The very serious business of getting faster, and how fun it can truly be

By Christopher Cudworth

So it’s fun to make fun of ourselves for being slower than we’d like. We did that yesterday on We Run and Ride.

Es hora de hacer que la gente más rápido!

Es hora de hacer que la gente más rápido!

But what do we legitimately do to get faster? That’s what we really want to know? So let’s get to it.

Getting faster the right way

There are similarities to getting faster on both the run and the bike. But there are  things to be learned from the differences as well.

We’ll study the three keys to getting faster in either sport. These might well apply to swimming as well. What follows are helpful terms to describe how to practice and build speed in your respective sports. So you’ll be faster!

Es hora de hacer que la gente más rápido!

Turnover or cadence

In running, the rate at which you can move your arm and legs is called turnover or cadence. For a runner, turnover equates to the rate or timing of footplants. The quicker you can accomplish turnover the more speed you can generate.

In cycling this pattern is called cadence. You spin the pedals rather than drive them up and down. That pulls the chain and in turn propels the wheels. The higher the gear you can sustain while increasing your cadence the faster you will go.

Think of a side view of a runner. If you drew a circle touching the farthest point where the tips of your fingers and toes reach with each stride, it would make a bubble around the entire runner.

With cycling, that circle of propulsion is confined to the space where your feet spin in a tight circle around the cranks. The rest of you constitutes wind resistance. So you can see the physics are somewhat different for runners and riders.

For runners you are always propelling your own weight. There is no coasting. But for cyclists, the propulsion while assisted by wheels must also accommodate the resistance caused by the weight of the bike and the breadth and width of your body. Those are the factors that slow you down.

So now we know what’s holding us back. How do you get faster? By increasing the rate of turnover in running or cadence in cycling.

It starts with strength and the basal ability to drive your legs and arms in running, and your legs in cycling.

That is why many great athletes begin their training in the gym or doing plyometric base training to build the muscle foundation necessary to generate faster turnover. A high school school coach once had us spend the entire month of January doing high knee drills and lunges in the gym. We ran only a couple miles each day during this period.

You can invest time in the gym using weight machines to replicate the strength phases of your running stride and the overall pace of your cycling cadence. In both cases you should focus on the quads, hamstrings and butt muscles. Help them gain strength by working slow with high weights and quickly with lighter pounds and faster reps. Do not skimp on either.

During this period you will likely be building toward running higher mileage as a base or going for longer base rides as well. Don’t confuse the muscles at first. Let strength be strength in the buildup phase. You can’t get fast right away. You’re simply putting money in the bank.

After you’ve done your base building program and progressed to the point where you are running or riding consistently, you can begin adding speed to your workouts. That’s when turnover and cadence can be practiced in earnest. You take your strength to the track to do intervals and inject doses of speed into your cycling routine with increased frequency, duration and pace.

To increase turnover in running you will need to practice at shorter distances and build the ability to apply that speed to sustained intervals. That means short periods of  faster turnover running. For runners, that means 200 meter repeats run at race pace or even faster.

For cyclists, that means putting your cadence meter on your bike and paying attention to the rate of pedaling in all gears. Keep it at 90 or above in all circumstances or else gear down. It may take weeks to build up your cadence in higher gears. Many cyclists keep their gearing on the small ring for 1000 miles as a rule. You’ll notice that over a period of a few weeks you can begin to maintain cadence at increasingly higher gears. Throw in some mild hill work to build on the strength you’ve built in the gym or through leg and lunge exercises.

That’s the secret. Building base strength and then increasing the rate turnover or cadence through progressive inclusion of turnover work is the primaty way to build speed. When you’ve done that work the results are one of the most fun feelings in the world. You are, actually, faster. But it doesn’t end there.

Tempo: timing and pace of movement.

Tempo is the pace at which you are moving for different purposes. Increasing your tempo involves faster turnover or cadence, but it does not end there either. The subtleties of running or riding faster involve a commitment to keep your body parts moving quickly in response to pace and competitive conditions. That takes rehearsal.

It comes down to this: once you’ve built the foundation speed, you need to learn how to apply it. There’s not just “one speed” after all. There are many different types of pacing necessary for success in endurance sports. For triathletes, the goal is  to conserve and distribute total pacing ability over three separate sports. In triathlon, getting faster is all about balanced tempo.

Much of that is dictated by the type of event in which you are participating. The tempo needed to race a mile is different in form and structure from that which is best for a marathon.

Para viajar más rápido usted debe sostener un tempo más caliente.

Para viajar más rápido usted debe sostener un tempo más caliente.

In cycling a road race is significantly dependent on conditions such as wind and the number of riders you are with. In a criterium your tempo is defined by the type of circuit you are riding, long or short, as well as how many turns there are and number of riders in the pace group. Maintaining tempo in each of those circumstances is what enables you to “keep up,” or better yet, pull ahead as strategy dictates.

