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Trail Tips

4 Tips for Becoming a Faster Runner

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What does hard work look like?

That question has a lot of answers. Most of them revolve around the process of training—getting up early to run when you don’t want to, putting in intervals when it would be easier to do a short jog, running on a work trip when everyone else goes to the bar.

But every so often, it’s possible to describe hard work in numbers.

In 2012, Steve Tucker ran 10:43 at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile D.C., finishing 122nd.
In 2013, he ran 9:36 and finished 33rd.
In 2014, he ran 8:56 and finished 36th.
On Saturday, he ran 6:59 and won.

That seems like a miracle, right? Tucker is 34 and a father of two, and this was his first ultra win, on a big stage against stiff competition.

But in trail running, the biggest miracles are usually just hard work in disguise—the result of years of sweat when no one is watching. Tucker went from 122nd to 1st over five years by applying a few simple, sweaty lessons that you can use in your training.

1. Believe

When Tucker started trail running, he never thought he would wind up on the podium. Then he started to buckle down in training. “When I started to invest in myself a little more steadily, suddenly my results were improving despite already being into my 30s. That was when I really started to believe.”

By the time Tucker contacted me about coaching him eight months ago, he was swinging for the fences. “I’d love to go back to the 50-miler and have a chance to finish top five,” he said. “OK … what I’d really, secretly love is to win and break seven hours.”

That belief and self confidence is why he ran his six highest-mileage weeks ever this winter, and why he ran at midnight on a work trip just last week.

He had to train to find belief, but, once earned, that belief fueled him to train even harder. That positive feedback cycle is what ultimately landed him in first place.

2. Run More

Big dreams don’t mean anything without big actions.

For most trail runners, the simple act of running more mileage more consistently will lead to improvement over time.

In early 2015, Tucker’s average monthly mileage was less than 100 miles (after some higher mileage during the summers in prior years). By 2017, it was well over 200 miles. Those extra miles corresponded with adaptations that led to a breakthrough at the North Face race.

Increased mileage benefits the body in numerous ways, from improved aerobic capacity, allowing you to process more oxygen at faster paces, to musculoskeletal strengthening, which increases your body’s resilience and ability to endure.

As Tucker said, “The biggest factor in my success has been going from someone who ran on average three or four days a week but sometimes would miss a week straight, to someone who runs five or six days a week seemingly all the time.”

He cautions others not to increase volume too quickly though, “I couldn’t do it right away, but I probably could have done increased my volume more quickly.”

Practice patience and progressive increases, emphasizing consistency and health over boom-and-bust training with high mileage one week and no mileage the next week.

3. Build Running Economy

Aside from simply running more, Tucker also learned to run more efficiently. Starting eight months ago, he began doing lots of short, fast strides on flats and hills, designed to teach his body and brain to run fast with minimal effort. These strides paid off—by the start of 2017, he was running nearly one-minute-per-mile faster at the same aerobic heart rates.

In your own training, be sure you don’t fall into running one pace all the time. If that one pace is too slow, you’ll just reinforce the bad habits that slow you down; if that one pace is too fast, your body will break down and get less efficient.

By strategically developing your running economy, you’ll use less energy and run faster.

But, you have to learn to run fast in the first place. Strides can help you do that.

4. Adapt to Stress

In the three weeks leading up to the race, Tucker had several business trips that involved being on his feet for 12-plus hours a day, often lasting until late into the night. Instead of the planned runs, he reduced his training volume and made most of the miles easy, aside from a few key workouts.

Just 10 days before the race, I gave him an excuse to DNS in his training log: “Sure you want to do this race with everything that is going on?”

Tucker’s response is telling. “I’m in for a long night tonight, but I’m not stressed about it or the race. I feel so ready to go! This is just how life goes, no way to set things up perfectly. In some ways, I function better in life with a bit of chaos. I’m going destroy my PR in this race by more than an hour, just wait. And I’m going have fun, smiling the whole way.”

He was wrong—he beat his PR by almost two hours.

The key for your own training is to embrace the process of long-term improvement, rather than stressing out over short-term expectations. No one workout, race or even training cycle is particularly important. Instead, make decisions (like whether to start a race or force a workout) with the zoomed-out, long-term wisdom of who you might become, rather than who you currently are.

If you do that, you might become someone even more remarkable than you could ever imagine.

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.