Do you feel like you’re working hard at your running, but are constantly asking yourself, “Why am I not getting faster?” Improving at running can be a lot more complicated than just lacing up and heading out the door. Chances are you’re making at least a few of the following mistakes and that’s what’s holding you back:
1.) You always run at the same pace.
2.) Your overall mileage is too low.
3.) You’re not staying consistent over time.
4.) You’re not getting quality sleep.
5.) You’re not including recovery runs.
6.) You’re not doing enough speedwork.
7.) You’re not using food as fuel.
8.) You’re expecting too much, too soon.
9.) You’ don’t have a why.
So let’s get into each of these common mistakes runners make that keep them from getting faster, along with exactly how you can fix it so you can start reaching your potential. I’ll start with a glimpse of my personal journey with this (and end with the mistake that’s probably the most important).
What Happened With My Running When I Fixed My Mistakes
For a long time, my speed really didn’t improve. I would run 5ks and 10ks hoping for a PR, and if I got one, it was by mere seconds. Then I’d get distracted by something else in my life, my running would wane, and when it was time to train for another race, I would start the cycle all over again.
It took me years to figure out why my running times were at a standstill. But once I did, the improvement wasn’t far behind. Doing so led me to PR my marathon by over an hour and get my fastest 5k time at the age of 40 (and I’ve been running for 20 years!)
You have it in you, too.
9 Running Mistakes that Are Holding Back Your Speed (and How to Solve Them)
If you’ve hit a plateau in your running, perhaps your race times ebb and flow without that clear path of improving over time, there’s a reason. It might be that you’re not doing enough, but the opposite could also be true.
Is it possible to push too hard and still not get better? We’ll talk about that and more in this list of reasons why your running isn’t getting better.
Read on to find out which of these running mistakes you’re making so you can start working on fixing them. It’s time to be your best running self.
Mistake #1.) You always run the same pace.
Oh man, this was me for so many years. I was a fairly fast runner, in the top 25% generally, so I assumed for a long time that I just had hit my max potential. But being the competitive person that I am, that wasn’t enough for me. Otherwise, it felt like these miles would be a waste.
So, I kept pushing on.
The problem was that I would run every single run as hard as I could. My husband I would run together and try to beat each other. It wasn’t until we ran our first marathon together that we realized this pace was not sustainable as we got into upper mileage.
We started researching and that’s when we found out that you’re not actually supposed to go all out on every single run. Imagine that!
Solution: Vary your paces between training runs.
It took us a long time to wrap our heads around the fact that doing easy runs could make us faster runners. But they do! The mantra “go big or go home” does not work for every single run. (And if you keep doing this, you’re going to get hurt.)
On the flip side, if you run every run at your easy pace…or your medium pace, you won’t see the improvement you desire.
The bottom line…mix up the pace!!!
Mistake #2.) Your overall mileage is too low.
So tell me…have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m only racing a 5k…as long as I can run at least 3 miles I’ll be ready.”
“With my half marathon coming up, as long as I can run 10 miles, I should be good to go.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told myself this through the years, have people say it to me, or yikes…me say it to others. Now there is truth to it. If you can run 10 miles for example, chances are you can squeeze out 3 more.
But will you ever be your best doing just enough to get by? No, you will not.
Now if you’re fine with that and are just running the race for fun or to finish, then more power to you!
But if you are frustrated by your times in your races and have this mentality, it’s time to start running more.
Take this Hal Higdon Intermediate 5K Training Plan for example. There are 8 weeks of training and every week there is a longer run that progresses from 5 – 7 miles. Which is double what you’ll actually run in the 3.1-mile race.
Solution: Safely add more mileage each week.
If you have a 5k, 10k, or half marathon race in your future, plan to run longer distances than the actual race if you want to improve your times. If it’s the marathon you’re up against you won’t be doing this, but you should have at least 3 20-mile plus runs in your schedule.
And as far as weekly mileage? It can be a wide range from runner to runner, but chances are…you need more than what you’re doing now in order to improve. (Marathon runners should be running AT LEAST 40 plus per week, with 55-60 being ideal for many.)
To safely build, the rule of thumb is to add around 10% over your previous week’s mileage so you don’t get injured. Though a great starting point, sometimes you might want to add less (beginners), whereas sometimes 15-20% might be ok (more experienced runners). Strength Running offers a great break down of how to determine what would work best for you.
Mistake #3.) You aren’t staying consistent over time.
Life. It happens, right? Perhaps a major event occurs in your life that’s more important than running, or you get busy with work and it becomes more difficult to fit your runs in.
Before you know it, your running has drastically decreased or becomes completely nonexistent.
Now is this completely understandable? Of course! It happens to the best of us from time to time. The problem is that if you truly want to improve in your running, you need to keep it moving. And by moving, I mean running.