You likely recognize the feeling when you lose tempo. It’s like a bad dream in which you’re telling your body to run and it just won’t let you go any faster.

In a marathon or half marathon a runner’s tempo typically falls apart through cumulative fatigue. That radically reduces speed and can literally leave you walking rather than running. You’ve lost tempo completely at that point. To counter that type of tempo issue requires two things obviously. First, the endurance base must be there. But you must also do the tempo-based training of running faster than your desired race pace tempo so that your actual race pace feels comfortable. That’s the entire secret of running a marathon.

That is how marathon training has radically changed over the last 30 years. It was once true that marathon runners all did long, slow distance and some tempo work. But when real 10K runners moved up to the marathon, their ability to maintain a quicker tempo made them deadly over the 26.2 mile distance. Now we consistently find marathon runners throwing 4:30 miles into the start, middle or end of a marathon. That’s clipping along at a pretty good tempo, wouldn’t you say?

In races such as miles and 5K, tempo is affected more by buildup of lactic acid than of general fatigue of the muscles. Muscles that won’t fire either seize, cramp or fail. They slow in response. The ability to maintain tempo drops.

That’s when cyclists also fall off the back of the group. Spinning at a high cadence and a big gear maintains tempo. You can see this dynamic especially at work in the climbs during the Tour de France. Riders than can maintain tempo up a mountain look very different from those struggling just to make the climb.

To learn to maintain tempo therefore requires combined practice methods. You must simultaneously teach your body what tempos you need and then train your body to perform at those levels.

The teaching part is the trickiest. Learning pace and tempo requires both empiric data such as a stopwatch or cyclometer and a responsive sense or mental/muscle memory that tells you what your target range will be, and what you are currently doing.

For runners that means going to the track and doing pace work so that you learn what each pace per mile feels like at different distances. Serious runners will do intervals from 200 meters all the way up to two miles in order to learn the feel of specific tempos.

Cyclists can look at their cyclometers and know how fast they are going. Yet even that empiric data can be deceiving. More than one cyclist has ridden 15 miles at a great clip only to figure out on the way home there was a tailwind pushing them along. That 20 mile per hour average suddenly drops to 15 on the way home. That leaves you with 17 mph and another hard lesson learned about real tempo.

That means for cyclists tempo is more about the ability to “keep up” with the pack. Your solo rides should be spent teaching your body high cadence, increased gearing, climbing short and long hills and riding efficiently in the wind. Those are all necessary skills for a cyclist to “go faster.”

Tempo is relative in cycling, whereas in running tempo is rather hard-lined with acceptable adjustments for running into the wind or uphill/downhill.

To get faster one simply rehearses running and riding at increased tempos. Keep track of your progress with empiric data, and be sure to place yourself in training or competitive situations where you are pulled to a faster overall pace than you are accustomed. Accept that you might get left behind or dropped the first few times you step up. But the only way to get faster is to improve by increments, working through fears or physical stopping points by going a little farther and a little faster than you did last time.

Sustainable endurance and mental pacing. 

If you haven’t guessed by now, getting faster is truly a state of mind. One group of small college distance runners knew they were going to face a much faster racing scenario at a major college relay event. They set up a workout that involved running a set of twelve 400 meter repeats to replicate the 4:00 mile pace they would face against Division I schools. It worked. Each of the runners set a PR on their mile leg by 2-3 seconds. The faster broke 4:10 and the anchor leg broke 4:20, a PR by four seconds.

The same can happen for a cyclist in criterium work. A typical CAT 5 cyclist trains at 17-19 mph on their own. But even CAT 5 races zip along at 23 mph. That means some homework has to be done by any level cyclist before jumping in a race where the tempo might be 4-8 miles per hour faster than their typical rides. Riding practice criteriums or joining fast local group rides is key to building the sustainable endurance and mental pacing necessary to compete at a faster level.

And don’t forget to warm up! That’s one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make when trying to go faster. Even if you’ve trained your body and seen the results in practice, jumping into a fast tempo when your body is not warmed up is sure to fail.

It’s all about learning quicker cadence and turnover, teaching the body tempo and learning how to apply it, and applying your sustainable endurance against the clock. That requires mental pacing.

That, in summary, is the formula for getting faster.

But it’s incredibly fun if you plan it out and pay attention to the feedback. The first time you feel yourself actually getting faster is a thrill like no other in running or riding. The same thing goes in the pool. Being able to sustain a faster, more efficient arm and leg stroke is the same dynamic as running with quicker turnover and riding with higher cadence.

Faster really is more fun. But you have to do the work to get there. See you on the track, the roads and in the pool.

Es hora de hacer que la gente más rápido!



About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at, and Online portfolio:
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1 Response to The very serious business of getting faster, and how fun it can truly be

  1. Great post. I need to get to the track.

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