I’d like to start with a disclaimer. This will not turn you into an olympian unless you have an obscene amount of talent but even then, as a general rule most people will improve just by running more so if you have time to run more – you probably should. However, if you only have time to run 3 times a week, perhaps you’re a triathlete, are busy with the kids or couple running with five a side football, then this is the article for you.
The key to improving on limited time is figuring out what your limiting factors to going faster are and addressing them directly with as little decline as possible in, and ideally maintaining, your strengths. Generally runners struggle to go faster because their legs hurt or they run out of breath. So, that decline in speed at the end of a race is either due to weaknesses in aerobic conditioning or weaknesses in muscular conditioning. Most runners experience both of these at some point but these can be addressed on 3 runs per week. Again, I would say, this isn’t an optimal way to train, there are no shortcuts and there’s a reason Farah and Kipchoge run twice most days but you can still improve on less.
We’ll start with aerobic conditioning. The long run is the way to fix this. There are a thousand benefits to completing a long run. In short, it’ll make you more efficient at the end of a race. The best way to do a long run is find a hilly route and keep it at a steady pace, gradually build the distance you run in these each week.
Muscular conditioning is addressed by running hard. Getting your tendons, ligaments and muscles used to the impacts of running fast is best achieved by running hard alongside regular strength and conditioning exercises to keep you robust. An example session of this might be a warm up, 10 lots of 400m at 3k pace with 60s rest between each rep, then a cool down. There are, however, thousands of ways you can do these reps which are best implemented as part of a well structured training plan.
Finally, the tempo run. This really is a golden training session and completed correctly and regularly will lead to improvements. There are a lot of different ways to complete tempo runs and they’re all useful when completed at various times of the season. Tempo runs work as they make your body better at clearing lactic acid, the stuff that gives your legs that dead feeling, while still running at a reasonable pace. A great tempo session is a 10 minute warm up jog, 15 minutes at a pace you could sustain for an hour then a two minute walk repeated twice and then a 10 minute cool down.
There’s no secrets to running. It’s a sport that rewards hard work and consistency and has less respect for talent. Hard work without talent usually beats talent that won’t work. If you can run consistently for a few years you will see big improvements but the key is to stay consistent and patient. Improvement is rarely linear and you’ll have some periods where you really struggle and others where you feel on top of the world but stick at it. You can get fit on 3 runs per week, the main key is consistency over long periods of time.