Berkeley Wellness writes, “Even two weeks of detraining can lead to a significant decline in cardio fitness, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.” Once you’ve hit a month off or more, you might as well be staring from scratch.
In the article, Losing and Regaining Fitness, well-known writer/runner/coach Hal Higdon gives his thoughts on how important it is to stay consistent with your running, “You don’t need to remain in top shape 12 months of the year, but doing a bit of maintenance work during off periods will help you avoid total fitness loss.”
Solution: Keep running from week-to-week.
If you can help it, don’t take extended breaks from running. Sure, we all need a bit of a break once in awhile, but take a week and then get back on the horse.
Don’t lose sight of what you’re after – to get better at running. You don’t want to always feel like you’re back at square one.
Mistake #4.) You’re not getting quality sleep.
Fartleks, tempo runs, and long runs all take a toll on your body. They’re also absolutely necessary for building fitness, increasing your VO2 Max (the amount of oxygen a person can utilize during vigorous exercise), and just plain getting faster at running.
But if you don’t get proper sleep, you’ll never actually benefit from these workouts the way that you should.
In a society that practically celebrates burning the candle at both ends, (and for the go-getter type runners usually are), making sure you get enough sleep is often put to the wayside. You may see it as lazy instead of something that actually makes you better at what you do when you’re awake.
When you run hard, you get small micro tears in your muscles. You can feel it on those days you struggle to walk down the stairs, or you may not feel it at all. Either way, your body needs to repair from the stress that you put on it.
When you consistently get poor sleep, your body cannot heal itself properly. Additionally, you’ll be perpetually tired which will lead to low quality runs where you aren’t able to hit your target paces.
Solution: Aim for 8 hours of sleep, maybe more.
I know some of you may think I must be crazy asking you to get 8 hours of sleep or more. As a mom of three young kids, I struggle with this one, too.
I didn’t realize how much the elites prioritze sleep until reading marathon record-holder Deena Kastor’s book, Let Your Mind Run. In the thick of her training days, she would sleep 10 hours per night and take 2-hour naps!! Not that you need to go that far, but it just goes to show how important sleep truly is for running success.
Additionally, HGH (Human Growth Hormone) is mostly released during sleep, and it’s vital for promoting healthy muscle and bone mass.
For some runners, you may be able to continuously improve on closer to 7 hours per night, but I promise you will do even better with more.
If that isn’t enought to convince you, I recommend you read my article, How Sleep Can Give You the Edge You Need in Marathon Training.
Mistake #5.) You aren’t doing recovery runs.
Recovery, like sleep, is a huge contributor to your running success. As previously discussed, so many runners think they’re supposed to go hard on every single run. And in a world of Strava segments and trying to earn that coveted crown, it can feel like this is always the expectation.
But guess what happens when you never take the time to slow down? You get hurt. And I’m not just meaning to take time to stretch, roll, or take a day off (though those things are important, too)…I also mean included recovery runs into your schedule.
Back in my 20s, I had absolutely no concept of this. Why would I use the 30 minutes of workout time I carved out of my day to run easy? I loved the way it felt for my heart to beat out of my chest and finish knowing I gave my all.
Unfortunately, that’s the wrong mindset if you’re truly wanting to reach your potential as a runner.
Solution: Run slower. A lot slower.
Did you know it’s not uncommon for the best runners in the world to run easy paces of 10 minutes per mile? That’s like 4-5 minutes slower than their marathon race pace. And if it’s good enough for them, than it’s good enough for you.
Slow. Down. After every hard day you should have a recovery day where you run slow. Not sure what that pace would be? I have an article all about recovery runs – the when, how often and as what speed.
Here’s what I talk about as far as finding your easy pace:
- You can breathe in and out through your nose with your mouth closed.
- You can easily hold a conversation with someone.
- You’re a 3-4 on a scale of 1 -10 with perceived rate of exertion (PRE).
- 60 – 70 percent or less of your maximum heart rate.
- Anywhere from 1.5 – 3 minutes slower than your marathon goal pace.
Does it sound counterintuitive? Yes. Am I wrong about this? No.
And not only will you not get faster at your running, but eventually you’re going to get hurt if you’re always running hard.
Mistake #6.) You aren’t doing enough speedwork.
This one can be tricky for people. It can be hard to know what kind of speed work is best when you’re scrapping a running plan together and trying to balance hard running days with easy ones.
It wasn’t until I started training with Running Rogue (the podcast training group, that is) that I really started pushing my limits with speed. I thought I was doing enough, but clearly I had more to give.
Solution: Find a way to push past your current speed limit.
It’s easy to get stuck at a pace and think you simply can’t do more. If you’re already saying in your head, “everything hurts and I’m dying,” why would you want to do more? Yet, it’s amazing what you can achieve when you have the motivation to do so.
