Have you ever watched elite runners at the Olympics or the Boston Marathon and thought that you want to run like them? But, how long does it take to get good at running? You’re not alone in thinking this way. It’s natural to want to aspire to that. It takes elite athletes years of training to compete at that level.
Being “good at running” is very subjective. Is your goal to be fast and place on the podium, to be consistent, or to run without injury? Your personal goals set the tone for the training you do. Every athlete has unique physical (height, weight, strength, V02 max) and situational (work, family, weather, location) limits. All of these factors contribute to how long it takes to get good at running.
For example, an active 20-year-old that weighs 135 pounds and lives at sea level might find training easier than a 175-pound 40-something living at altitude who works full time and has a family, and is discovering running for the first time. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to running.
How Long Does It Take to Get Good at Running?
Conditioning and training are essential and somewhat drive how long it takes to get good at running. Regardless of distance, building a solid base can take 3 to 5 months before the goal-specific training happens. Training plans generally last 12-20 weeks.
It’s unlikely a new runner will tackle long distances or win a podium placement at their local 5K right away. It happens, but pushing hard like that without proper training can cause serious injury.
If you’re new to running, haven’t been very active for a while, or find yourself struggling to run, get back to basics. Start with walking a few days per week. When it feels right, increase time on your feet, the intensity of your walk, or the number of days you’re walking.
Once you’ve been walking for a few weeks, start incorporating running. Gamify your run by picking a mailboxes and light posts to run to, and extend the distance you run when you feel ready. If you need more structure, programs like the Couch to 5K are a great way to transition into running. You could also download an interval timer and set it for run/walk intervals. If you’re not sure what kind of intervals to do, this chart created by Jeff Galloway is an excellent place to start.
It’s less important to think about distance or speed as it is time on your feet when you’re starting out. Once you’ve established a solid base of movement, you can start focusing on increasing speed, mileage, or endurance with a training plan.
Does Running Get Easier?
When you’re just starting out, you may wonder if running gets easier. Yes… and no. It’s common to hit a plateau in training as your body adapts to the demands you’ve put on it. Many perceive this to be a lack of progress, but it just means you’ve nailed the training. This is a prime opportunity to set a new goal.
It helps to care less. Many athletes have a tendency to turn their running into a personality trait. Running is something you do, not who you are. Once you’ve detached yourself from the expectation that you should be looking or performing a certain way, running will be easier and more enjoyable.
Speaking of enjoying running, science has shown that fun activities are easier to do. Sometimes, the structure of a training plan can feel rigid, and runs start to feel like something you have to do instead of something you get to do. Doris Bergen, an educational psychologist at Miami University suggests that freedom and self-direction are key elements of play. So, if you’re feeling the crunch, remove the perceived requirements of your next training run and join a friend for a social run.
When it comes to breath, and the feeling of losing your breath easily, it could mean you’ve taken on too much. Ease up the effort to see if you can get control of your breath before you turn up the intensity again. Continued trouble breathing could be a sign of an exercise-induced asthma or another underlying health issue. Make an appointment with your physician to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
Tips for Getting Better and Faster at Running
There are many ways to get better and faster at running. These include doing speed work (tempo runs, fartleks, track workouts), speed drills, running hills, slowing down your long runs, and running with people who are slightly faster than you. The “ideal” cadence is 170-190 BPM (beats per minute).
If you’re running at 140-160 BPM, increasing your cadence with a Spotify playlist is an effective way to speed up. Doing speed work on a treadmill can help make you faster, too.
Cross training can help you speed up by increasing strength, improving aerobic fitness, and reducing risk of injury. Running-specific cross training mimics the running form and improves the cardiorespiratory system. Sample activities include cycling, aqua jogging (pool running), elliptical, and walking or hiking. Complimentary cross training can increase strength, which can also increase speed. These activities can include yoga, Pilates, plyometrics, strength training, cross fit, circuit training, and HIIT.
Having “perfect running form” is one way to be “better” at running, in a technical sense. A lot of coaching and athletes discuss and pass judgment on heel-, mid-, and forefoot striking. Bottom line, if you’re not experiencing pain or injury as a result of your gait, don’t change anything. Changing your gait takes time and conscious effort and can result in injury without specific training. Incorporating stretching and strength under the guidance of a certified trainer, or working with a physical therapist, are the best ways to address pain and injury.
Simple tips anyone can implement during training to have better form include standing up straight, rolling the shoulders back and down (simply put, get your shoulders out of your ears), and keeping your eyes and chin up. Loosen up the arms and shoulders, and avoid clenching your hands into fists. Another simple tip to achieve that desired forward lean that many elite runners have is to practice “nose over toes.” It’s not easy to do all of this right away. Each time you head out, pick one thing to consciously consider and work at it during your run. Eventually, these posture tweaks will happen naturally.
When you’re just starting out, you may wonder how long it takes to get good at running. There are many contributing factors, including physical and situational, and personal goals. Building a base and working with a training plan that incorporates speed work, drills, running-specific cross training, and complementary cross training can all help you get faster and better at running. Plateaus signal that running got easier, and it’s time to set a new goal.
Pay attention to changes in breathing and new aches or pains, and don’t forget to take days off to reduce risk of injury. Whether it’s an active rest day with easy activities that are gentle on your body, or a full recovery day in couch potato mode, incorporating rest into your training is very important for getting better and faster at running.