I've never won a race (with over 50 people in it). I'm about the speed that would barely put me on a high school varsity squad.
BUT I have run with a crap load of people. A lot of really dedicated runners. Including Sarah OUAL lately. If you read her blog (WHICH IF YOU DONT OMG YOU ARE CRAZY SHE IS HILARIOUS), you may have noticed she massively PRd this weekend in the 5k. She's been running for a while, but I think she is much more talented than her old PRs suggest, and seeing her progress so quickly on the track is awesome to watch.
As much as she refers to me as "coach" (which is awesome, by the way, don't stop, Sarah), I am pretty much her workout buddy. We run most of our repeats together and it definitely motivates me to get out there every Tuesday. Running with her has reminded me of what it takes to get faster. And I swear it's more than mindless 800 repeats.
Consistency: Duh, right? But basically one of something isn't all that helpful. People see progress when they are consistent in their hard work. It's less about what you do one day, and more about what you do each week.
Knowing What Works For You: For both Sarah and me, I think speedwork is highly beneficial and having a running partner helps us push ourselves. I have a hard time pushing through steady pace runs and tend to run them around 9 minute mile pace, which doesn't do a lot to drop my times. And high mileage just makes me feel tired and pressed for time.
For some people, I think long runs WILL make you faster (see the times that SkinnyRunner runs just doing that!). Bottom line, I think it helps to experiment with different techniques until you start seeing results. If the type of workout you're doing doesn't feel right for you, or is overly stressful, don't do it. If you hate it, don't do it. If it's fun, or gives you butterflies, get on it.
Knowing Your Goals: PRing in every race for everyone isn't always the #1 priority. If your goal is more relaxed, just try incorporating some pickups in a run once a week. If you've got a set goal, look at how you can achieve it. Speedwork doesn't have to be OMG STRESSFUL DIE . It can be more relaxed as well, depending on what you want out of it.
Competitiveness (even with your friends): What I really enjoy about running with Sarah is that she is competitive (in a fun way). I think sometimes people get caught up in the idea that it's not nice to be competitive, but sometimes this can be a great tool in getting faster. Granted, not every workout is a race, and your workout partners will be annoyed if you are always trying to race them. However, at the end of the day, if two people are racing towards the finish line, even the person who loses probably ran faster than they would have otherwise.
Expectations: Every time I meet Sarah at the track, I ask her what pace she wants to do the intervals in. Without fail, she quotes a pace about 30 seconds per mile slower than she ends up doing them. For me, I have to quote the pace I plan to go, because otherwise I'll just run slower. So it's about what works for you, mentally. Managing your own expectations can be a huge ally.
Focus: Speedwork (and running) are times when you can let it all go. You can either forget your frustrations in life, or pound them out on the track. Running a race is great, because in that moment, the only thing that matters is the race and how you're running it.
What have I forgotten? What do you think the best ways to get faster are?