When talking to runners — or overhearing a typical runner-to-runner conversation — it is very common to hear all about their fastest time. Also referred to as a personal best or personal record, this is a crowning achievement and badge of honor showcasing the hard work a runner has put in during training. Of course, every runner and race is different, so working toward a PR is going to be, as well.
“[Preparing for a PR] of course depends on the distance of the race,” confirms Ray Pugsley, co-founder of Potomac River Running Store and coach at PR Training Programs. “The longer the race, the more important [it is to build] mileage. A new runner can achieve a PR by carefully increasing mileage during a training cycle, but a veteran runner will need to add more workouts that focus on paces at or faster than PR race pace.”
Though these differences are important to recognize, there are a few constants that remain when working toward a PR. We talked to two coaches to find out what the most vital piece of the puzzle is — and get workouts any runner can do to boost speed.
THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF TRAINING FOR A PR
If you are training with the sole goal of achieving a new PR, there is one major thing that is going to get you there: consistency. That isn’t to say that without creating — and sticking to — a focused plan you absolutely won’t achieve your fastest race to date, but you certainly aren’t helping yourself if you have irregular training blocks.
“Consistent training blocks with base building in between will lead to massive gains over time,” explains Victoria Phillippi, run coach and owner of Run4PRs Coaching. “It is more important to be consistent with training over time than anything else. Running is an aerobic sport and each run builds your aerobic engine. Your aerobic engine will make you faster and stronger in the long run.”
Pugsley agrees and notes that this consistency isn’t just in play when it comes to your running workouts. He explains, you need to be regularly working on both the big and little pieces of training, including stretching, strength training, nutrition and sleep habits (for optimal recovery). It is important to recognize that all of this work serves a greater purpose — to keep you progressing — and without consistency, your body will never fully adapt to the stresses of additional mileage and increased paces.
FOUR PR TRAINING WORKOUTS
If you are looking for one simple workout that will help you reach that coveted PR, we have bad news for you: There isn’t just one. Phillippi admits there is not one specific workout that will make you faster, but the good news is that over time, as you log consistent mileage, you’re likely to see those faster times. Adding these four workouts — that are favorites of Phillippi — into your training routine won’t hurt, either.
STRIDES AND 100/200S
“[This workout is all about] short bouts of fast speed to trigger muscle recruitment and connections in the brain,” explains Phillippi. “By creating and strengthening the connections from the brain to the muscles, your body will be able to activate more muscle fibers in future workouts.”
Do these the day(s) before a workout or race, after an easy run, during offseason or before a workout sessions begins.
The workout: Run 100–200 meters at faster than 5K pace with a full 2+ minute recovery between each set.
VO2 MAX AND HILL WORK
“These are the types of workouts most runners think of when they picture speed work,” notes Phillippi.
If you are gearing up for a 5K or 10K, these should be done weekly. In the thick of marathon training, you may be able to cut the number of these workouts down to allow room for other workouts that are more marathon-specific (and geared for longer distances).
The workout: 1–5 minute intervals of work around 5K–10K pace ranges with 2–3 minute recovery between.
“Threshold runs train the cardiovascular and muscular system to utilize oxygen,” shares Phillippi, “while simultaneously removing waste products such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid.”
The workout: Threshold is usually the pace you can race at for 60 minutes. For most runners, it’s around 20–30 seconds slower than their 5K pace. Here, you do longer intervals with shorter rest.
“These develop an increase in capillary networks from the lungs and leg muscles,” explains Phillippi. “This means blood and oxygen can be transported better, so you can use the oxygen more efficiently. Running is an aerobic sport and the long run stresses your aerobic system.”
The workout: Most long runs should be between 25–30% of your weekly mileage. If you are running 25 miles per week, you can get an idea of how long your long run should be by this equation: (25 * 30% = 7.5 miles), though there are exceptions for triathletes and other special cases.
IT IS OK IF YOU DON’T SET A PR
So what happens if you consistently work and don’t get your new PR? First, recognize that it doesn’t define your overall ability; things happen. Putting all of your self worth into one race day can be dangerous — just ask the pros who are one spot short of making an Olympic team. One individual race that doesn’t go as planned won’t break your running career; if anything, you can learn from the experience and take it into your next round of training. Second, it is important to make sure you aren’t putting too much emphasis on the PR. Remember, there are other ways to measure success.
“Some runners place too much emphasis on PRs,” confirms Pugsley. “New or young runners can certainly make productive use of PR-focused training, but veteran/older runners may have trouble with this approach. I would say that picking a starting point and striving to get faster from that point is a slightly different way to approach the same mindset.”
Using this modified approach or finding other ways to challenge yourself are all part of keeping running fun (both in training and on race day). If you find yourself solely focused on a big PR, try to add some races into your training cycle that you run for fun; make sure you still get to experience the excitement of race day without the stress of a major goal (because the goal of having fun is just as important, too).