Mara Yamauchi knows a lot about running fast. Yamauchi finished sixth in the marathon at the Beijing Olympics, and is the third fastest British female marathon runner ever.
Yamauchi shared her thoughts on running in her new book Marathon Wisdom: Elite Athlete’s Insights into Running and Life, Which covers training, nutrition, mental preparation and much more.
We spoke to Yamauchi to gain some first-hand knowledge on how to run faster.
What is the key to acceleration?
The key to running faster is to train with the right quality and quantity for your level, and to do it consistently, without interruption or injury. If you do, you should be faster.
When you run you do partial damage to your body. Then when you rest after a run, your body adapts in response to that stimulus. This process is repeated and gets better over time. The process is called supercompensation. So the key for any runner, from a complete novice all the way to the elite athlete, is to get that cycle of supercompensation.
If you’re a beginner, start running maybe two to three times a week, or mix walking and running, to avoid injury and give your body time to adapt. If you’re an elite elite athlete, that could mean training 14 times a week or more.
Find a routine that works for you, and leads to adaptation and improvement. Then keep doing more of the same. Don’t adjust things to try to get better more quickly, you may find that you are getting worse.
What if you find that you are not getting better anymore?
If you have improved and then stabilized, what that tells you is that the supercompensation cycle was working but now it is not.
In this scenario, it’s a good idea to look at what you’re doing and what isn’t quite right. Is your training too little or too much? Or maybe it’s the right amount, but not the right kind of training for the event you’re targeting?
Review your current and non-current activities. It’s easy to just focus on training, but it can also have something to do with conditioning. The obvious things are nutrition, hydration, rest, and sleep. If you sleep poorly, you are probably training really well but not acclimatizing between training sessions. If your work is very stressful and you have a lot of stress hormones circulating, it can stop a good adaptation. Or a lot of long-distance travel and jet lag – it can cause you to sleep less, so you are not acclimating.
Why is it important to do different types of running to improve?
Different types of runs serve different purposes. For example, an easy jog may help you recover from a harder session, or add to your mileage and this helps with your running economy in the long run, making you more efficient.
At the other extreme, a very short, very fast track session will help you develop the ability to tolerate high levels of lactic acid. This will improve your leg rotation – your shape at very high speeds.
In the long run it will develop muscular endurance. It will help your body adapt to running out of fuel because you will be burning fuel while running.
Uphill running is a type of anaerobic exercise if you do it fast, but it’s also a form of strength training, because you need to produce more energy than if you were running flat.
All these different types of running tick different boxes. If you are training for a marathon, long distance running is really important, while if you are training for the 800m, you need to do a lot of fast running, and develop your lactic acid tolerance. What you do and when should be determined by your overall goal.
Do you have any nutritional advice for people looking to run faster?
I must say that I am not a qualified dietitian or dietitian, and what I know about nutrition is purely that I was an outstanding athlete. For me, the most important thing is variety in what you eat. Try to eat a really diverse range of foods, including foods that are highly nutritious like oily fish, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds — all of those things. This is how you will get all the different nutrients you need to stay healthy and adapt to running.
Then if you’re doing a lot of training, if you’re training for a marathon for example, obviously eating enough calories to fuel your training is really important.
After any hard training, meaning any fast training or long training, I will try to eat or drink something with protein and carbohydrates in it within 20 minutes of finishing. This could be something like a recovery drink or a smoothie you made yourself. Something like milk is good because it contains proteins and carbohydrates. This means that your recovery will begin quickly, once you have finished running.
Another tip is to eat a reasonably proper meal soon after any type of serious training. This is sometimes not easy in practice, but try as much as possible to eat a proper meal. This really applies in the evening. If you train in the evening and then don’t eat properly, or don’t make up for what you burned before bed, you will wake up the next morning and your recovery will be delayed.
I used ice baths after very intense training sessions. I know there is mixed evidence about the benefit of ice baths, but personally, I found that they really helped relieve the inflammation and discomfort in my legs after a hard session. I also only used the compression stockings after hard sessions to help with blood circulation in my legs. It is clear that rest and sleep are very important. Very simple, but very important.
Your activity will also have a huge impact. If you run a long distance on a Sunday morning and then spend the day hiking, seeing friends, shopping, or something like that, you’ll be more tired than if you spend it at home getting your feet up.
Then there are things like compression shoes and all the tools out there. I didn’t use gadgets much in recovery. I’m sure some of them are useful, but I haven’t personally tried them often. I think if you’re going to use any kind of tool it pays to make sure you do your best on the simple things first. The tools should be seen as icing on the cake in terms of payback.
Do you have any elite level race day tips to help people speed up?
Your mental preparation is really key. What I mean by that is for you to be mentally relaxed and new when you go to the starting line. If you feel overwhelmed or stumbled, tired from work, or you aren’t quite mentally suited to racing, it definitely affects your performance. I always tried to have easy days before the races, so I could feel the mental eagerness to move forward at the starting line.
I always followed the course for marathons and even shorter races, because that made the course feel familiar. I knew when there were any uneven corners or surfaces on the road coming so I was prepared for that.
And be really organized: put your kit on in advance, put on your shoes in advance, and make sure you know the starting procedures. Think about the way you will travel to and from the race, because at a big event there will be road closures. Being on top of the practical stuff frees your mind to focus on doing well.