Running Faster

People, like cars, come in a variety of styles. Some are fast, some like to traverse mountain passes and others like to go for long hauls. This article will present principles of how to get more speed out of your vehicle through metabolic training, structural training, mental training, sports nutrition, rest and proper equipment.


Contents: Metabolic Training, Energy Systems, An Example, Application, Perceived Exertion, Speed Training Calculator, Intervals, Tempo Run, Lactate Threshold Run, Fartlek, Hill Runs, Sample Workouts, Structure Training, Running Form, Core Strength, Balance, The Mental Athlete, Rest, Sports Nutrition, Equipment.

Metabolic Training

Energy Systems

Your body has four methods of providing energy for your running machine. Think of this as being like different fuels in vehicles: nitro for dragsters, premium unleaded for the Porsche and diesel for the long haul truckers. Your body can potentially use all four of these energy sessions in one race (although it is not a pleasant experience).

  • System 1 Anaerobic short burst (10sec) – uses ATP & PCr stored in muscles for short and very, very intense sprints like the 100m. Oxygen is not used in this process.
  • System 2 Anaerobic medium burst (10sec to 2min) – uses glycogen stored in muscles for very hard, but up to 2 minute efforts like the 400 to 800m. Lactic acid is a by product of this energy system. Lactic acid does not cause muscle soreness but the release of hydrogen ions associated with it will “gunk up" your running machine making it harder to use oxygen in the third energy system.
  • System 3 Aerobic high intensity (2 min to 60 min) – uses glycogen stored in muscles for somewhat hard to hard efforts lasting up to 60 minutes. This is the energy system most distance runners who are interested in running faster use. Oxygen is used to burn the glycogen stored in your muscles.
  • System 4 Aerobic long sustained (over 60 minutes) – uses a larger percentage of fat to fuel long sustained runs.

An Example

At the start of a high school cross-country race the front-runners sprint off the starting line. For the first 10 seconds they are primarily using System 1 as they run very, very hard at perhaps a 4-minute per mile (mpm) pace . Between 10 seconds to 2 minutes they will have switched to System 2 and have slown the pace slightly (4:30 – 5:00 mpm). The longer they stay at the System 2 pace the more they risk using lactic acid which will “gunk” up System 3 making it inefficient. The wise cross-country runner doesn’t let the emotion carry him into this situation and settles into a pace that will use System 3 fuel (5:00 – 6:00 mpm).


Now, the front-runners are performing on System 3 fuel running within their aerobic limit (meaning that they are able to inhale and use enough oxygen to keep them in System 3). The fastest runners have trained their bodies to be able to run at faster speeds in System 3 (they can intake more oxygen and use that oxygen more efficiently in the muscles). They have also learned their body’s limit so that they can keep their pace at the upper boundary of System 3. These runners may even be able to drop into System 2 again for surges (10 sec to 2 min) of faster speeds. Surges will result in lactic acid metabolism but with training the effects of the lactic acid can be buffered more rapidly (less gunking up).


For the final sprint some runners may use System 1 again for the brief, very, very intense rush to the finish line.



Metabolic training improves the efficiency of each of your energy systems and should be targeted to each system. In our vehicle analogy this is like tuning your engine to get the most out of each drop of fuel. If you are training for events between the Mile and the10k you will primarily by using systems 2 &3 and should therefore base your workouts on challenging these systems.


For example, if you ran 400 meters very hard it may take you 75 seconds and would primarily be using System 2. Resting to full recovery (2 –4 min) and repeating the 400 meter effort 4 to 10 times would provide even more System 2 training. Over time your body would become more efficient in System 2, meaning it could more quickly neutralize lactic acid, last longer (2minutes versus 75 seconds), and maintain a faster pace (4:40 versus 5:00 per mile) running on System 2 fuel. So, at the start of the 5k you would be able to hold a faster initial pace for a longer period of time and have less lactic acid to "gunk up" the system as you settle into your steady pace. You may also be able to surge and use System 2 in the middle or end of your race.


System 3 training requires running at a somewhat hard to hard pace that you could sustain for 3 to 60 minutes. This intensity level would feel hard but not very hard (at any given instance – the total effort may be perceived as very, very hard). For example, if you ran for 1 mile at a pace you perceived as being hard you would be training System 3. You could rest for 4 minutes and repeat this effort 2-5 times depending on your fitness level. Over time your System 3 would become more efficient, allowing you to run at a faster pace for a longer duration on System 3 fuel. This system has the greatest potential for improvement and should be the foundation of your speed training program. The better your System 3 performance the less likely you will have to tap into System 2 and risk excessive lactic acid.


