It’s a good idea to build your running speed, for a variety of reasons. And you can build your speed, easily and naturally, by running downhill.
Originally published 2004
If you read my previous running article (8 and 2 Makes a Thinner You), you know that I got back to running after a 20-year layoff (and an equal number of pounds). When I started, it took 10 minutes or so to get myself up to a survival shuffle — forget about doing any real running.
Then I read on article on the advantages of doing some walking during the run. That made all the difference. I was able to get out for some nice long training sessions in the woods.
After doing that for a couple of months, I pretty much stopped walking — unless I’m on a steep jeep trail or some other straight-up path that only deer use. I can tell it’s time to walk then, because I start taking microscopic little steps and I’m breathing so hard that my lungs are working harder than my legs. So I still walk, at times, but it’s getting to be a rare event.
As my legs got stronger, I landed softer and my stride began to lengthen. With springier legs and improved breathing, I’m now to the point where I can go out for 20 or 30 minutes and not feel like I’ve done much if I’m running on the flats. That’s good, because when you start doing regular 20 minutes “without doing much of anything”, pretty soon that add up to a whole lot of something — something that looks good and feels good.
But as nice as those improvements are, they’ve been all about endurance. After a few months of that, you just naturally want to start building some speed.
Why You Want to Run Faster
There are some definite advantages to running faster. For one thing, the leg mechanics are such that you put less strain on your knees and other joints when you’re running with a good, long stride. Or maybe it’s the fact that you just get tired of being passed by people who are older than Moses. Or maybe it’s just the indomitable human spirit, wanting to improve. Yeah. That’s it.
Seriously, I could live with getting passed on the trail. I cheer people on as they go by. Way to go! I can practically feel their stride as they whiz by. Hey, I can dream.
Then I saw the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
I was watching on TV, of course. But those TV close-ups of runners on the track showed me something I had never in my life seen before — the oblique stomach muscles in action.
Those muscles were most visible on the female sprinters. With their halter tops, exposed midsection, and virtually no excess fat on their bodies, their abdominal muscles stand out anyway. But when they ran, you could see their abdominal obliques in action, first on one side, then on the other.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the abdominal obliques. They’re two sheets of muscles that run more less diagonally across each other. One runs from the left leg up to your right side, under the rib. The other runs from your right leg up to your left side. Actually, they fan out a bit, but when those women were running, they looked like a rope that ran across their midsection from just under the rib to the opposite leg.
It seems that when you lift that leg in a long stride, the abdominal obliques are really activated. And that’s important, because the abdominal obliques that do the real work of keeping the stomach flat. You can do all the crunches you want. Your abs will get definitely get stronger. But if really want flatten your stomach, work the obliques.
When I saw how faster running worked the obliques, I became seriously motivated to work on running faster — because, like everyone else, I need some quality muscle to hold that paunch in check.
There’s on other reason to work on running faster, too — growth hormone. Growth hormone is that wonderful thing your body releases to grow muscle. In the process, it repairs cells so you heal faster and stay youthful and active.
Growth hormone is activated when you do fast movements. As people age, they tend to move less quickly. So the fast-twitch muscles get less exercise, and less growth hormone is released. After a while, a cycle sets in. You don’t move as fast, so you don’t do fast-action movements. And since you don’t exercise the fast-twitch fibers, they atrophy more rapidly than the slow-twitch muscle fibers we keep all our lives. (That’s why many older people move slowly. Even when they have surprising endurance, they may not be capable of moving quickly.)
Now, you could simply acquiesce to fate and accept that older means slower. Or you can say the heck with that, and work on moving faster. I’ll take door number two — not only because I feel younger and look better, but because it helps my body heal itself, stay healthy, and the only thing that can rebuild joint cartilage is growth hormone coursing through your veins. But artificial injections are definitely out of the question — not only are they expensive, but they suppress natural growth hormone release to the point that you can become dependent on them for life.
When you work fast-twitch fiber, you release growth hormone. That’s why sprinters and weight lifters have those nice big muscles — the fast-twitch fibers they’re exercise release growth hormone aplenty.
Marathoners, on the other hand, have achieved amazing cardiovascular fitness, but their upper bodies won’t turn heads at a beach. And what’s the point of exercising, anyway, if you’re not going to see good good things come from it. Clearly, then, running faster is a good idea. The next question is, how do we do that?
How You Can Run Faster
When you run faster, three things happen:
- You take longer strides.
- You move your legs more quickly.
- You breathe harder.
Notice that I didn’t say you push harder! That pretty much takes care of itself, as a result of lengthening your stride. You have to push off a little harder to keep your feet in the air the extra few inches. In fact, you’ll know you’re making progress when your calves are burning after a run — because they’re the muscles that tend to give you the extra few inches you need.
