Shift your walk or run into high gear and you'll be stronger, leaner, and more confident in just 30 days.
Text by Diana Kapp
You walk or run because it keeps you fit, lifts your spirits, and gets you where you want to go. But you hardly ever think about picking up your pace. That's for people who want to win races -- or are really late for an appointment. Or is it? Our bodies crave a challenge; they're actually designed to become healthier and more efficient with increasing levels of physical difficulty. "To get fitter, you need to ramp up your routine," says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. "Moving faster works your heart, lungs, and muscles, making them stronger." If that sounds intimidating, know this: "People think speed has to hurt, like mind over body. But it's more like merging your mind with your body so you can tune in to the way you're moving and feeling," says ChiRunning creator Danny Dreyer. "It's not about pushing yourself until your gums bleed."
On the following pages, we bring you expert strategies and tips for increasing the limit on your personal speedometer. Get ready to pull out all the stops and ask yourself, "How fast can this baby really go?"
I found speed on the brick-red surface of our local stadium track, keeping pace with a pod of five other brown pony-tailed women. We are all in our mid-40s, with kids, jobs, and a bad habit of relishing topics like irritable bowel syndrome and the difference between age spots and skin cancer. We had been lured there one at a time by another member of the group crowing about how going faster could make us fitter, or out of nostalgia for childhood relay races, but probably more to refuse that creeping unsettled sense of, "This is it?"
I haven't always been fast, or if I was, I never knew it. For years I ran for exercise, signing up for the occasional race, but was content to stay right in the middle of the pack. I definitely had no idea that getting faster was not only possible, but also pleasurable.
When I'm really moving, my pumping arms look almost robotic, veins bulge in my neck, and my expression is downright menacing. I feel exactly the way I look. As we circle around the track in some higher math combination of 100s, 400s, and 800s -- race laps interspersed with recovery laps, all miraculously adding up to exactly five miles -- the world falls away. Heavy breathing, foot strikes, and deep warmth silence any pain.
I can't recall the last time I used my body so completely, pushed far enough to see what's there for the taking. What if I tapped my deep reserves in other realms; what could I do then? The harder you go, the harder you can go and want to go, and the bar just keeps moving. Go ahead and move, bar. I'm coming.
Speed Up Your Walk
The key to going faster when you walk isn't just increasing your effort -- it's adjusting your technique so you can sustain the momentum, says Dreyer, whose ChiWalking and ChiRunning methods draw on the principles of tai chi. A common mistake is overstriding, stepping too far out in front in an attempt to speed up. This sends shock waves up the leg, stresses the joints, and may even result in hip or knee problems. Another blunder? Pushing too hard off the back leg, which can strain your Achilles tendon and calf muscles, Dreyer says.
Adopt this approach instead: Lean forward at the hips, keeping shoulders directly over them (don't bend at the waist), then pull in your belly and tuck in your butt to engage your abdominals. "When you're walking really fast, you should feel it in your lower abs," Dreyer says. They're your power center; when you're aware of them, it means you're drawing your energy from the right place. (And since you're working them at the same time, you're strengthening your core.) Focus on keeping steps small and quick, about 140 to 160 strides per minute. Think about your foot rolling through each step, heel to toe. If you want to walk faster, swing your arms faster (it works!). "Your legs will do what- ever your arms do," Dreyer says.
Start with Spurts
Get more comfortable with speed by doing interval training -- essentially, pushing the pedal to the metal for anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes, then returning to a moderate clip (called recovery). Shorter bursts of intensity teach your legs how to turn over quickly; longer intervals (five minutes or more) nudge your overall fitness level higher, strengthen your muscles, and ultimately raise the bar on your speed. By alternating sprints and recovery, you improve your heart's ability to pump more blood with each beat, making it more efficient. You also get a metabolism boost.
Get Your Brain in Gear
Even if the body is willing, the mind may need some coaxing into the fast lane. "Plenty of mental obstacles can hold people back, such as fear of failure or of injury," says David B. Coppel, Ph.D., a clinical sport psychologist at the University of Washington and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine. But you can think your way out of slow-mo mode. Try these techniques from Coppel; they work for elite athletes and they'll work for you, too.
