There isn’t an athlete in triathlon that doesn’t want to know out how to run faster. One of the most common statements I hear from highly motivated athletes is “I have to run faster”. But too many athletes believe that the quickest way to run faster is to run more and run harder. In fact, most athletes are already running close to, or more than, the run volume required for success. The purpose of this article is to give you some ideas on how to run smarter and how to get the most speed out of a given level of aerobic fitness.What is good running form?
In my experience, good running form is:
» Smooth – the athlete looks comfortable, the head, shoulders and hips are stable and travel in a consistent horizontal plane. In other words, there is very little vertical movement of the head, hips and shoulders.
» Balanced – the athlete’s legs, hips and arms all contribute to forward (as opposed to lateral) movement. Viewed from behind the athlete has no lateral movement and the pelvis remains stable.
» Relaxed – the athlete’s shoulders, jaw and arms are relaxed. The only tension in the athlete’s body is specific muscle tension required for running. All “non-running” muscles are relaxed. Breathing is rhythmic and calm.
Many athletes that are seeking to improve their running form start with a focus on their feet, and in particular, their foot strike. While heel striking is a sign of poor economy, I believe that it is a symptom, rather than a cause, of poor form. An athlete can easily eliminate a heel strike by pointing their toes at the moment of impact. The heel strike will disappear, but the overall stride will be no more economical. In fact, this modification can lead to a wide range of overuse injuries as the muscles and tendons of the lower leg must decelerate the athlete with each impact.
So where to start? I believe that the most effective approach is for the athlete to seek a combination of correct body alignment and cadence. These two factors account for the majority of economy gains that an athlete can attain. It is worth emphasizing that running speed comes from the correct manipulation of body alignment and cadence. Stride length is the result, not the source, of speed. Body Alignment
Body alignment is often referred to as an athlete’s “pose” or “stance”. When an athlete is properly aligned, the shoulder, hip and ankle joints will all be alignment. For ease of explanation let’s call this alignment the “Stance Line”.
Once a correct stance is achieved, the athlete generates forward motion by moving the top of the Stance Line forward of the centre of balance. This places the athlete in front of the centre of balance and the athlete is effectively falling. Cadence is then used to efficiently transform gravity’s downward pull into forward motion. Watch any child run and you will quickly see this principle in action. You will also see what happens when the child’s cadence is unable to keep up with their body lean. They fall down!
Athletes unaccustomed to this stance will find that this body position feels very “vertical” and this is a good cue for proper alignment. A technique for maintaining good body alignment is to focus on running tall, with an open chest and pelvis. With experimentation you will find that there is very little tilt required to the Stance Line. In fact, at all speeds up to seven minute per mile pace, the correct stance is very close to vertical.
There are a number of common challenges that athletes face when seeking to improve body alignment:
» Excessive truck lean – athletes with this issue, quite often have good leg turnover but in order to achieve the required lean, bend at the waist and put their hips behind their Stance Line. An athlete can correct this problem by focusing on: (a) shoulders back, (b) head up; and/or (c) open pelvis. When making the transition from cycling to running, many athletes will find their hip flexors tighten. By focusing on these three tips, an athlete can speed the transition to effective post-ride body alignment.
» Tight shoulders – this is very common when athletes seek to increase their speed. Tension enters the body and the athlete finds that they are shrugging. Focusing on relaxed shoulders is more economical and also increases lung capacity.
Watch any good runner within a group of novices and you will quickly note that they almost always have faster leg turnover. Leg turnover in itself is not necessarily economical as it is important for foot strike to occur at the base of the Stance Line. Foot strike in front of the base of the Stance Line, requires the athlete to support the body as it moves over and beyond the point of impact.
When most novice runners seek to increase their cadence they find that their heart race increases very rapidly. If this is happening to you then you should shorten your stride until you are able to run at the desired intensity. You will likely feel that you are running with “baby steps” and that is probably the best sign that you have “it” right. Indeed, in my own running at speeds up to 5:20 per mile pace, I continue to feel like I am running with short strides.
As a general rule, most runners should seek a cadence of 85 cycles per minute for their long slow distance pace and 90 cycles per minute for 10K race pace and faster. If you are currently running with a cadence that is significantly lower than these targets (more than 5 rpm) then you should seek to gradually lift your cadence over a series of months. Rapid changes in cadence place undue stress on the body and are not necessary. Your goal should be to move towards these targets over 6-18 months.
While there are many different running drills available to an athlete, I believe that many drills are inappropriate. As well, it is essential that an athlete understand the objective of each drill as it relates to their personal technical limiters. Simply doing drills will not improve running economy. The most effective approach is to use specific drills to teach specific movement patterns and enhance an overall technical awareness.
My favourite drill for improving run economy is strides. Put simply, strides are short bursts of fast running with perfect form. Strides are an excellent way to improve running technique and should be incorporated year round.
