I have reached a plateau and just can't seem to run faster

When runners ask for advice, the first thing I ask is what their running goal is, then I take a look at the training program. More often than not, it is a copy of a program from a book, the internet, a friends etc but it does not show the desired training required to achieve their own goal. The most recent examples:

A runner who wishes to break 18 minutes for a 5k and a less experienced runner wants to break 2 hours for the half marathon.  Dealing with the 5k runner; to complete the distance in under 18 minutes requires the average pace to be around 5.46 per mile. This runners does include speed training in his schedule, but none of the reps/intervals he does are ran at a pace that is faster than the desired race pace.  If one does not run that pace in training, it is very unlikely that one will achieve their target time.

The Half Marathon runner is a recreational runner and was gradually building up the mileage. Although the distance/mileage was increasing, there was little evidence she was running faster.  We started introducing some speed intervals and running drills and she has said how much more relaxed she feels on longer runs.  Speed work is an important aspect of training regardless of the distance you are training for.  Speed training will be covered in more detail in other posts, but if you have not included any speedwork, why not include Fartlek (see previous post) into your running routine to begin with.

When it comes to increasing a runner’s speed, there are two variables; stride length (how long each stride is) and stride rate (how quickly a runner’s feet move, or how many steps per minute one takes).   If we run at the same rate, but my stride is just 1" longer than yours and if we run at 180 paces per minute, then for each minute, I will have run 15 feet further than you (180" / 12). It may not seem that much, but over long distances it adds up.  Conversely, if our stride length is the same but I run ten paces per minute quicker than you, that will also mean I am much further ahead.  If you can increase in any of these areas and be consistent throughout your race, you will run faster and your times will be quicker. If you can increase in both areas, then you will be moving.

Of course there are other factors that enable an athlete to continue at that pace, such as improved your ability for your body to consume oxygen and replenish the muscles during exercise (VO2max), how much oxygen a runner uses whilst performing at anaerobic threshold (running economy), how efficient your running is (technique/running form) and how well you can cope with resistance to fatigue. The training sessions one performs should be designed to improve at least one of these areas, but for now, let's consider what you can do to improve stride length and stride rate.


During your regular running, count you paces for a minute. It can be difficult to count every step so count every second step then double after a minute. If you are around 150-160 steps per minute, then each foot is spending too long on the ground with each foot strike and you are losing energy.  The first step is to introduce quick-feet running in the form of intervals (like Fartlek) during regular runs. Do not worry about stride length, you may have to shorten your regular stride to move your feet quicker. Try it for a minute, try it for two minutes and gradually build intervals until eventually quicker feet becomes the norm for your runs, but be patient; making this kind of a change takes months to perfect for most people. The most up to date sports watches can count paces and provide regular  feedback to the runner. There are other devices such as pods in the sole of specific footwear that also count paces, and there are pedometers which do the same.  There are exercise that help improve your rate, such as jogging on the spot, then for the count of ten, sprint on the spot moving each foot as fast as you can.


Stride length is increased by firstly being flexible. Yep! I know most runners just hate to stretch but it is so important. Yeah there are some occasional articles which contradict the flexibility with some runners advocating having less flexibility is better - so you be the judge. To have a long stride, the front foot requires high knee lift with the rear leg propelling you forward from the power of your rear foot spring. At full stride, the angle between your front and rear thigh will need to increase to have a longer stride.  Take a look at the elite distance runners in the photo. At full stride the angle between thighs is in excess of 100 degrees, which takes a great deal of flexibility to do so.  Ensure regular stretching becomes part of your training routine

Secondly, it takes explosive power from the rear foot to propel you forward, but if you do not ever practice this type of training, you will not experience this in your running. As with stride rate, why not practice longer strides as intervals during normal running. Raise the forward knee and deliberately delay the rear foot release and if you have a forward lean from the chest, you will force a longer stride. Note: This is not how you race, but merely an exercise.  The most beneficial way to carry out this drill is on an incline as the incline forces you to lift the knee and drive from the rear foot. There are very few in Grand Cayman but I like to use the bridge on the new West Bay by-pass because it is not too steep and is 150-200 meters long.

Plyometric exercise or Jump Training is a very efficient way to increase your explosive power.  There are so many exercises so I will not include in this article as the internet and other sources can provide dozens in the click of your mouse. Include these exercises into your routine along with long striding and flexibility and you may just surprise yourself.

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Article Details

Nov 23, 2014

Derek Larner