Usain Bolt makes sprinting look easy. It’s almost as if he doesn’t have to try. But we’ll let you in on a little secret: Sure, Bolt is more of a natural runner than we are, but he still has to work at it in order to keep himself in top form. Even better news? There are tons of steps you can take to run faster, smoke the competition, and maybe even sent a new PR.
1. Nail good form.
The key to running (at any speed) is to practice proper running technique. That means keeping your upper body tall yet relaxed, striking the ground with your mid-foot landing under your hip, and swinging your arms forward and back (not side to side!) at low 90-degree angles.
2. Count your steps.
Get familiar with stride turnover—the rate of steps you take while running, regardless of pace. The fastest, most efficient runners have a cadence of around 180 steps per minute and keep their feet close to the ground with light, short, and speedy steps. To find your magic number, run for one minute, count the number of times the right foot hits the ground, and multiply by two.
3. Try interval training.
Short on gym time? Try interval training. Alternate periods of high and low intensity while exercising to build speed and endurance—and burn major calories in less time too!
4. Don't forget to sprint.
There's a reason you see all those “real runners” doing short sprints before the big road race. Strides are a series of comfortable sprints (usually eight to 12, between 50 and 200 meters each) to improve acceleration technique.
5. Make the treadmill your friend.
The treadmill's belt assists with leg turnover, so it's actually easier to run faster. Plus, you have the power to push the pace right at your fingertips. Just make sure you get on the machine before turning up the dial.
6. Stretch daily.
The jury is still out on static stretches—it's unclear if they really prevent running injuries. Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship. Witvrouw E, Mahieu N, Danneels L. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 2004, Dec.;34(7):0112-1642. But leaders of the pack know stretching daily (especially targeting those hip flexors) increases flexibility for better strides.
7. Switch up your pace.
Fartleks is a funny Swedish word (yes, our inner 10-year-old finds it hilarious) meaning “speed play.” Alternating jogs and sprints gradually builds up speed and endurance, plus you call the shots in determining when to switch it up.
8. Jump rope.
Take a lesson from boxers and add jump rope workouts to your routine. Boxers know that fast feet mean fast hands. But for runners, fast feet just equal fast feet.
9. Trade up for lighter shoes.
We're not saying you need to embrace barefoot running, but sneakers are getting lighter and lighter to mimic your foot's natural movement and improve your stride. Try a minimalist pair to see if less weight means more energy for faster feet.
10. Work out your core.
Stronger core muscles (especially lower abs) allow runners to tap into more force out on the road. The best part? Just 15 minutes of core work a few days per week is enough to help you speed up. Does core strength training influence running kinetics, lower-extremity stability, and 5000-M performance in runners? Sato K, Mokha M. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 2009, May.;23(1):1533-4287.
11. Change how you breathe.
Learning how to breathe while running at faster speeds takes practice. Use both your nose and mouth while inhaling and exhaling to get the maximum amount of oxygen to the muscles. Also, try belly breathing—fill the stomach, not the chest, with air on each inhale.
12. Head for the hills.
Hill repeats are shown to improve speed, build muscle strength, and add a boost of confidence too.
13. Skip the sweets.
Junk food guarantees a sugar high and slows you down. Stick to whole grains and pasta before runs, which provide long-lasting energy—without the crash.
14. Play with resistance.
Try a running parachute for added resistance, or if your budget allows, see what it's like on the other edge of the resistance spectrum with an anti-gravity treadmill.
15. Lift weight.
Stronger, leaner muscles will help you get to the finish line faster. And while runners shouldn't take up bodybuilding, two short strength training sessions per week can go a long way in improving your speed.
16. Lose weight.
On the other hand, research shows that shedding the pounds (fat, not muscle) can help runners shave time off the clock—cutting an average of two seconds off your mile time for every pound you lose. Of course not everyone has the weight to lose, so remember to consult a physician before starting any weight-loss program.
17. Look ahead.
Looking down at your feet or turning your head to check out the competition can waste precious time. Instead, focus on what's directly in front of you—about 10 to 20 meters in the distance—and keep those eyes on the prize.
18. Go for a spin.
Indoor cycling gives your hips a workout while forcing your legs to get comfortable moving from slow leisurely rides to all-out sprints. The same goes for running. So hop on a bike and get ready for some cross-training.
19. Pay attention to your toes.
The whole body plays a role in speed—from your head to your toes! Try dorsiflexion (arching your toes up toward you shins) while running. That way less of your foot hits the ground for a quicker stride turnover.
20. Keep it steady.
Slow and steady may win the race, but fast and steady builds speed! A tempo run challenges runners to find a “comfortably hard” pace and hold it for a 20-minute period. Just don't burn out before the run is over like that silly little hare!
21. Drink coffee.
Turns out drinking caffeine before running gives you an extra jolt of speed. Even more good news? It's a totally legal performance enhancer. Caffeine and sports performance. Burke LM. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 2009, Mar.;33(6):1715-5312.
22. Do mountain climbers.
The combo of moving your feet quickly while assuming a plank position will make you crazy fast.
23. Try yoga.
24. Get enough shut-eye.
Studies show well-rested athletes have better reaction times and clock faster finishes. The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players. Man C, Man K, et al. Sleep. 2011 Jul 1; 34(7): 943–950.
And think about it—the faster you run, the more time you have to kick back and relax!
25. Strip down.
When it's finally race day, take it off! The extra layers and fuel belts, that is. The less clothing and gear on your body, the faster your time—which is why the pros practically get right down to their skivvies to run.
Originally published January 2012. Updated February 2014 and April 2017.