Ed Caesar, journalist and author of Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon gives his top tips for getting faster, whatever kind of runner you are.
My book, Two Hours, is about the world’s finest marathon runners and their quest to break the seemingly impossible two-hour barrier. Since it was published in July, I’ve found myself in the unlikely position of becoming an unofficial running coach. People want to know – from me – how they can run faster.
I did not foresee this development. I’m fit enough, but at 6 foot 5 and 17 stone, I’m roughly double the weight of most elite distance runners. In the one and only marathon I attempted (London, 2006), I finished in more than four hours. Nobody would call me a natural distance runner. My interest in the fleet-footed Kenyans who win a high percentage of the world’s toughest marathons, and who form the backbone of my book, was driven by a spirit of journalistic enquiry and pure wonder, rather than any sense that I could make myself a better marathoner by following them. On the few occasions I ran with my Kenyan subjects while researching the book, we went so slow they made jokes: I wish we’d brought a newspaper, that sort of thing.
But to my surprise, I’ve discovered I’m not a terrible coach. I researched my book for three years. In that time, I stayed in training camps in the highlands of Kenya, interviewing and observing some all-time greats of the sport, and followed these men as they raced around the world. I have since realised that there are simple things that great marathon runners do that amateurs could all copy to improve our times – whether at a 5km race or at the full marathon distance.
Here are three tips. The first: sleep more. The Kenyans swear by sleep. Lornah Kiplagat, the former world cross-country champion and half-marathon world record holder, slept 16 hours a day when she was in full training. Clearly, that kind of marathon shut-eye is not practical for people with jobs, children, and television to watch. But even an extra half an hour gives you a boost.
The second: vary your speed. Nobody improves much if they keep plodding around the park at the same pace. The only way to make significant gains as a long-distance runner is to train a couple of times a week using short bursts of faster running interspersed with periods of slower jogging. Some of the elite men I followed were fanatical about “speedwork” – and would often run a half-marathon’s worth of fast-slow-fast to train themselves. You don’t need to kill yourself like they do, but you should start introducing intervals into your weekly workouts.
The third: run with friends. Kenyans of all abilities train in large groups. The benefits of this approach seem clear. When you run in a group, other runners of an equivalent or higher standard will push you along when you’re flagging. But perhaps just as importantly, running in a group is sociable and fun. Even finding one other runner to venture out on a rainy Monday evening can lighten the experience.
The wonderful thing about running is its simplicity. You don’t need fancy kit. You don’t need to be particularly fit. You just need to step out of the front door and put one foot in front of the other. Sooner or later, you start taking satisfaction from the activity. The runs become easier, longer, faster. The greatest lesson I learned from the Kenyans of Two Hours – who total 125 miles a week in training – is that running should never become a chore, even when it’s your job. So, a final bonus tip from the world’s unlikeliest running coach: joy makes you fast.