While you're putting on your sneakers or doing your warm-up, inhale and exhale slowly. You should feel your belly rise and fall with each breath, the way a baby's does, says Coppel. This will help propel you along by upping your oxygen intake, calming your mind, and improving your focus during your workout.
Watch Yourself Fly By
Before you set out on a walk or run, visualize in detail what it feels like to go faster: See the sweat beading on your forehead, imagine the smell of fresh-cut grass, hear the wind in your ears and the sound of your own breath, and even feel a leg cramp or two. "This helps make the experience real," he says.
Have an Out
Your workout should feel tough, but it shouldn't hurt. If you notice an increase in pain or discomfort, it's OK to ease up and reassess. You may have lost your form or pushed just a bit too hard. Slow the pace for a few minutes and try again. If things don't improve, stop for the day.
Speed Up Your Run
Just as you wouldn't begin weight lifting by bench-pressing 100 pounds, you don't hit the ground running at warp speed. You have to go farther before you go faster -- which is why Dreyer recommends building a strong foundation: You should be able to run at a slow to moderate pace continuously for 30 minutes, at least twice a week, before you ratchet up your rpms. Then add in brief bursts of intensity. Think of running not as pulling ahead, but as an easy, controlled fall, Dreyer says. "Stay light on your feet, as opposed to pounding into the ground, and keep knees and hips moving smoothly," he says. Tilt your whole body forward, engage your core, and let gravity do the work. Kick your legs back behind you, and pump your arms from the shoulders, not the elbows, for increased speed. Be sure you're not clenching your jaw or hunching your shoulders -- two common mistakes runners unconsciously make that creates discomfort. And above all, Dreyer says, relax. "It's true: The less tense you are, the faster you will run."
30 Days to a Faster You
Whether you're a walker who's flirting with running or a runner looking for a challenge, the following plan, from coach Christine Hinton (therunningcoach.com), will help you improve your speed and overall fitness -- not to mention torch calories. Aim for four 30- to 40-minute sessions every week on nonconsecutive days. Start each with a 5-minute warm-up (a brisk walk or an easy jog), and end with a 5-minute cooldown.
To Walk Faster
WEEK 1: 2 min. Brisk walk | 2 min. Normal pace | Repeat 5 times
WEEK 2: 3 min. Brisk walk | 2 min. Normal pace | Repeat 4 times
WEEK 3: 1 min. Very brisk walk | 1 min. Normal pace | Repeat 10 times
WEEK 4: 2 min. Brisk walk | 1min. Normal pace | Repeat 7 times
To Run Faster
WEEK 1: 30 sec. Fast pace | 2 min. Moderate pace | Repeat 8 times
WEEK 2: 1 min. Fast pace | 2 min. Moderate pace | Repeat 7 times
WEEK 3: 5 min. Fast pace | 5 min. Moderate pace | Repeat 2 times
WEEK 4: 10 min. Easy pace | 10 min. Very fast pace | 10 min. Easy pace
Exercise buddies can push you to perform at your best. Some of the models here are members of New York-based running groups Athena Track Club and New Balance Central Park Track Club. To hook up with a club in your area, try the Road Runners Club of America (rrca.org), or connect with a virtual community like anothermotherrunner.com.
These exercises from trainer Joe "Iron" Matalon (joefitnessworld.com) will help streamline your form.
Strengthens hamstrings and glutes
Try It: Keeping upper thighs still, lift your right foot straight behind you and try to kick your butt. Repeat on left and jog in place until you've done 15 reps per leg.
Tones muscles around the shoulders and improves range of motion
Try It: Bend arms between 45 and 90 degrees and swing them forward and back as fast as you can 30 times.
Trains the fast-twitch muscles
Try It: Place feet hip-width apart and lower into a squat. Jump up, raising arms overhead. Repeat 5 times.