Tips for strides:
» Protocol – Strides should be done at least once a week. A single set per session is sufficient with six to eight intervals per set.
» Recovery – Athletes should recover by walking back to the start point. Remember that this is a skills session, not an aerobic training session. Therefore the recovery interval is intentionally long to ensure perfect form is maintained throughout the session.
» Timing – Novice athletes should undertake strides at the start of a run session or as a standalone workout. In the early season, athletes may find it time effective to include strides in advance of a cycling skills session. Athletes with strong running technique may wish to do strides at the end of a run workout. All athletes will benefit from using strides as part of their race and run test warm-ups.
» Pacing – Strides should be done at between 800m and one mile race pace, about 90% of max speed. Strides should not be done “all out”. Many athletes find it beneficial to start easy and increase speed through each interval as well as across a set of strides. Quite often, you will find that “tired” legs will come alive during a set of strides that starts easy and builds through the set.
» Distance – Each stride should last for thirty left foot strikes, a total of sixty foot strikes. You will find it easiest to count the foot strikes on one side.
» Cadence – Aim to complete each stride in about 19 seconds. This implies an overall cadence of 95 cycles per minute. Athletes can enhance leg speed by doing downhill strides as well as running downwind.
» Equipment – Strides are best done barefoot on a grass surface. When weather or safety conditions do not permit the use of
bare feet, a very light shoe can be used. Barefoot strides increase the natural feedback that occurs when an athlete is heel striking. Much of this valuable feedback is lost with a highly cushioned shoe.
In addition to strides, I recommend that athletes undertake the following sequence to help guide them through the correct movement pattern for their legs. When most of us were “taught” to run (something that we already knew how to do as children), we were instructed to run with high knees. The trouble with running with high knees is that athletes tend to draw the heel forward when lifting the knee. This results in a foot strike in front of the Stance Line.
What to do? Rather than focusing on knee lift, I recommend that you focus on heel lift. Heel lift occurs when the heel is drawn up the Stance Line. But wait! The elite runners that you have seen always have their trailing heel well behind their Stance Line. This is a result of their forward velocity and the correct firing pattern is to draw the heel up the Stance Line.
The easiest way to start learning this firing pattern is to use the Mirror Drill
. Stand sideways to a full length mirror and draw your right heel up your left inseam. You may find that your heel tends to pull forwards or backwards. You want your heel to track straight up your inseam (note that your inseam is along your Stance Line when standing still). When learning the Mirror Drill, start with a slow movement, one leg at a time. Keep your foot relaxed as you lift your heel. Once you have mastered the movement pattern, hold your upper body in your running stance. Continue with this drill until you are able to perform rapid heel lifts with perfect tracking and form.
The next progression is the Marching Drill
. With a full length mirror at your side for feedback, alternate heel lifts. Start slowly and gradually speed your transitions from leg to leg. When you feel comfortable with your form, take this drill outside and slowly move forward while combining perfect heel lifts with slow forward motion and proper arm carriage. Remember that the goal of this drill is to teach your legs the correct movement pattern, the speed of forward motion does not matter. Indeed, many athletes will find that they make very little forward progress at all.
When you feel that you have mastered the Marching Drill, you can progress to the Toe Drill
. In the Toe Drill, you complete each heel lift by moving onto the toe of the supporting leg. This drill enhances your propriceptive skills and increases pelvic stability. The Toe Drill should be done with slow to moderate pacing as its benefits are balance and strength related.
The final step in the drill progression is to add a skip into the Toe Drill. This drill is called the Skip Drill
. As you move onto your toe, insert a slight forward skip. The Skip Drill enables you to increase your cadence and train the rapid firing of the muscles required to generate heel lift. When done correctly, the head, shoulders and hips are stable with minimal vertical lift.
The Toe and Skip Drills are complementary and can be included in your warm-up or inserted into the middle of the “walk back” recovery used during strides.
Hills and stairs can also be used to enhance heel lift. Athletes can use short duration stair and hill repeats (on long recoveries) to help increase proper heel lift. When using hills and stairs for technical improvement, interval duration should be short and recovery periods long. The best stairs for this kind of work are the “half stairs” found in most stadium bleachers. Remember that the goal is to train your ability to rapidly lift your heel up your stance line. Adaptation
When you are making changes to your running form, you may find that your average pace slows. I would encourage you to endure the adaptation phase as improved running economy is one of the easiest ways to improve your run speed. Genetics will set the upper limit on your aerobic gains, dedication and attention to detail are what set the limits to your running form. Superior technical form can enable an athlete to race beyond their in-built aerobic limitations.
I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my running coaches. I asked him to define running form and he replied, “it’s what you’re left with when you’re buggered.”
For long distance triathlon, the athletes that can hold form the longest have a clear advantage over their rivals.
Good luck, gordo