Help me run a 12-minute mile (sigh)
July 9, 2016 3:44 PM   Subscribe

I have been running (off and on) for nearly 20 years, and completed a half-marathon about 10 years ago, albeit in an embarrassingly long amount of time. I have always run extreeeeemely slowly; currently, we're talking 4mph, though I can do so for a whole hour, and I do this about 4-5 times a week. It really seems like I should be able to do a 12-minute mile, at minimum, though, right? Right??? I feel like I'm missing some crucial step in understanding how to reach this goal.

What I've tried:
1. Replacing 1-2 runs with HIIT sessions (30-60 secs of full sprint followed by 1-3 minutes of rest, building from 3x to 6x a session). When I do this, I can tell that I'm getting better at not dying during the sprints, but my longer distance speed stays the same.
2. Doing C25K at a faster pace. This was either too boring (during the walking parts) or too hard (if I tried to do a slow run during the walking parts).
3. Using the Runners World training app (when it was still free). This was too technical, and I couldn't stick with it. I can't think in meters, I don't have access to a track, and I don't know what different paces feel like.
4. Doing an easy run for 1-2 miles, then some increasingly fast-paced intervals (separated by easy run). I definitely get better at the intervals, but I don't understand how to translate this into running faster during the easy parts.
5. Searching AskMe for similar questions, but I haven't found anything for someone as slow as me, who doesn't have access to a track.

About me:
1. As you may have gathered, I do not have access to a track. For convenience's sake, I tend to run on a treadmill (at 2% or degrees or whatever of incline). When I run outdoors, my best option is a meandering 5K loop that's not easily broken down into distances.
2. I am an early 40's woman in good health, generally, but pushing 25 BMI-wise.
3. I'd be willing to pay for apps, but probably not fitness tracking devices, unless they were extra cheap or truly godsends.
4. I am averse to paying a coach, due to cost and anger-related, fat-kid reasons, but would consider it, if it's the only/best way. do I get faster? What am I not understanding? What should I do next? I eagerly request any advice (and/or book recommendations)!
posted by missmarymackmackmack to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I'm 49 with a BMI around 24-27. Been running for about 7 years and started with couch2K. I run 5 miles 3 times a week comfortably at about 9 minute miles. I race about 8:30 and can get below 8:00 when I speed train seriously.

I found Endomondo app's speed training to be pretty good for increasing my pace. It requires the paid app but it usually has a free trial month offer (that was how I used it). Its speed inte9rvals were time based rather than distance so you don't need a track.

Speed really depends on weather for me. I can't tell where you are located but personally I lose a lot of speed when the weather is over 25C or below 5C.

The real secret to running faster is to increase your cadence - shorter more frequent strides and getting used to being uncomfortable. You have to effort-fully bump yourself out of the local minima that you are trapped in.

When I want to work on speed on my own I alternate running fast and slow and set short goals like run all out for that next streetlight then run slow two or three and repeat. I also run much shorter distances when I want to speed train.

Also the start of a run is critical for me - If I start out too slow I stay too slow. If I start out fast even if my speed dips I still tend to run faster than when I just run at the pace I find comfortable. So for me at least early effort can bump me out of the 'local minima' trap pace.
posted by srboisvert at 4:09 PM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

How many miles are you running per week? The key to getting faster is endurance, not speedwork, at first. My times go down dramatically the more miles I'm putting in per week. Speedwork/high intensity stuff is good 1-2 times a week, but adding your mileage up is going to make your pace go down.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:13 PM on July 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

As for apps, Runkeeper is free and can measure your distance and pace. That should let you gather some metrics when you're outdoors instead of just on the treadmill.

What happens when you set the treadmill to 5 mph? How long can you run at that pace? I would start with that. Maybe you can run at 5 mph for five minutes. Start your run with a 5 minute warm up at whatever pace is comfortable for you, and then do 5 mph for as long as you can, and end your workout with another 5 minutes at a slower pace. The 5 mph part of your workout will get longer over time until you'll be able to run real distance at that pace.

