Sunday, January 24, 2010

More on Running Faster

As mentioned in a previous post on running faster, I have the triathletes I coach do some form of the basic strides drill year round. As with swimming, it seems you can never devote too much time to improving your run technique. I once coached a pro triathlete who was an All-American runner in college and considered one of the fastest runners in triathlon. I still had him work on technique year round. You should too.

The downhill strides workout described in the
original running faster post is very simple. All you do is run fast for 20 seconds several times on a soft surface such as a grassy park that has a very slight decline (such as 1%). If you do not have a history of calf, Achilles or plantar fascia injuries then I'd have you substitute “uphill strides” for the downhill strides workout after a few weeks.

This session will help you develop more running force. As explained earlier, there are only two things you can do to run faster - increase your stride length or increase your cadence. What you would really like to do is both. In that previous post I described how to improve your cadence. Let's now look at how to improve stride length which is just another way of saying improve force.

Developing greater running force will make your stride longer without even trying. Combine that with the higher cadence you have been working on with downhill strides and your running is sure to improve. But it won’t happen overnight. Your aerobic system must also improve to allow you to maintain the combined higher cadence and longer stride. And the nervous system must also adapt to the changes. All of this will take some time as the aerobic and nervous systems change slowly. By the start of the Build period in a few weeks, if you’ve been diligent about both speed skills and force training, you will be running faster at the same effort as when you started Base training. You must be patient and persistent to realize the improvement. In the mean time, don't try to artificially increase your stride length while running. Let it happen naturally.

Uphill strides workouts for force are done on either a short, very steep hill or on something like the stairs you find in a football stadium or basketball arena. If you have had some Achilles, calf or plantar fascia injuries then you are better off using the stairs - if you do this workout at all. The ankle flexion is significant when running up a steep hill and puts a tremendous load on those soft tissues. For this reason I prefer stairs for this workout for most runners but they are harder to find than hills.

The uphill strides workout is simple. Warm-up well and then do three sets of three intervals up the hill or stairs. Run as hard as you can on each interval – but not so hard that your technique breaks down. If running stairs you may need to take two or even three steps with each stride depending on the width and rise of the stairs. Count 12, right-foot strikes stopping on the twelfth. Turn around and walk back down the hill or stairs. Do not run down. Jog easily for five minutes after each set.

This is a very risky workout. Be cautious with its progression. Do this no more than twice a week with at least 96 hours between them. Once a week is better for most athletes. Start with one set and add another each week for three weeks. If you have “glass legs” you would be wise not to do it at all. In that case just continue doing the downhill strides for speed skill. Not all of the athletes I coach do the uphill strides workout. I’m very conservative when it comes to risky running workouts. You must avoid injury.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Running Faster

There’s a good chance you can lower your running times by simply refining your running skills. Speed skill is so important to running that I have the athletes I coach do drills and other skill-enhancing workouts every week throughout the year. The skills that need mastering are simple and few.

Biomechanically, there are only two things you can do to run faster. You can run with a faster cadence or you can run with a longer stride. The fastest runners in the world, such as the Kenyans, do both of these. The place for you to start in improving your running efficiency is with cadence. Let’s examine how you can do that.

The next time you go to a race or watch one on TV check the cadence of a few select elite runners. To do this count every time a runner’s right foot strikes the road for 20 seconds and then multiply by three. The Kenyans are running at a cadence of 94 to 98 even late in a long race such as a marathon. The others generally have a cadence of 90 to 94. So the only way these lower-cadence runners can keep up with the Kenyans is to lengthen their strides. That’s inefficient because it produces a bit of vertical oscillation. They bounce up and down just a slight bit too much. And since the finish line is in a horizontal plane, energy expended vertically is mostly wasted.

Count your cadence the next time you are out for a run. If you’re like most age group triathletes it will be in the range of 76 to 86. And the slower an age grouper runs the lower their cadence becomes. Elite runners tend to keep their cadence about the same even when running slowly. They’ve trained their nervous systems to fire at a set rate which isn’t appreciably altered by pace.

Besides reducing vertical oscillation, running with a higher cadence means the foot spends less time in contact with the ground. That means running faster. Until your foot comes off the ground you aren’t going any place. It’s like an anchor.

