Want to Set a New PR? Embrace Change!

A few tips on how to keep improving at any distance

I made just about every rookie mistake one could make during my first marathon. I didn’t train well enough. I went out too fast. I didn’t respect the distance. Consequently, I paid a heavy price.

I dragged myself across the finish line. For nearly a week afterwards, stairs and chairs were the bane of my existence. But, as the fatigue and soreness dissipated, a clear (and somewhat disturbing) thought emerged. I wanted more.

I wanted a palate cleansing. I wanted to qualify for Boston. I wanted to break 3 hours for the marathon. I wanted to find out just how far and fast I could go with whatever gifts I was given as a runner.

I didn’t know exactly how I was going to achieve my lofty goals. But, I knew one thing. In order to have a shot at achieving any of them, I had to embrace change. I had to do some things I’d never done before.

Below are some of the changes I embraced that helped me notch more than a few PRs for the marathon—and other distances, too. These are also changes I’ve recommended to countless runners over the years. I’m confident they will help you achieve a few PRs of your own, no matter your experience level or racing goals.

Run faster! (And think of it as a different sport.)

In order to run faster, you need to “run faster.” Introducing faster workouts like fartlek, tempo and interval training are great ways to address your “need for speed” once or twice a week. But, there’s also a mindset shift that needs to occur.

Many of the runners I work with are thrilled when they hone in on their comfortable, conversational pace that allows them to cruise for miles on end. The runner’s high becomes a near constant. Running is “fun” and enjoyable, and it’s also fairly easy.

Running faster is a different beast. There’s little about running fast that is truly fun, although some masochists might disagree with me and call it “type 2 fun”

Running faster requires embracing discomfort. It’s not very comfortable and rarely conversational. It’s so different from the comfortable cruising you do day-in and day-out, it’s best to think of it as a different sport entirely.

When I prepare for a lung-searing session at the track, I’m dialing up aggressive, defiant, uptempo songs on my playlist. I am preparing for battle.

As I stride onto the track, I think of myself as a warrior entering the Colosseum. The intimidating oval below is my opponent.

The track will give no quarter. Neither shall I. Adopting a warrior mindset in tackling faster running has always served me (and the runners I’ve coached) well.

Tackle the trails.

Even if you’re a die-hard road runner—either because of where you live or that’s what you like best—there are a variety of reasons why including some trail miles into your routine can help your cause and get you closer to that elusive personal best.

The demands of the uneven terrain you typically see with trails force you to shorten your stride and be lighter on your feet. And that can lead to improved running economy and efficiency.

Trail running also helps improve your proprioception. If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s basically your body’s ability to sense its movement and position in space. Better proprioception equals better balance and body awareness.

Trail running and hills are pretty much synonymous. If you’re looking to get faster, hills are a good thing. As Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter once said, “Hills are speed work in disguise.” You derive similar benefits from running hills as you would a quality speed session at the track (and with much less wear and tear).

So, even if the road is your thing, it behooves you to consider some quality time on the trail. A few hilly miles on uneven terrain could be exactly what you need to get closer to a personal best.

Be ruthlessly consistent.

Search online, and you’ll find no shortage of free training plans. Similarly, there are a multitude of training apps that promise to get you to the start and finish line. There are a million different ways to train for any distance. Following a program that matches your fitness, experience, athletic ability and goals is crucial to achieving success, but it’s not always easy to dial in the exact recipe.

But, the one thing that is universally effective is consistency over time. Whatever plan, app or approach you employ, be ruthlessly consistent. Do whatever you can (within reason) to stick to it.

When I improved the most at the marathon distance, I wasn’t doing anything magical. I found a potent formula comprised of Tuesday tempo runs, Thursday track workouts, and Saturday long runs that worked for me.

Once I uncovered this simple but effective formula, I simply stuck to it. It didn’t matter if I was tired, if I was in a bad mood, or I was hungover. I was going to show up. It was this ruthless commitment to consistency that helped me take 45 minutes off my marathon time over the span of three years.

READ MORE: 5 Habits of Successful Runners

There is no bad weather.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the famed coach Bill Bowerman. Simply put, “There is no bad weather, just soft runners.”

I cut my (running) teeth in Kansas. Summers were brutally hot and humid. Winters were bitterly cold and depressing. There were probably only a few weeks out of the year when it was actually pleasant to run.

I’ve never forgotten those formative miles in Kansas. On the rare occasion I find myself complaining about less-than-ideal conditions nowadays, I remind myself what I once ran through decades ago. I rarely enjoyed those runs.

But, there’s no question the runs I gutted out—despite the heat or despite the bitter cold—toughened me physically and mentally. So, if you’re someone who has a tendency to bail at the first sign of inclement weather, start resisting that urge.

Adjust your wardrobe. Adjust your level of effort. Adjust your attitude. Adjust your expectations.

Very rarely is a race canceled due to inclement weather. Accordingly, you should rarely cancel a run due to inclement weather. (OK, violent storms, lightning,  and icy roads are definitely among the exceptions.)

Check your head.

In the days leading up to all of my marathons, I spend an inordinate amount of time visualizing my race. But, there’s one particular segment of the race I hone in on. I focus intently on the last few miles.

During these last few miles, I will be suffering. It’s not a question of if, but when the suffering will arrive. What also arrives are the dark, negative, self-defeating thoughts.

Thoughts like: “I’m not strong enough. I’m too tired. I don’t have anything left.”

It’s easy to capitulate when these voices arrive. So, I visualize these dark thoughts arriving and how I’m going to respond to them. My response is all about defying the negativity and doubt.

“I’ve been here before. I’ve dealt with tougher stuff than this. I’m not backing down.”

The warrior mindset you employ for your faster running comes in handy in these latter miles. As American running legend Steve Prefontaine once said, “Don’t let fatigue make a coward out of you.”

When I effectively visualize these last few painful miles, the inevitable arrival of them on race day is less daunting. It’s less intimidating as I’ve rehearsed this portion of the race multiple times. I’m mentally prepared for it. The neural pathways have been primed.

If you don’t spend time getting your head in the right space prior to your race, start doing it.

I can’t guarantee a personal best. But, embracing one or more of the changes above should help get you closer to one. At the very least, embracing some of these changes will likely make you a smarter, stronger and mentally tougher runner. 

READ MORE: 6 Simple Ways to Keep Improving as a Runner

 

Matt Forsman

San Francisco-based Matt Forsman is a coach, race director and the co-founder of Sasquatch Racing and the CEO of the Marathon Matt running club (marathonmatt.com)