I've been running consistently for almost a decade now, and I still tell my friends who are looking to get into the sport that the hardest part of my entire running career — which now includes a handful of marathons — was the first few weeks, when I was just finding my motivation and routine to run a 5K.
Although I can safely say I'm no longer a newbie runner and have an obsession with new running sneakers like the UA HOVR™ Phantom/SE HL Iridescent Running Shoes ($150) to prove it, I do still recall what it's like to take that leap from a casual runner to a more serious one. After the initial finish line has been crossed, the next step for beginner runners is often to train for a time goal. I made the mistake of thinking that simply meant run faster.
To help runners looking to cut some time off of their pace do so safely and smartly, I asked Conor Nickel, a running coach at Mile High Run Club, for his best tips for beginners. Let's just say they're a whole lot more helpful than "run faster."
1) Mix up your RPE while running.
RPE — or rate of perceived exertion — is basically, how hard you perceive yourself to be working on a scale from one to 10, explains Nickel. For example, he explains that an easy run is one where you could be talking with a friend the whole time and would be five or six on the RPE scale.
Beginners should mix in some runs that are in the seven, eight, and nine range. "Maybe you take one mile in the middle of a three-mile run and try to get out of breath," he says. It could be even more simple than that he explains. "Alternate a minute where you are pushing yourself, completely out of breath, [with an] elevated heart rate, and then take one minute at an easy walk or jog to recover," he says. "This is a perfect way to introduce intervals to your training regimen without getting overwhelmed."
2) Focus on your form.
When you are running faster, you should see some changes from your usual "easy run" form. "Your knees should lift a little higher as your turnover gets quicker," he says. "That means your heels are going to come up higher behind you as well." He says to think of this almost as combining a high-knee drill and a butt kick into your stride. He also suggests keeping your torso tall when pushing yourself — think "chest proud" — and driving your arms with a purpose. "All of this will help make you a more efficient runner," he adds.
3) Add "strides" at the end of your easy runs.
Another word to add to your runners' dictionary is stride. Strides are short sprints that are approximately 50 to 100 meters long, says Nickel. Those wanting to up their speed game should look to add four to six hard strides to their running routine before calling it a day. "This allows you to work on your form, activate your fast-twitch muscles, and get that hard, up-tempo feeling — even on your easy days," explains Nickel.
He reminds runners these are not meant to be an intense workout but rather an easy way to wrap up the run. Runners should also note strides aren't very long — think 10-20 seconds — and should have a high RPE of nine or higher. Nickel explains this way you can take as much time as you want in between and walk back to where you started and do it again. "Doing four to six quick strides once or twice a week when you are done with your easy run is a great way to introduce speed work and prime your system for even more work to come," he says.