It’s early spring, and that means the start of a summer race training block is imminent. Let’s say you’ve successfully finished a few halves or even a full — but have you raced them? You know what it takes each week to log upwards of twenty to forty miles, and have carved out the appropriate time to make sure you’re in good physical shape for race day. The logical next step is to learn how to run faster.
One way to get quicker is to start running with faster people, join a local track club and challenge yourself weekly with a new pace group. If joining a club isn’t in the cards for you, apps can help you hit those quicker pace times. It can be intimidating for any runner — from the greenest to the fastest member of the local track club — to take next steps beyond “run more,” so here are six easy-to-use training apps and some tips and tricks to help you get faster.
Initially, you’ll want something that tracks and logs the following: mileage (daily, weekly, monthly), duration, per-mile splits and GPS. You can expect these basic features from most free apps. Some other in-app features that are useful include elevation gain, calorie counters and a degree of programmability so you can map out different routes and workouts depending on what type of run you want to do on any given day.
Where to Start When You’re Just Getting Started
Believe it or not, the free basic versions of certain fitness apps are the way to go. The majority of them have a timer, a lap clock and pace, which is precisely what you need. Try Pacer, Runkeeper and Runtastic. All three are available for Android or iOS and track every mile logged, so you have a baseline of how many miles you’re running each week and how fast those miles are. Knowing your pace per mile, and how that changes over long and short runs, is key to starting speedwork. Runkeeper and Runtastic also track your running shoe mileage, so you know when your shoes have worn out, and it’s time to upgrade to a new pair.
If you feel like you’re not yet in serious running shape, building your endurance and aerobic base is crucial. Once you’re in the routine of logging 15 to 20 miles each week, it’s easy to swap out a 5K easy day for a day of speedwork. These apps have bright, easy-to-use interfaces that keep track of the miles you’re logging. Aside from tracking your training distances, these apps help you stay motivated, showing the progress you are making in terms of distance and time and sending motivational push messages. Additionally, the majority of these apps also offer upgrades which include smart coaches and training plans that cater to a variety of race distances — but you don’t need these to start to learn how to run faster.
The free version of this app keeps track of your walks, runs, hikes and rides once it’s looped up to the GPS on your phone. It’ll work with your tracker to monitor your calories, activity time and total mileage based on your steps. You don’t need a fitness tracker to log everything, just wear this during your runs to check back on your distance and average pace. The other benefit of this free app is that you can hop on the treadmill with it. While you can likely keep an eye on your stats on the treadmill, if it’s one you’re not familiar with, open up the app and click into ‘Workouts’ at the top of the screen (next to Home and GPS). The option for a Treadmill session is at the top. Click start session and then hit the settings button in the top right corner of your screen to have a voice let you know your time, distance and pace every 1, 5, 10 or 15 minutes, or every quarter, half or a full mile. It’s an easy way to stay on target when you can’t get outside, but need an app to recognize that you’re still running. You can upgrade to the $30-a-year version, and you’ll get a smart AI coach, video workouts, training plans and GPS audio cues all designed to help you hit new personal bests.
Runkeeper has a very similar design but opens up immediately to your GPS location instead of your step counter. Change the activity from running to cycling or walking, then get moving. In Runkeeper, it’s easy to create an interval workout that the voiceover will guide you through. Open up the app, and hit workout in the bottom right corner (above Audio Stats and the bright orange Start button), hit Custom. Name your workout (say, “lake lap sprints”), then click the plus button to add your steps. If you’re working with a coach, you can ask them for a workout, or use something like Training Peaks to type out your own. A simple exercise is one minute at a fast pace followed by one minute at a slow effort. You can enter that under the workout details and then hit repeat three or four or five times to increase the duration of the workout. Make sure to toggle to include the five minute warm-up and five-minute cool-down (although we recommend at least a 10-minute warm-up). You can also buy a training plan through Asics for $40 a year or $10 a month with a seven-day free trial period to get access to programs created for you. There are 5K, 10K, half and full marathon, five and 10-mile plans.
The user interface in Runtastic is very similar to Runkeeper — it opens up showing your GPS location. Duration is most prominent on the screen, so keeping track of time is easy, without having to look at your phone. Open up the app, and hit the settings button (next to the green Start button). Hit Voice Coach and select how often you’d like to hear from the voice — whether that’s every seven minutes or every mile, the voice will also tell you duration, distance, heart rate, and pace of your last mile, so that you can stay on target with a certain speed. The free version of Runtastic will pump out distance, average pace, calories and total time, but if you want more stats, you’ll need to upgrade to the $36-a-year plan. Beyond training plans, you’ll also gain access to pre-mapped routes in your area, so you never have to think about where to run again as well as the ability to auto pause (an important one if you live in a city or else you have to press pause every time you hit a stop light).