A serious training routine for a distance runner includes runs at a fast pace, some interval workouts, and then some longer runs at a slower, more comfortable pace. You might try this approach as well, with some 5 mph runs like I described above, some interval training like you've already tried, and some slower runs.
posted by chrchr at 4:14 PM on July 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

What do you feel is the limiting factor preventing you from running faster? Is it cadence? Is it muscle strength? Is it cardiovascular? Is it comfort? If you tried to run faster for 30 minutes, what would hold you back?
posted by ssg at 4:25 PM on July 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm also an early 40's woman. Getting below 12-minute miles is a real barrier for me. If you pay for "Runkeeper Go," it has a "Sub-30-minute 5K" program that's like what chrchr describes in the last paragraph. I'm 2 weeks from the end. If I finish a 5K in less than 30 minutes, it'll be a miracle, but I'm pretty confident at this point that I can do it at less than 36 minutes. (Unless it's hot and humid, in which case, may Glob have mercy on my soul.)
posted by BrashTech at 4:26 PM on July 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

To speed up cadence, sync your steps to the beat... try listening to music at 90 or 180 BPM.
posted by fritillary at 4:46 PM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a mid-30s guy, and I've never ran better than 10:50, even when I'm only running one mile at a time. I do HIIT, I'm in otherwise pretty good shape. I just... am not good at running. So I bought a bike, and I ride it happily at a high rate of speed for long periods of time.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:52 PM on July 9, 2016

Disclosure - I’ve only been running for just about 3 years, so am pretty new at the sport. I’m also largely an outdoor runner.

Where I live, we had an exceptionally windy February, March, and early April. I love running in the cold, but there would be mornings where the wind would completely stop me in my tracks - not like running into a wall (that too) but regular 35mph gusts right up my nostrils that was a like a breathing shock. But, I’d still make myself get out there every morning that was a scheduled “run day.” I typically run around a 9:30 mile. The wind slowed me to around 9:45.

When the windy days stopped, I regularly bumped down to around 9-9:15, without trying at all. Maybe a 30-45 second decrease doesn’t sound like much, but to me it was huge - and my effort did not seem harder. I was not trying to run faster at all - I start my watch, go at what I feel like is "normal" for me, and compare times later. Those faster miles lasted until it got hot & humid, but I hope it'll help me again in the fall.

Do you have access to a treadmill with a fan? Maybe put it at full blast while you do your normal speed. Then after a while, decrease the fan, increase the speed. Or compare it to outside. Wind seems to be a common way to work on speed & strength.
posted by raztaj at 5:16 PM on July 9, 2016

Thanks, these are great suggestions! To answer your questions...

How many miles are you running per week?
15-20 miles a week, barring travel/illness. I basically run for an hour each time, at which point I'm either incredibly bored or my legs start to get tired.

What do you feel is the limiting factor preventing you from running faster?
I can do 5mph for about 4-5 minutes, and then it's hard to breathe enough. At 6mph, it's a completely different cadence altogether, but I can do it for about 30-45 seconds before breathing gets difficult, then another 45 seconds before things start to feel...deeply intestinal. My leg muscles don't start to feel tired until 4 or 5 miles in.
posted by missmarymackmackmack at 5:46 PM on July 9, 2016

I'm a slow runner. I doubt the problem is cadence. I suspect you are taking a very short stride.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:48 PM on July 9, 2016

I can do 5mph for about 4-5 minutes, and then it's hard to breathe enough.

Sounds like your problem is overall cardiovascular fitness. Intervals are a good idea and you should continue doing them, but you might want to consider slightly longer than 30-60s. On the other end, can you do longer runs or other activities (hiking, biking, etc.)? Cross-training can be pretty helpful for general cardiovascular fitness, because it is pretty difficult to run for a couple hours, but that's not so tough on a bike or a hike. Don't expect quick results from this type of training, but it will help in the long run.