Speed Training Calculator

We have made it easier for you to determine how fast and what volume of speed training you should be training at. View our speed training calculator which is based on the pace charts that Jack Daniels' uses in his book "Daniels' Running Formula" to guide your training program.



There are several terms used when describing speed training programs that are helpful to know when talking with other runners. Unfortunately there is a lot of jargon and misuse of terms. Each approach has its benefits and each person responds uniquely so experiment and find what works best for you.

Intervals – Intervals are repeated bouts of higher intensity running with rest periods in between. The distance can range from 20 meters to 3+ miles and may be repeated 2 to 30+ times. This approach works best on a track where you can easily measure the distance and time. In Daniels' Running Formula there are three categories of intervals: Repetition Intervals(fast and less than 2 minutes with 4 minute recovery and emphasis on form), Classic Intervals (2-5min with 4 minute rest to improve VO2max) and Threshold Intervals (performed at the border of Systems 2&3 with only a minute rest and used to improve your bodies ability not to get "gunked up" as it uses more lactate.

Tempo Run – A longer run (20-30 minutes) that is performed at your race pace, which is usually sensed to be hard or bordering on very hard. Your pace should remain the same for the entire duration of the tempo run. Good for training on roads or trails and getting a feel for a sustained pace.

Lactate Threshold Run – A longer run (10 – 30 minutes) at an intensity that is bordering on very hard (this is challenging your body's ability to perform at the upper edge of System 3 for a prolonged period of time without becoming over powered by the effects of lactic acid). These are essentially the same as tempo runs because your race pace should be a pace that is bordering on very hard.

Fartlek – A continuous training run that consists of periods of hard running (3-10 min) and moderate running of varied distances or time periods ie 3 min hard, 2 min moderate, 5 min hard, 3 min moderate, etc. Great technique for training on roads or trails

Hill Runs – Hill runs will escalate your heart rate quickly (level of exertion), are softer on the joints and improve form by developing a stronger forward drive.


Perceived Exertion

Exercise physiologist have discovered that your sense of how hard you are running matches very well with which energy system you are using. If you sense that you are running very, very hard you are most likely using System 1. If you sense that you are running very hard you are most likely using System 2 and if you sense that you are running hard you are training in the upper limits of System 3. System 4 training will feel like a moderate pace that could be sustained for over 60 minutes.


So, if you prefer the more natural approach of listening to your body you can use your sense of exertion to monitor which system you are training and a watch to track your progress. Initially 400 meters in 90 seconds may be perceived as a hard effort. In four weeks that same 400 meters run at a hard level will only take 82 seconds. You can't force your body into a particular pace, but you can improve your energy systems with training so that your body is able to maintain the pace that matches your realistic goals.


Sample Workouts

The following are samples of workouts that could be performed to train a particular energy system. You can mix and match any of these components to create a workout; however, look at the big picture and focus on the System or Systems that are specific to your event with System 3 being your foundation. Understanding the principles of energy systems allows you the flexibility to design a personalized training program.


If you are new to speed training start with fewer repititions. The number of repititions also depends on your target race distance - longer events require a greater total distance run at high intensity. The speed calculator will help you determine the maximum total volume of speed work based on your weekly training mileage


System 1





20 meters

Very, very hard

1-2 min


50 meters

Very, very hard

1-2 min


100 meters

Very, very hard

2-3 min



System 2 (Repetition Intervals)





200 meters

Very hard

4 min

5 -15

400 meters

Very hard


3 -10

600 meters

Very hard


3 - 8


System 3 (Classic Intervals)





400 meters


4 min

3 - 10

800 meters


4 min

2 - 8

1200 meters


4 min

2 - 4

1600 meters


4 min

2 - 3


System 2/3 Lactate Threshold

400 meter Hard / very hard 1 min 3 - 10
800 meter Hard / very hard 1 min 2 - 8
1200 meter Hard / very hard 1 min 2 - 4
1600 meter Hard / very hard 1 min 2 - 3
10 min Hard / very hard 1 min 1 - 2
15 - 30 min Hard / very hard n/a 1



System 4

Long, slow runs - 40 minutes to 3+ hours at an easy pace.


Structure Training

If your car tires are low on air or you have a bike rack on the top of your car the structure of your vehicle is going to limit your performance. Runners who improve their running form, core strength, and balance will be able to run faster by improving their structural efficiency.


