Three Ways to Get Faster in a Single Season

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Runner’s World

Ask Coach Jenny

By Jenny Hadfield

Here’s how to improve your pace on all your runs—even the easy ones—without getting hurt or burnt out.

Question:  I’m training for a marathon next season and I find that whenever I push harder I fail to improve or end up hurt. How do I train to improve my time? Thanks much! —Natalie

This is an email I received from a reader turned personal-coaching client last year. Her name has been changed, but all the details are real. I’m sharing this with you because her training story is not unique. Natalie’s intentions were great, but the way she was going about putting her training together was causing her trouble.

I’m also sharing this with you because in one season, with a few tweaks to her training regimen, she’s gone from failing to improve to making remarkable progress. Take a look at her stats:

Easy Effort Runs six months ago: 11:20
Easy Effort Runs now: 10:14

Long Run Pace then: 11:45
Long Run Pace now: 11:00

And, Natalie has improved the pace at which she is able to run at her redline threshold (also known as lactate threshold) by 45 seconds per mile. When you raise your redline, you can run faster at easier effort levels for longer stretches of time.

You might be thinking, “Wow, what kind of crazy workouts was she doing to improve like that?” But truly, it’s more about the workouts she wasn’t doing. Here are the three simple changes I made to help Natalie improve her performance this season.

Keep it simple. With all the talk—especially on social media and blogs—about new workouts, it’s easy to get caught up in switching around your workouts to fit in with everyone else’s plans. This can be a fun way to gain overall fitness, but when you’re training for an endurance race, it’s better to go with a few workouts repeated regularly and to progress them as your body adapts. If you don’t give your body time to adapt to new stimuli, the frequent changes can cause more harm than good.
How to do it: Instead of changing workouts every week, I assigned only two hard effort workouts—a tempo run and an interval workout—and had Natalie focus on learning how to run these at the right effort. She ran one hard workout, either a tempo run or intervals, once per week. She started with a tempo run that included five-minute repeats at threshold effort, and by the end of the 20-week training season, she built up to twenty minutes at that same effort. For her intervals, she started with one minute at her red zone effort above her threshold and finished the season running two to three minutes at this same effort. Keeping the workouts consistent from week to week helped Natalie learn to run at the right effort levels, and she only took on slightly tougher versions of those workouts every three or four weeks.

Find your flow. When I develop a custom training plan, I look at a runner’s overall heath, injury history and risk, past races, running schedule, work life, family, sleep habits, and many other variables. In order for a plan to work for you, it’s got to flow with your life, your health, and your body. A plan for a 25-year-old will look much different than one for a 45-year-old. Start by taking an honest look at the stress in your life and how your body responds to workouts, then plot a program that allows you to train, recover, and adapt.
How to do it: Natalie was doing two high-intensity interval (HIIT) workouts per week—one running, one cross-training—on back-to-back days, and she’d go into her long runs feeling drained. I changed her schedule to include only one HIIT workout per week (running), added strength workouts instead of more cardio, and plugged in one easy run during the week and one long run, plus a yoga class and a full recovery day. If you’re exhausted, you need to change the flow of your workouts. Natalie’s body was able to improve with this recipe because she was able to recover, which allowed her body to adapt to the workload and push harder as she improved.

Run by effort rather than pace. The final step was in teaching Natalie how to train by effort rather than pace. It took a few weeks for her to learn to let her pace be the outcome of her workout, rather than her guide, and once she did, she was able to fully embrace the purpose of every workout. In doing so, her body was training in the optimal zone consistently and able to progress through the season.
How to do it: I broke the effort goals into three simple zones (see below). Her easy and long runs were at a conversational Yellow Zone. This is the zone where you can talk in full sentences. Tempo runs were done in the Orange Zone, an effort level where you can hear your breathing, but only talk in one to two word responses—it feels like it’s just outside your comfort zone. And the intervals were done in the Red Zone, a hard effort where you are running fast but in control, and your breathing is labored. There’s no talking in the Red Zone.


Improvement comes from finding a balance between stress and recovery that leads to adaptation. The key is to find the right recipe for you.


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