If motivation is a real hurdle for you, take a look at Human. More of a fitness/movement tracker than a running app, Human’s best feature is its simple, persistent nudges and reminders daily to get moving. It also compares users in the same area, so you’ve got a baked-in peer set against whom you can compete.
Running Fast Means Mixing It Up
One great feature that Pacer, Runtastic, Runkeeper and even Human offer is mapping where you’re running (or walking/cycling). Far too often runners can get stuck in a ‘route rut’ where they hammer the same four-mile loop every time out. While having your routines down is excellent for getting you out the door, these runs can feel boring when you don’t mix things up. If you want to get in a similar distance to what your typical weekly long run is, use the above apps to discover a new route that takes you for the same distance in a different part of town. Mixing up your directions not only benefits your mind by stimulating you with new sights, but it also keeps things fresh for your legs as there are variations (a grassy hill versus your favorite staircase, for instance) that force your body and mind to react a little differently.
Ready for the Next Level? Time to Add Intervals
If you’ve got baselines for speed and distances already down, it’s time to think about speedwork and improving your times. Initially, this entails knowing what you’re capable of and what’s achievable. Be honest with yourself. No matter how fast you ran that first 5K, you’re not going to win Boston this year. But, maybe you can shave a minute off your next short-distance race. Your goals should be small enough that they’re manageable and achievable, and you can build from there. The best way to improve is to increase your mileage and incorporate interval workouts.
One big misconception about speed work is that it has to happen on a track. While tracks are great, not everyone has access to them. You can look up interval workouts or focus on time instead of distance goals. Trail runner Camille Herron recommends plugging a workout into your app (which Runkeeper lets you do) before you go: a 90-second fast run at a speed that’s the same as your fastest 5K (say your time was 27:56, your mile time is 9:00) — then rest for 90 seconds by jogging or walking, and repeat that circuit 10 to 12 times.
And if that’s too much for you, or you want to hit the road untethered to anything but your shoes and your thoughts, that’s possible, too. While out on your run, speed up every time you see someone walking a dog on the path ahead of you. Keep your effort up until you pass the pooch and then ease into a recovery pace, speed back up as the next dog comes into sight and repeat with each puppy you see. The same game can be played with telephone poles, parking meters, cacti, whatever is easiest to spot and comes up frequently during your run.
Interval workouts — where you alternate running fast for a set number of minutes, followed by a recovery walk or jog for another fixed number of minutes — should be difficult (but not impossible) for you, and it can take a few attempts to calibrate this effort. iSmoothRun (for iOS only — sorry Android users) offers programmable interval features, so there’s no guesswork on interval distances or times. On top of very customizable interval workout options and rest periods, iSmooth also offers auto pause; so if you’re stuck at a crosswalk or red light the app knows to pause itself until you’re moving again. Another feature that allows this app to stand out is Ghost Run, which will enable users to compete against their previous runs. Nail a PR three months ago? Ghost Run logs the routes, splits and effort for all runs, allowing you to challenge yourself against your best runs to see how much progress you’ve made.
Ghost Run is useful for breaking through a plateau. Too often runners will think that they’ve found their maximum speed just because they haven’t seen any improvements in times for a while. Chasing your PR’s (personal records) with Ghost Run can help jumpstart your times by reminding you visually and immediately what’s possible.
Another great app for iOS and Android is RunCoach, a freemium app that costs $19.99/month for everything. It’s the gold standard for running. Even with its basic version, you’re getting an algorithmically-powered training app that looks at your distance, pace, workouts and more to provide consistent workout routines designed to challenge you and improve your fitness. The subscription version puts users in touch with actual coaches. For what it’s worth: RunCoach boasts that seven percent of users improve their race times.
RunCoach is beneficial for the runner looking to hit a specific goal — whether that’s a one mile PR or a Boston qualifying marathon time. While the app won’t physically get you out the door and running faster, it will offer you a bevy of tools and interactions with running coaches who can help you develop a personalized workout plan aimed at giving you the best chance of hitting that QT (qualifying time), or sub-6:00 mile and anything in between.