Have you tried a heart rate monitor?
posted by ssg at 6:02 PM on July 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

Some thoughts: We're in the same age range and BMI and have a similar running history length. Your frustrations sound like mine, but at a different pace. My 5K PR is 21:00. I've worked with a few coaches, and self-trained through a few self-coached programs as well.

Your goal is a single 12:00 mile? I'd say it's probably just a matter of getting used to the discomfort you need to sustain that pace. If you can do a 12:00 for 4-5 minutes, you're about halfway there! Have you tried running at a 12:00 pace for one minute, slowing down for one minute, and hitting that 12:00 pace again, and repeating the cycle until you hit a mile? Then decrease the recovery time between intervals.

I found a gait analysis and form exercises helpful -- particularly as I get older, the consequences of bad form get more serious, since I don't have as much resilience. Striders -- a set of 3 to 6 100-meter sprints -- after certain workouts and before races were helpful too. They got my neuro-muscular systems used to hitting a higher pace than I usually do, without taxing the body.

These were things I learned from a coach, but I experienced diminishing returns over time. My last coach pushed me - which was good. But I got injured more frequently - which was bad. A coach might help, but I also think you can reach this goal on your own.
posted by Borborygmus at 6:19 PM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have very similar issues. Were you athsmatic as a kid, or allergic? Might you still be? It's easy to check if you ask at your next appointment. I could probably run a mile in under 12min if I would take the inhaler I was prescribed... But it makes me feel kinda weird and I just don't care enough. It might be worth it for you though!
posted by jrobin276 at 6:27 PM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm well overweight (around 28 BMI) and I race short distances under a 9 min mile, and neeeeaarrrrly can break 2h in a half. What keeps me at this pace is mixing up my workouts. You say you run for an hour each time? Throw in some short workouts. You are doing longer runs on the weekends, right? When I'm running about 20ish miles a week my runs look something like 4 hills/6 race/3 as I feel/8 slow

Sounds like your body might be in a rut?
posted by gaspode at 6:30 PM on July 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Myself, I can't run for shit on a treadmill. Track either. I need the stimulation of changing scenery, and some of my best runs have been when I was exploring unfamiliar territory. Music is also key! I need to lose myself a bit, if I'm thinking about running it's a godawful slog.
There are plenty of free apps for tracking purposes, Runkeeper and MapMyRun are popular (I use Runkeeper).
posted by rodlymight at 7:20 PM on July 9, 2016

Seconding ssg. Buy a heart rate monitor. Get a cheap one with a chest strap. Run for a week with the heart rate monitor, and figure out what your normal 4mph heart rate is.

Next week when you run, keep your heart rate 5 beats per minute faster than your normal 4mph heart rate. Repeat. At some point this will get hard. When it gets hard maintain that heart rate for a few weeks.

Also, not to suggest that you do this exactly, but when you feel terrible from running fast you can train yourself to keep running. I discovered this running track in high school; your mind tells you to slow down way way way before you physically have to slow down from lack of oxygen or worn out muscles. The heart rate monitor lets me measure where that edge of feeling terrible is and push myself a little.

You might check with your doctor about what heart rate is safe for you.
posted by gregr at 8:15 PM on July 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think it's important to calibrate your standards! So here are the Army Physical Fitness Standards for women. For a woman your age, to pass the run, you would need to be running a 22:42 2-miler, or about 11:21 for each mile. So you're thinking of "oh come on, at least 12 minutes!" But getting to 12 minutes would be pretty close to actual "fighting trim" on a run.

Its important to remember also that treadmills do not help with street running nearly as much unless you add incline!
posted by corb at 8:36 PM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

You should probably get a heart rate monitor and start using it for your intervals. There are various training schemes out there but the idea is to get above a heart rate, then recover. It works.

I am a fast runner and whenever I take a break there is a period where it feels like I will literally die when I start pushing for sub 7min miles again. You have to push a bit, but if you've never done it before it's hard to know how much. The heart rate monitor does that for you.
posted by fshgrl at 8:53 PM on July 9, 2016

There were two things that really made a huge difference for me:
1. Upping the HIIT sessions, and not just sprinting/walking intervals but like traditional 10-minute Crossfit WOD type things. So like 10 minutes where I do rounds of 30 second burpees/pushups/situps/pullups with a 1 minute break in between each round. It helped a LOT. You need to do more than just run.