For me, that was finally joining a running group. I would see paces of runnign workouts and think, “There is NO WAY I can do that.” Then I would see people post their workouts and they were killing it. That lit a fire in me, helping me realize that I was self-sabotaging before even getting started.
If this is the area where you’re struggling, getting a coach could be extremely helpful. The others on this list are easier to independently assess and manage, but sometimes you need someone to point out that you are capable of more.
If you’re not at a point where you’re ready to get a coach, make sure you’re mixing up the speed work week-to-week (and you only need 1 day per week of focuses fast-pace work). These 4 workouts from Aaptiv are a good place to start.
Mistake #7.) You’re not using food as fuel.
Figuring out the proper nutrition regimen and actually implementing it feels as if we might as well be solving trigonometry theorems.
In other words, it ain’t easy.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand what is the healthiest way to eat without being so rigid that you can’t enjoy food, and it can get complex if you let it.
But if you’re not at least trying to consider what you’re putting into your body and how that affects your running, than your menu probably needs some work.
Consuming large amounts of processed foods or eating a diet that’s too heavy on one macronutrient and lacking in the others will make you feel lethargic. If you don’t have a balanced approach to eating, your running speed will suffer.
Solution: Focus on eating whole foods.
Trying to be the perfect eater will eventually backfire. Instead, aim to make the best choices the majority of the time.
That means eating mostly whole foods in a balanced way. Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean protein all have a place in a runner’s diet. I’ve discussed trying to train while doing a Whole30. While I think this can be a great jumping off point if you’re struggling to get your eating on track to know what foods make you feel best, it’s not sustainable.
Definitely allow yourself the foods that make you happy once in awhile, just don’t go off the rails. Eating well Monday through Friday and then having full-on cheat weekends will not serve your running. Alcohol, I’m sorry to say, isn’t doing you any favors either. (Not that you can’t have a glass of wine or a beer now and then…but keep it to a minimum.)
Take a hard look at what you’re eating…if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll be able to tell if this one’s getting in the way of you getting better at running or not.
Mistake #8.) You’re expecting too much, too soon.
I recently listened to the Art and Science of Running podcast where they interviewed one of the runners who inspires me the most, Tommy Rivers Puzey. During it, he recounted a story of a friend who asked him what he would need to do to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. Tommy replied, “That’s simple. All you need to do is run 100 miles per year…for 10 years. Then you’ll be ready.”
He went on to say that it would take at least a year for a runner to safely work up to running 100 miles per week.
Now almost none of us plan to train for the marathon Olympic trials, and maybe only a tad more of us will ever run 100 miles per week. But the bottom line is that honing the craft of running takes time. It’s not weeks that will prepare you for where you want to be, but years. Once you wrap your head around that, you can start to focus on small improvements week by week that add up over time to be big gains.
Solution: Remind yourself that this is a long game.
Running well takes time. Not weeks or months, but years.
If you’re constantly telling yourself that you’re too slow or that you’re bad at running, stop that! First of all, there is no such thing as slow running. That only comes from a place of comparison. Stop comparing yourself to friends who’ve been running since high school. This is about you, not them.
Instead, think about comparing your future self to the you now.
You want to be a faster runner? If you focus on the right training strategies: slowing down for most of your runs, adding mileage, including focused speed work once per week…you will be. But it won’t be next week or even that noticeable in a month.
6 months, 1 year, 5 years….those small gains will add up if you stick with it. I promise!
Mistake #9.) You don’t have a “why.”
Have you actually defined a purpose for why you keep running? Is it a good reason? Only you can know the answer to that question.
But you need a “why.” Maybe it’s a specific goal with your running or maybe it’s the only way you can get through your day without feeling anxious.
Not having a why for your running makes it way too easy to quit for weeks at a time or not take your speed to the level that your legs and heart are capable of.
Does this sound silly to you? The mind is far more powerful than you might realize.
The motivation for running starts with the way you think about it. Yes, you already told yourself you want to get faster at running, but that’s not enough to get you to lace up and out the door at 6 am. Especially when you’re feeling like you’re not getting better at running.
Solution: Define your why (that purpose!) for running.
Finding your why will help you to keep pushing forward when it gets tough.
Running is hard. Getting better at running is even harder. You will have plenty of setbacks and times you feel like you every run is a struggle.
If you don’t have a focused intention for why you run, it’s going to be difficult to keep going with all of the steps previously mentioned. It’s way too easy to cut a 10-mile run in half when you continuously ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” when you have no reasonable answer.
What I can tell you is that when you do find that why, and can answer it honestly and with conviction, nothing feels better when the work all starts paying off. Because if you keep pushing forward, week after week, I promise it will.
Before you start anything else on this list, define your why. And remind yourself again and again of this reason that keeps you moving forward. The faster running will come.