Whether you’re training for your first marathon or 5K, or just running for the sheer joy of being outside, there is something to be gained by running a little faster. It’s not just about building speed to achieve new PBs, there’s a thrill to sprinting that’s different from the buzz you get from other running. Plus, it can help improve your technique so you become a more efficient runner at any distance.
For advice on how to run faster we spoke to Sarada Nag from DASH Team London, who holds running classes in parks around the capital. The first piece of advice to take on board? If you want to run fast, you’ve got to try running fast.
Why should people try sprint training?
“It’s an incredibly good workout that can help you build muscle without spending hours lifting weights in the gym,” says Nag. “A lot of people hate running because they don’t know how to run or it feels too long a session – sprinting changes that. You start by working on form, which reinforces good running technique, and as you become technically better you’re able to run faster for longer, and it’ll feel easier.
“It’s also not just about running fast – sprint training has so many elements to it and the main part is a lot of strength and conditioning work in the form of speed drills and plyometric exercises. All of this helps to make sure you don’t get injured – you really prepare the body for activity – and, believe it or not, it’s fun!”
What influences how fast you run?
“There are two main factors: cadence [stride rate] and stride length,” says Nag. “These are different for everybody depending on your physiological build, and you have to find what works for you, but generally faster runners have a higher cadence.
“If you try to increase your speed by increasing your stride length you’ll find that it doesn’t actually work because you end up reaching out in front, which applies a braking force and more often than not results in injury. By working on having a higher cadence, you’ll be far more efficient because you’re focusing on where your foot lands and therefore on moving forwards. After increasing cadence you’ll find speed comes naturally.”
Another factor that influences speed is dorsiflexion, which is when your foot is positioned so that your toes are lifted up towards your shin – the opposite of a calf raise foot position.
“Dorsiflexion is the best position for your foot to be in when running fast because it shortens the lever of your leg below the knee, and a shorter lever is always a faster lever,” says Nag. “In this position, your foot acts as a ‘rebound’ and absorbs the shock of landing quickly enough to propel you on to your next step.
“The reason we practise this so much in our drills is because we want to practise putting that force through the ground and minimise ground contact as much as possible. Of course you won’t be fully dorsiflexing when running a marathon but when you want to speed up and need to generate power, you know what to do.”
How important is it to warm up before sprint training?
“When we set off for a run, a lot of us just tend to run,” says Nag. “But no matter what the distance is, a warm-up is essential. You need to prepare the body for the activity it’s about to do.
“For running, you’ve got to get those muscles warm, the joints loosened and practise good running habits. Sometimes it can seem like a chore but focusing on a couple of things will make it far more effective.
“First, make sure you do a combination of static and dynamic stretching. A really good one to loosen the hamstrings is leg swings.
“Also do some running drills – these are an extension of dynamic stretching and help to reinforce good running technique, which is essential if you don’t want to get injured and want to use the right muscle groups.”
What are some good running drills for building speed?
“If you want to be a more efficient and effective runner, then running drills are your secret weapon,” says Nag.
“Drills help with muscle memory. The more you can break down the running movement and practise the technique, the more likely it is that you will use the right muscles for the right job. You can’t always practise technique when you’re running, so drills are essential to help you run faster and more efficiently, as well as to remain injury-free. Mastering them takes a while but once you do you will be flying.”
Do these drills twice over 15-20m
1 Fast feet
These can be done on the spot or over a distance.
“Keeping your feet in a dorsiflex position start with small, quick steps under your body, trying to land flat-footed,” says Nag. “The purpose of this is to work on your speed and cadence.”
2 Walking high knees
Walk forwards, raising your knee towards your chest with each step. Raise the opposite arm to the knee you’re raising.
“Concentrate on keeping your core braced and focus on pulling the leg down into the ground to recruit your glutes,” says Nag.
“This is an extension of walking high knees,” says Nag. “It’s exactly the same but as your knee comes up, you’re going to add a skip on the other foot. Engage your glutes to push off the ground.”
4 Heel flicks
“We never run with our feet behind us, so don’t just flick your heels to your bum – make sure to pick your knees up in front of you as you go too,” says Nag.
“Remember to keep dorsiflexing your feet and try to make this one sharp and quick – focus on cadence.”
5 High knees
Do this drill on the spot, raising alternate knees up towards your chest.
“Stay in control of this – it’s not about speed,” says Nag. “Make sure you start tall and don’t lean back. Stay over your feet, and focus on pulling your leg down in order to get that bounce off the ground.”