2. Moving away from a low-carb diet. I don't know if this applies to you but it was tough for me as a low-carb diet was a great fuel source for my weightlifting but just killed me once I started trying to do HIIT and distance running. I now eat a solid portion of simple carbs (seriously like candy, pasta, toast with nutella, that kind of thing) before and after every workout, though I try to stay lower-carb/high-fat the rest of the time.
posted by joan_holloway at 9:00 PM on July 9, 2016

I can hike 8 miles uphill carrying 30 pounds in 4 hours (which is a respectable pace for a casual backpacker), but I can't run faster than a 12 minute mile. I've worked on mechanics and nutrition for running but those only made incremental differences. I do have chronic hypothyroidism, though, which I can't fully medicate because of cardio side effects. Discovering that gave me a whole new level of insight into why my body handles long-and-steady a lot better than it handles moving fast.

Which is to say - there are a number of reasons why your fast twitch metabolism could be compromised such that HIIT exercises aren't delivering the advertised magic. Hypothyroidism, anemia, and diabetes can all have this effect. This may not apply to you at all, but for everyone who reads this question: check these out if you haven't already. Or, you could just be optimized for slow twitch. My satisfaction with exercise improved greatly when I refocused on hiking rather than running.
posted by SakuraK at 9:37 PM on July 9, 2016

I'm like You-- early 40s, running slowly for a long time (i.e. More than 10 years). I recently became noticeably faster after treating depression with an Ssri... Male here, but the other alignments are good.
posted by u2604ab at 11:43 PM on July 9, 2016

You need either a running coach, or, failing that, you need to learn about aerobic and anaerobic systems in comprehensive detail as to strengthen these systems so you can run faster. Runner World's-like tips (shorten your stride! Lengthen your stride! Increase your cadence!) are too simplistic. It is a bit like writing websites with their 'top tips' for improving writing include reduce passive voice, do not use verbs, yada yada. Yes, simple mantras, easy to remember, but missing the overall picture

Suggestions on books to read to accomplish your goals:
Phil Maffetone's The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing
Hansons Half-Marathon Method: Run Your Best Half-Marathon the Hansons Way
posted by moiraine at 12:51 AM on July 10, 2016

Although, having said all the above, I will say that 15-20 miles a week is not enough to show any real aerobic improvement quickly. To show real improvement within the year, you need to up your mileage to 25-30 miles a week. I sympathise with your running speed, as I know from experience that running 25-30 miles a week at a slow pace just takes so much time to complete.

Also, running on the treadmill is deadly boring. I find it much easier to run when I am outdoors on a nice trail, failing that, interesting scenery
posted by moiraine at 12:57 AM on July 10, 2016

Based on my experience, exercise induced asthma can be tricky to diagnose, but if you talk to a doctor about it, you may find that an albuterol inhaler is all you need.
posted by metasarah at 6:17 AM on July 10, 2016

Firstly capacity for fast running is largely genetic, so don't beat yourself up about being slow. I am also slow. But I can run further than most of the fast runners I know and that I have the added satisfaction that my running success has been all down to my hard work and nothing to do with genetics or luck. So be proud.

That said, there are things you can do to make you faster. In the two years I've been running seriously, I've shaved half an hour off my half marathon time and eleven minutes off my 5k. I am still slow but nowadays when I do a race I am in the second slowest start pen instead of the slowest and this feels like a major achievement.

