Running a Faster Long Course Marathon, Part III: Running More Efficiently

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Let’s talk about going faster with less effort…but first…a disclaimer:

The topic of running efficiency is a currently a hot one. Google “Pose Method, “Chi Running,” “barefoot running,” “Born to Run,” “Newton shoes,” etc and you’ll be led to books, articles, links and studies espousing this, that and the other theory about how to run more efficiently. Here’s the deal — you’ve been running, however it is that you run, your entire life. Your body has adapted to how YOU run. For this reason any changes that you make to your running form, regardless of the system you decide to follow, must be implemented slowly and with caution!

If you go diving into any of these systems without a well thought out plan for giving your body time to adapt to a new style of running, you are very likely to become injured. In our experience, a good plan to change your running form would include significantly dropping the volume, intensity, and perhaps even the frequency of your running. In short, you would need to temporarily suspend your fitness, get-faster training goals and instead focus on improving your technique, listening to your body and giving it lots of time to adapt to your new form.

Having said that, today is April 5, 2010. You are likely deep into training for your season and probably can’t afford, from a race day performance standpoint, to take significant fitness steps backwards to advance your  running form and technique. Now is just probably not the right time to make a significant technique overall, unless your A race is many, many months away.

Now that we’ve given you our disclaimer, let’s talk about good running form. These are our elements for you:

  • Footstrike directly under the body.
  • Foot lands with a “neutral” strike: neither on the heels or on the forefoot.
    • Heel strike: the only way to land on my heel is to extend my foot, and the contact point of my foot and the ground, in front of my body. If I throw this heel out in front of my body and then slam it on the ground, I’m going to brake some of my forward momentum with my heel, slowing me down. In addition, I’m now asking my heel, not designed to absorb a lot of force, to do just that. Try this exercise: stand up, take your shoes off, and walk over to a hard surface (wood floor, sidewalk, road, etc). Now, jump up and down. What are you landing on? The balls of your feet. Now, jump up and down but land on your heels. How does that feel? Not so good! It’s pretty obvious that we are engineered to land on the midfoot, or balls of our feet, but…
    • Midfoot strike: in our experience, if we tell you “land with a midfoot strike,” you will interpret that as “land on the balls of my feet” or even on the toes. This is significantly different from how you have been running for…forever. You will injure yourself if you jump right into it.
    • For this reason (we don’t want you to heel strike but we don’t want you running on your toes either) we say “neutral foot strike,” with your foot landing almost flat, directly under your body.
  • “Lean forward from the ankles:” imagine we draw a line from the contact point of your foot and the ground, through your ankle and to your head. This line should be leaning slightly forward.
  • Everything above the waist is relaxed and loose. Arm swing should be front to back, with very little side to side movement.

Cadence: Your Secret to Running Better
How do you safely develop proper running form? In our experience, it’s all about cadence. Count the number of times your left foot strikes the ground for 1 minute, or for 30 seconds (then multiply by 2). We’d like to see you running at 90-93rpm’s. Why? In our experience, as you increase cadence many of the form elements above just happen. Most notably, foot strike moves from heel, in front of your body to neutral/midfoot, directly under your body.

The tool you are going to use to gradually improve your running form is called Strides:

  • Warmup with 5-10 minutes of easy running, ideally ending at a grassy, level field or other soft surface.
  • Stride: run quickly, with good form, counting your cadence. Rich likes to run for 47 left footstrikes. This generally takes about 30 seconds = 92rpms. Walk in a circle and recover for about 45 seconds. Repeat for a total of 10-20 Strides.
  • Your head should now be tuned into many, many form cues and has been dialed into the coordination of “good running” Now simply finish your run focusing on form and working to implement these cues into your “normal” running.
  • Notes:
    • We did not say “sprint” for 30 seconds. Run quickly is just that: run quickly, but only as fast as your ability to maintain good form for the length of the Stride. This is a technique, not a fitness, exercise.
    • Recover as long as you need to in order to repeat the same excellent form for the next Stride.
    • If your form starts to go, either slow down your Stride, take more rest…or just stop.

In our experience with Strides, when you force your body to run quickly under controlled, safe circumstances like this, it learns the coordination of good, efficient, smooth running. This coordination then begins bleed over into all of your runs. We’ve found that 1-2 Strides sessions per week can be easily implemented into your run training and will do wonders to improve your form, without the need to take the significant training stand down warranted by a more dramatic running form overhaul.

In short, now is not the time of year, and this is not the training article, for showing you how to do a major makeover of your running form. Strides, and a focus on cadence, are an excellent and simple compromise.

How Will Running More Efficiently Help My Ironman® Marathon?
In our experience, it will help you two ways:

  • Training: we’ve found that by improving their form, our athletes are less likely to become injured and therefore can rack up more weeks of consistent, quality training. Strides, in particular, are a very low risk, high rate of return method for increasing run frequency from 3-4 runs per week to 5-6 per week. The key is to keep Strides sessions just that: Strides. Warm up, 10-20 Strides, cool down, done. Form only, no volume, intensity, or fitness goals.
  • Racing: first, in our experience, the Ironman® run for 98% of us at some point turns into a bit of a slugfest. In the end, running fitness, durability, and proper bike pacing (setting up the run) are likely more important. However, improving your running form will give you form cues that you can focus on during the race, to keep you running as efficiently as you can for as long as you can. The net is that while their competition is in a world of pain and tunnel vision at mile 19, only focused on continuing to put one foot in front of the other, our athletes are still using through their running form checklist, counting cadence, monitoring footstrike, etc. Doing the best, most efficient job they can for as long as they can.

Running a Faster Ironman® Marathon, Part IV: Race Execution
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Coach P

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