your foot hits the floor, usually counted per minute. Most runners take 160-170 steps per minute, compared to elites who hit the floor around 180-200 times per minute. But you don’t have to follow an Olympian’s training plan to emulate it. Instead, try using songbpm.com, where you can input any piece of music and find out the tune’s beats per minute. Count your own cadence first, then choose a piece of music that’s about 10 beats higher and slowly work up.
If you tend to plan to do a hard run, then psych yourself out and end up going for a run-chat coffee with a friend instead, try an immersive running adventure. There are lots of affordable app-based fitness games, which trick you into running harder by presenting it as an adventure. Try Zombies, Run!, a free app that pits you against zombies who you must outrun in order to collect supplies for your virtual base. It’s great fun!
We all know we should stretch, but how many of us stretch our feet? Well, you should do, because they contain 34 muscles and, if they get tight, this could transfer problems all the way up your legs. “The muscles and fascia from the back of the neck to the tips of your toes are all connected,” explains consultant podiatrist, Tariq Khan. “So, if your muscles are tight in your feet, this could manifest problems in your calves and/or knees.”
He recommends soaking your feet in warm salty water after a run, which acts as an anti-inflammatory. You can then massage your feet and calves to help promote blood flow and active recovery with Footner Coolactive Massager, £24.99 (boots.com). Even more perfect for summer run recovery, slip your feet into OOfos Originals, £40 (oofos.co.uk), which have supportive arches and feature foam soles that absorb 37 per cent more shock compared to traditional footwear. It’s like walking on clouds!
OK, we don’t mean actually wear one, we’re talking about the virtual accolade of achieving a crown with the free running app, strava.com. Like other apps, Strava measures time, pace and your route. Where it differs is that it creates segments and ranks anyone who has ever run it by time and gender; if you’re the fastest, you get a crown; within the top 10, a golden cup. Even if you’re not that competitive, run the same route and it will give you a first, second or third fastest time compared to your old time. A fun way of getting motivated which quickly becomes addictive.
The biggest obstacle to getting your run in is not having time. So why not make it part of your everyday routine, like running home from work? Before you say, “But I’ve tried that and always forget a part of my running kit,” you can make it even easier. Forget having to schlep your running gear to work in a big bag – wear it. Nowadays, running gear can easily pass for office wear. Try Nike’s Dry Element Running Trousers, £50, with Nike’s Dry Short Sleeve City Running Top, £30 (nike.com).
We all probably started out running just focusing on getting to our first 5K. But to improve requires a bit of a technique tidy-up. “Getting your technique right can make running feel easier, and help prevent you ending up at the physio,” explains Tara Shanahan, coach with girlsruntheworld.co.uk. “Try increasing your cadence – your steps per minute – by taking lots of small steps instead of longer strides. [Longer strides] can cause you to heel strike, which slows you down. And focus on a relaxed arm swing, not allowing your hands to cross over your body.”
Parkrun offers free timed 5K runs in parks around the UK (where have you been hiding if you’ve not heard of it?) and will help you improve your distance or speed, simply by virtue of running with others. A study at Santa Clara University revealed that when test subjects ran next to someone slightly faster, they were motivated to run faster themselves. To make it easier to not self-sabotage, invest in a parkrun barcode tag, £4.26 (parkrun-barcode.org.uk), for a pack of three, and tie one on your shoelace. That way, there’s no excuse that you can’t find your barcode or that you need to print it out.
A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research revealed that those who wore compression socks after a run recovered and improved their running compared to those in the study who didn’t. Participants were asked to do a treadmill test to fatigue, two weeks before they ran a marathon and two weeks afterwards. Those who had worn compression socks for 48 hours after their run improved by 52.4 seconds on their second test. So, pull on your socks if you’re chasing that parkrun PB! Try 2XU Elite X: Lock Compression Sock, £40 (2xu.com).
To improve as a runner, you need to have an awareness of your running style. You can recruit a coach to help do this but it will cost you. Instead, why not try the free Saucony Stride Lab app? Using simple interactive tests, it helps you to measure stability, mobility and stride and sends you customised workouts to improve. “It’s critical that runners first assess their stance, mobility, stability and stride to determine the best way for them to run,” explains Jay Dicharry, author of Runners’ Anatomy, who helped develop the app.
We don’t mean actually having to put in all the hard work – simply take a leaf from their training book and get some altitude training in. Training at altitudes between 6,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level helps to boost oxygen-carrying red blood cells. In fact, studies show that levels of EPO, the hormone that boosts red blood cells, spike 24-48 hours after arriving at altitude. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to head to Everest to train. Try running altitude classes, £20 at London’s Altitude Centre (altitudecentre.com). Or, if you’re really serious about your PB and have the money, get a boost in your sleep with a pillow-framing altitude tent, such as The Oxy-Cube, a snip at £450 (affinityaltitude. com).
Words: Rachel Woolston