My tips:

1) Make your long runs longer and don't even look at your speed, just do whatever is comfortable. Goal is distance or time spent on feet. You should be doing one or two long runs a week.
2) Make your short runs shorter and faster. Start with 15-20 mins. (Do something else afterwards if this doesn't feel like enough exercise. I do a video weights workout).
3) Get a Garmin or other wrist based GPS watch and look at it when you are running to get an idea of how fast you are going. Also look at your cadence and strike length and try to determine which is the problem and practice stepping it up a bit.
4) Do "fartlek" runs - experiment with running at different speeds. See how long you can keep up a particular pace, sprint all out to the next tree, etc.
5) Don't bother with C25K. You can already run 5k!
6) Video yourself running - is there something about your technique that needs work. Could you pick your feet up more, stand up straighter, etc? Look at fast runners and have a go at copying their gait (although not everything works for everyone so don't force yourself to do something uncomfortable)
7) Run when it is cold outside! It makes more difference than you'd think.
8) Interval session - I currently do a five min warm up then 5-10 repetitions of 3 mins at a 9.5 minute mile pace interspersed with walking... my usual running speed for a long run is 11.5 min/mile. The idea is to increase your "top speed", which in turn will pull up the speed at which you can run comfortably for long distances.
9) I hate to include this one, but losing weight will make you faster. Your weight sounds perfectly healthy, but top runners are always on the small side, especially distance runners. Some (eg. Paula Radcliffe) would actually be considered underweight if they weren't athletes.
posted by intensitymultiply at 7:28 AM on July 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Thanks again, I am absolutely giving these ideas a shot.

I used a heart rate monitor when I was training for the half-marathon, but then the goal was to increase distance (without increasing heart rate, basically), so I haven't tried using it for speed. I'll think more about how to do that, or find some books or something.
posted by missmarymackmackmack at 7:47 AM on July 10, 2016

Reading this thread has made me aware of how differently people approach this. Here are some of the many things that seem to help me:

1. Yogurt before bed the night before. Healthy gut flora are proven to help turn food into energy. But dairy right before a run is too inflammatory and fills my lungs and sinuses with mucus.

2. Carbs mostly, with just a bit of protein and omega-3 rich fat, right before a run. (Google "anti-inflammatory diet" and surf around a bit.) For me this might be a couple sardines, and I almost always have a bowl of sweetened oatmeal mixed 1-1 with unsweetened barley. Barley is what a lot of Ethiopian marathoners eat.

3. Consider allergy testing. A lot of inflammation can be caused by allergic reactions that people don't recognize as such under normal (i.e. non-running) circumstances.

4. I drink a lot of caffeine right before a run too. The long-term effects of green tea seem to be better for me than those of coffee.

5. Turmeric is the food of the gods. Be warned though, I think it's such a potent anti-inflammatory that it should be used regularly or not at all.

6. Personally I don't do apps, or listen to music during runs, even though I'm a musician. I want to be listening to my body.

FWIW I'm male, 51. Ex-smoker. Good luck!
posted by O. Bender at 8:31 AM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Intervals or hills, both will speed you up,

Try pyramids, where you run on a treadmill and go up by 1km/hr every minute for 5mins, then back down, then back up. Aim for 4-5 repeats. The peak should be fast enough at you can only just manage one minute and desperately need to slow down after the minute is up.

Hill sprints are also great. I find actual hills are steeper than treadmills.

And try to find a running partner - keeping up with them will make you much more motivated. If you're racing there are often official pace-keepers, or look for a ParkRun near you and try to keep up with the faster runners. It is really just about practice.
posted by tinkletown at 9:12 AM on July 10, 2016

The best running coach alive is Dr. Jack Daniels. His book, 'Daniels' Running Formula' is in its third edition. I recommend you pick it up and integrate its core principles into your training routine. You will see results. Here is a playlist of several brief videos of Jack Daniels touching on some essential running principles.

Edited to add: It's helpful to know your VDOT number, courtesy of the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project (click upper left corner for more info.)
posted by little eiffel at 3:28 PM on July 10, 2016

Since you've tried a lot of technical stuff with timing and pacing, I'd recommend going in the opposite direction and trying to be really intuitive about your run.

Run NOT on a treadmill, so you can naturally adjust your speed, without any apps or watches, along a distance you're familiar with. While you're running, really feel how you're breathing, focus on your determination, focus on the strength in your legs, visualize going fast, for whatever pace that's faster than what you normally do, but that you can still maintain.

