Make sure you read all the way through — I have an awesome Altra Zero Drop shoe giveaway at the bottom of this post!
Back in July, I laid out some of the ways that I was working toward getting a new PR at the 5K distance. My strategy was to spend more time focusing on running quality, speedwork and strength and less time stressing about my mileage.
At the time, these were the goals:
- run less often but run HARD
- run short but push a stroller
- run fast intervals with short walking breaks
And I did it all while working crazy long hours, nursing a baby/toddler and spending less time in training than before.
You can do it too. Here are some of the things that may help you become a faster, stronger and better runner in six months (remember: I’m not a trainer or running coach, so please tailor these to your needs and consider consulting with a fitness expert!).
1. Work on your form.
When I joined the blogging crew at the 2013 Runner’s World event, I got to meet some incredible people and learn some things that changed the way I trained. For example: Budd Coates took us on a run and helped us work through his “Running on Air” technique for breathing during runs. That has helped me avoid the side stitches that plagued me for a month. Bart Yasso shared with us an inspirational story about his time running with a group of Amish people in Lancaster County, PA, and what it taught him about ultra distance training.
But the single most important thing that happened to me that weekend was taking part in a run clinic with Golden Harper, the founder of Altra Zero Drop shoes (more on that below, and — spoiler alert! — why I’m so thrilled to join Golden and team as an Altra Ambassador).
Golden had us all run around in a wide circle, and then gave us these pointers:
- RUN PROUD. That means to keep your chest up and your chin and hips forward. Not only do you run more efficiently, you can prevent shin splints.
- KEEP YOUR ARMS RELAXED, PUMPING BACKWARDS, AND BEHIND YOUR HIPS. Unless you’re running crazy fast, your arms shouldn’t cross in front of your body, past your hips — and being diligent about keeping my form intact even during training runs has helped it become a much more natural posture for me during races.
- DON’T LAND IN A CHECKMARK. A lot of people are heel strikers — but landing with your foot parallel to the ground really helps with the initial impact, and can help you turn your feet over faster.
- CHECK YOUR CADENCE. When you improve your landing posture, you can also increase your cadence, or how quickly you take your steps.
He had us try those techniques while running barefoot — and I really noticed the difference right away.
One last tip from Golden that I used in all of my PR races? When you feel yourself starting to lose momentum or energy, REACH FOR THE MOON. Lift your arms toward the sky, at about a 45-degree angle. Pretend that you’re reaching up to grab the moon, right above/in front of you. That will help you pick your posture back up, get your chest forward and your momentum in the right direction. Then when you drop your arms back into place, you’ll naturally have a little boost.
2. Find the right gear.
I have had the great fortune to try out just about every shoe brand there is. I have a closet full of models, styles and types, and I wear very different gear for different sports. For dance, it’s my Reebok UR Leads, which are super flexible and designed for pivots and jumps. For the gym, I still love my Saucony Virrata. My best walking shoes are New Balance.
But for running, I’m a changed woman. Altra Zero Drop shoes are so perfectly suited for me, and for a natural running form, that I am thrilled to share that I’ve joined them as a 2014 Ambassador. I can’t say enough about how these shoes have changed my running (and again, all of my PRs have come in Altras). The wide toe box and zero drop technology (the heel and forefoot are the same distance from the ground) have kept me injury-free, helped me work on that natural heel strike and are designed specifically for men/women’s needs.
Golden actually created the prototype for what would become Altra shoes using a toaster at his house and cutting up some more traditional shoes.
I love that story, and you can hear more about his journey in the embedded video below.
Whatever your needs are, make sure that you are picky. Get a shoe that fits your foot, gives you the proper amount of cushioning for your running style and supports all of your goals.
3. Don’t deviate from the plan. Except when you do.
I never really followed a running plan for my first 5K or first three half marathons. I vaguely tried to hit certain mileage goals every week, but I pretty much just ran. A lot. Whenever I could. Until I felt like stopping.
For the last six months, I was all about the plan. I didn’t skip a workout — if it was raining, I used the treadmill. If I had family in town, I ran in the morning or at night. If I needed to spend my lunch break knocking out my assigned run distance, I did. That meant that I didn’t undertrain, I didn’t overtrain — I trained just right. And did so in a smart, gradual increase of mileage.
Having said that, my most recent half marathon — the one that left me with a surprise PR — came after six weeks of winging it. I truly believe that all of the work I’d put in previous to that race helped me get to my goal.
So my philosophy? Make a plan. Stick to it whenever humanly possible. Don’t let yourself find easy ways out. But if you need to take some time off because you’re sick or hurt or just burned out, go for it. Let your plan allow for throwing out the plan.
4. Spend time in the gym and on the yoga mat.
I ran much, much less in the last six months than I did while training for any previous races. And I spent more time working on some of my big muscle groups and my flexibility. It all paid off.
I went into these races leaner than I did any other seasons, which of course helped me run lighter and faster. But I also went in with stronger quads, abs and lats, and I think it helped me support my other running muscles and have more endurance for the long haul.
But perhaps the yoga had the most interesting impact on my running. Practicing poses every night before bed, stretching my muscles and building mental strength all helped me feel fitter and more confident before ever lacing up my sneakers. I can’t stress enough how important yoga is for my running career.
5. Set challenging goals.
I wanted to PR, damn it, and PR huge. So I set some lofty, challenging goals. And I shared them with you. Here, and on Twitter. In person (my poor friends). I put my goals out there and never let myself forget them. Tired and don’t want to run? Think of that PR. Would rather sit on the couch and watch TV? Think of that PR.
I had mini goals, too. To run 5 miles after baby. Then 10. To run a mile in under 8:00. Then under 7:45. Then, miraculously, under 7;30. I made a goal, achieved it, and made another.