But it can be hard to think about lengthening your stride when it’s taking all your effort just to take the next step. But there are a couple of ways it can be done:
- Work in some short sprints
- Find the right hill — and run it the right way
Work in Some Short Sprints
One way to improve your running speed is to work some short sprints into your regular run. The Scandinavian name for that is fartlek — speed play. You can either use that method, where you’re constantly interspersing an easy run with short sprints, or you can start slow and add a few a time.
If you read 8 and 2 for a Thinner You, you’ll recognize this approach as the inverse of add short walks to your run to increase endurance.
When I was younger, I used to love to finish my runs with a strong sprint to the end. It was a great way to burn off any energy I had left. But when I got back to running after a long layoff, it was all I could do to run at all, much less sprint at the end. So when I started doing speed back after getting back to running, I did a few very short sprints early in the run, instead.
All you do, really, is pick out a target and run as fast as you can to get to it. Resume your normal pace until you feel up to another burst, then pick out another target.
The first time I tried it, I had very short sprints, like for 10 yards. It was something at least. If you live in a flat area, that may be the only choice you have. But it’s not anywhere near as effective as finding the right kind of hill. We’ll talk about that next.
Run the Right Hill — And Run it the Right Way
At Ohio State University, football coach Woody Hayes installed a 40 yard ramp behind the end zone, at something like a 25-degree incline. But instead of running up the ramp to build strength, his players ran down the ramp to build speed.
Running downhill on a long gradient has two important effects: It lengthens your stride, which is an important ingredient in running faster and, even more importantly, every step of a downhill hill run is a plyometric exercise. With plyometrics, you let gravity build up a head of steam and then work against the load it creates. For jump training, for example, you step off an 18-inch platform and jump the moment you touch the ground.
The beauty of plyometric conditioning is that your muscles are working against a momentary resistance. It trains your muscle to recruit all of its fibers simultaneously in order to work against the load. Training your neuromuscular system in that way can make a dramatic increase in your performance in a few weeks. That’s one reason it has been proven to be so incredibly effective. It can take many months to build additional muscle. But the timing of your neuromuscular signals can be trained in a matter of weeks.
But you are building muscle — most especially in the quadriceps, as your body resists the effects of gravity. That’s the other reason that downhill running is so effective. Resistance training builds fast muscle fiber. And to run fast, fast twitch muscle is what you need.
To get those speed-building results as part of your regular regimen, find a hill and run down it. The ideal hill for that purpose is one that is steep on one side with a gradual descent on the other. You run, walk, or run/walk up the steep part to build strength, and then run down the other side to build speed.
If you’re in the San Jose area, there is a perfect hill for speed work at the Rancho San Antonio park. From the main parking lot, you can walk up a paved road to the middle trail. That takes you half way up the hill. Then you charge up the other half — a very steep hill that goes up by the water tank. You follow the short level stretch at the top and then peel of to the right at the first intersection.
You’re now on a trail that goes about a mile back into the hills. It hugs the contours of the valley and descends the whole way, at virtually the perfect angle for building speed.
I can tell you from experience that it really works. I had always run up the gradual part of the hill, and then jogged down the steep part as my finishing reward. But the first time I ran it backwards, my calves were on fire afterwards! And there was a noticeable difference in my stride on my very next run. It was stronger and more effortless. That’s when running really becomes fun.
So if you can find such a hill anywhere in your vicinity, by all means run it in reverse once a week or so. You’ll find that your speed improves and that, in consequence, your endurance improves as well, as a result of each step suddenly taking so much less energy than it did before.
If you can, schedule a speed-training workout once a week. You’ll quickly notice improvements in your stride, as well as your stamina — and your abs!.
That’s about as much sped training as you really need. Speed work exercises your fast twitch muscle fibers in the same way that weight training does. Since it takes about 7 days to recover and build up the muscle after really strenuous effort, doing speed work more often than that is generally unnecessary, and can even be counter-productive.
Play it by ear. If you work hard and exhausted the muscle, give yourself 7 to 10 days before you do another speed session. On your other running days, do your regular run. On the other hand, if it didn’t feel like you worked that hard and your body is telling you it wants to move out, by all means do some more speed work in your very next run. It all depends on how you’re body feels. Everyone is different, so do what’s right for you.
If you’re running at least three times a week. use one of them for an endurance run, focusing on going out for a long distance or long time. Use one for a speed run. But make sure you get in at least one good quality run each week (medium duration, comfortable stride, pleasant surroundings — in short, fun).
I suspect that a really long walk can substitute for an endurance run — say, for example, several hours on the golf course! That’s only a theory, of course. But it sure sounds good.
Anytime you really don’t feel like focusing on speed or endurance, do a quality run instead. If you don’t feel like pushing yourself, that’s your body telling you it hasn’t fully recovered from the last session. Listen to it! Be kind to yourself. Keep it fun, and you’ll keep it going.
For more tips on scheduling your training sessions, see Sequencing and Scheduling for Maximally Productive Workouts.
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