I feel like a decent part of running is learning to push yourself hard enough (at every point in the run) to get better, but not so hard that you collapse into a jelly of discouragement. Once you've got this basic skill you can do fartleks and timings and all that other stuff. But I bet that this approach would solve the problem you're talking about where you can work on intervals but not your whole run.
posted by hyperion at 7:20 PM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Plus yeah, keep it 2-3 miles when you're doing this new form of pushing yourself. Reading your question again, I really think it's the treadmill that's preventing you from getting better. There's no way to be an intuitive runner and learn to push yourself on a treadmill unless you're constantly playing with the controls -- it's so artificial. Would definitely recommend getting outside more!
posted by hyperion at 7:29 PM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wow, our advice is all over the place, sorry. Since you already have a heart rate monitor, do you know what your heart rate is for much of your runs? For your longer runs (non interval / hiit), you should have a fairly low rate - for your age, probably anything between 130-145 would be good. If you're up above 160 and stay there for most of your long run, and you're doing this 4-5 times a week, then you might be over-training.

If you HR is actually under 130 for most of your long run, but you feel like you can't breathe when you start increasing your pace, then I think your problem is with breathing; and probably something to see a doctor about. Perhaps low iron, perhaps asthma. Actually if you can't catch your breath, and your HR is even undero 160-170 a doctor appt. is probably a good idea. I've never found breathing to be uncomfortable, or not been able to get enough air.

When running a good "easy" long run (where my HR will be between 140-145), I find it very comfortable to be breathing on a shallow 2-2 pattern (two foot-falls in, two foot falls out). When I do a tempo run with HR around 150-160 I'll do a much deeper (I.E. more volume exchanged per breath) 2-2 pattern. When my HR is above 160 I find that I feel comfortable at a deep 2-1 (two steps exhale, one step inhale). Even though I'm breathing faster, I never feel that I can't catch my breath. During the warm up, my breathing is fairly slow and shallow so I mostly let me body do what it wants, but it will start around a 3-3 pattern and shift to 2-2 somewhere between 1-2 km into the warmup.

If your leg muscles are still getting tired during a workout that you've done for other a year that seems like a point to pick at. Are you getting enough protein? A "standard" person should be getting 0.8g or protein per kg of body weight per day. If you're looking to improve at an endurance activity, 1.0-1.4g/kg is a better target. (cite1 cite2 cite regarding protein safety (assuming you aren't diabetic))

In addition to protein intake, search out some body-weight strength exercises you can do for running. Easy off the top of my head, squats, one-legged bridges, calf extensions, mountain climbers. Strength training is also a good way to not get injured.

I'll N'th everyone else that I'd advice getting outside as much as possible rather than doing this on a treadmill. There's many run tracking apps for phones which will get decent enough GPS results. You'll also better develop your muscles being on less than perfectly even ground.

As your complaint is about your speed, I'd advise "measuring" your runs based upon time, rather than distance until you're happy that you're making good, safe progress. Perhaps look at getting 1 "long" run in per week. Your long run should eventually become 2-3x the time of your normal workout, but as you might have HR or strength training going on, perhaps work up to that by just increasing by 10% most weeks. Having a cut-back week (50-70% your normal weekly time) every 4-6 weeks can be good for your body's recovery.

(I've only been running about 2.5 years, but have done a fair bit of reading, and I've bettered my 10k time by over 12 minutes from my first race 2 years ago. For a lot of the heart rate training, I like the simplicity of the Maffetone Method and the simplicity of the 180 formula.)
posted by nobeagle at 9:11 AM on July 11, 2016

You run at 4mph, get winded at 5mph, so use the fractional speeds on the treadmill. Put the incline to zero, bump the speed up 0.1 mph, and make that your new speed for the next five to ten runs, whatever number it takes until it feels normal rather than brisk. Then increment it again.

Your body will adapt to the new reality. Especially if you sneak it in in small enough increments.
posted by zippy at 11:44 PM on July 11, 2016

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