Running Form

Click here to view Better Runner’s “Running Form” page - complete with video and drills.


Core Strength

Core training is a term used to describe conditioning of the muscles that attach to your pelvis. There are actually 29 pairs of these muscles. Your core is literally the control center for your legs to work from. Optimizing the function of these core muscles will improve your running performance. There are a number of ways to improve your core strength. For a simple approach try the four direction Planks.


For a focused, core specific Training program check out Adam Ford’s Swiss Ball Abs and Core.

For running specific dynamic Core Training try Kettlebell Training for the Running Athlete.



Balance training is often neglected by runners but can have a tremendous impact on running form and muscle tuning. Balance is the functional expression of an optimized running machine (good core strength and coordination). View our balance training video for a starter program. Kettlebell Training for the Running Athlete provides advanced functional balance training in the routine as well as strength training.


The Mental Athlete

Running hard is mentally challenging. Steve Prefontaine, the great American distance runner, was famous for believing that no one could beat him because no one was willing to hurt as much as he was. One of our brain’s jobs is to protect us and if your brain senses that you are pushing too hard it will do it’s best to shut you down. Using relaxation techniques and visualization training you can help your body maximize its potential. The Mental Athlete by Kay Porter is an excellent resource for your mental training. This book comes complete with exercises, practice guides, worksheets, goal setting and a great collection of success stories.



Rest is perhaps the most important principle to understand for your speed training program. Your body needs time to recover. Your muscles, joints, bones, lungs, heart, nervous system, immune system and even your excretory system have to adapt to the stress associated with running faster. Stressing these systems is what stimulates them to perform better but there is a limit which if it is exceeded your body will begin to break down. Each person has a different breaking point and that point will change depending on your circumstances (age, nutrition, pregnancy etc). An increase in your resting heart rate, prolonged fatigue, and pain are all indicators that you are hitting the breaking point.


When beginning a speed training program it is best to error on the side of being conservative. Try one moderate intensity session per week then build up to two sessions with increased intensity over time. Experienced athletes may be able to perform three high intensity sessions per week. Remember that increasing the distance you run each week is also more stress on your body and will need to be balanced into the training equation. Avoid increasing intensity and volume at the same. It increases your risk of injury.



Runners who are preparing for a specific peak event will often follow a 3-9 month program to prepare for their goal event. Tapering is the process of reducing the volume of training 2 weeks prior to competition. Typically running mileage is reduced by up to 85% by the last week of training although speed training volume is only reduced 30%. Tapering can actually be what makes or breaks the performance. Inexperienced athletes often don't feel confident reducing their training volume for 2-3 weeks. However, research has demonstrated that tapering will improve race performance by 3% on average. In this particular study runners reduced their training volume 50% the first week and 75% the second week. While 3% may not seem like much, in a large competitive event it can be the difference in placing 1st or 50th.

Sports Nutrition

Sports nutrition guidebookGive your body the advantage it deserves by eating nutritiously. Systems 2 & 3 require glycogen that is stored in the muscle for fuel. Carbohydrates are the food source that glycogen is created from. Make sure your diet contains plenty of whole grains for carbs. Proteins help build muscle and repair tissue. Typically you don't need supplemental protein but if you are vegetarian be sure to combine your foods to get all the amino acids. Your body does use fat for energy in the longer distances. However, you don’t need to consume extra fat to meet your energy needs.

If your training or running event is longer than 60 minutes you should take an energy drink to refuel. Practice drinking during workout so that on race day you will be confident.


Eating / drinking shortly after a speed training session is essential for recovery. Complex carbohydrates and a sports drink are best.


Keep yourself hydrated so that your urine is light colored. This is particularly important in warmer climates.


For a complete guide to sports nutrition we recommend Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook

Sample Articles:Nancy Clark Nutrition.


Training in standard running shoes and then switching to a light racing shoe is a beautiful feeling. You’ll feel light, fresh and fast. Road Runner Sports offers a large selection of racing shoes for track, cross country or the roads. You can also visit your local running specialty store for specific guidance.


Running faster is a freedom that is exhilarating! The additional effort, planning and training are well worth the results. Follow the principles of metabolic training, structural training, mental training, rest and sports nutrition and you’ll be on your way to peak running experiences. If you are interested in a complete training manual - the best available is Daniels' Running Formula by Jack Daniels


Bryan Whitesides MPT, OCS

Physical Therapist

This article may be reproduced with appropriate reference.