So let’s work the other direction now – from foot contact time back up the chain to cadence – to see how we can improve your running times.

To minimize foot contact time you need to reduce the angle at which your foot comes in contact with the road surface. If you land on the heel with your toes pointing skyward at about a 30-degree angle, which is common for slower runners, it will take a relatively long time for the foot to be lowered to the pavement and then to rock forward and finally come off the ground at the toes. This will take only a few more milliseconds than had you put your foot down flat on the pavement and then toed off. But those extra milliseconds for each footstrike add up by the finish line.

It’s alright to have a slight heel-first contact with the road. But it should be so slight that someone you’re running at would not be able to see the bottoms of your shoes. You can check this for yourself by having that person shoot a video of you running at the camera. Do you see black soles? If so, you have an exaggerated heel strike. Minimizing it will speed you up.

How can you learn to minimize heel strike? Or, to put it another way, what causes you to land on your heel with your toes high off the ground? The answer to this latter question has to do with your knee. The only way to land on your heel is to lock, or nearly lock, your knee out straight. This is what you would do if you were running fast and trying to stop abruptly. You would straighten your knee and land on your heel. So running this way is like running with the brakes on. No wonder it slows you down.

The fastest way to experience flat-footed running is to run with your shoes off. Shoes with their often thick, rubber heels seem to be saying to us, “land here.” As soon as you take them off you’re back to the way our ancient ancestors ran on the grassy plains of Africa. We’re also running the way the Kenyan kids learn to run – without shoes.

I have the triathletes I coach do a drill called “strides” almost every week in the Base period. If they can do this without shoes, all the better. Often they can’t because snow and cold weather in a winter Base period make this impractical. But whenever they can they are encouraged to do this drill shoeless. This may be on a treadmill during the winter. Another option is to do this drill in “water walkers” – light, slipper-like shoes that fit snugly around the foot and are designed for the beach. (Be careful at first not to do a lot of barefoot running initially as you may well develop tender tendons as your feet and legs adapt.)

The strides drill is simple. Go to a park or other grassy area that has a very slight downhill grade of about one percent for 150 yards or so. Warm-up for 10 to 15 minutes. Then take off your shoes (or put on the water walkers) and run down the hill for 20 seconds. Do this six to eight times in a session. This should be a fairly fast run, but you could go much faster. In other words, hold back just a little bit. Focus on a flat-footed landing with the knee slightly bent. Count every time your right foot strikes the ground. Your goal is 30 to 32. That’s a cadence of 90 to 96. Don’t try to go above 96. Note a landmark where you completed the 20-second stride. If you start at the same spot for each stride, during the workout, as you warm up even more, you’ll finish farther down the course indicating that your stride is also getting longer since cadence remains steady. You’re now running like a Kenyan.

Now for the hard part of the drill – at least for most type-A triathletes: Turn and walk back to the start point. Fatigue is the enemy of skill development. Walking will make sure you aren’t fatiguing as the workout proceeds.

As your fitness improves you can insert drills into the walking portions. Start by doing skips as you did when you were a kid. Do 50 total skips on the recovery. This will further ingrain the flat-foot, slightly knee-bent landing. Later in the Base period do these skips for height. How high can you skip? Skipping for height builds power in your legs which in turn increases stride length – without even trying.

When out for your normal Base training runs occasionally check your cadence. Try to raise it by two or three RPM. This will feel awkward at first, as if you are running with baby steps. And your heart rate will probably rise even though you aren’t going any faster. It will take a while for your nervous system to adapt to a higher cadence. During this time you may seem to be going the wrong direction. That’s common and necessary if you are to eventually run faster as your body adapts. Hang in there.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Running and Core Stability

I’m still in the UK having spent the weekend at the TCR (Triathlon, Cycling and Running) Expo in London. I had a great time meeting people, attending some talks and doing a few of my own. On Sunday I sat in on a talk by a local physical therapist (called a ‘physio’ here). He had some great action videos shot of various runners of many different abilities. Each was running barefoot on a treadmill with a view from the back. I wish I had gotten his name and business affiliation but I failed to do so as I got there after the introduction.

The first video he showed was of a sub-2:20 marathoner who had been running for several years. This runner certainly had what could be called ‘excessive pronation.’ Shortly after footstrike, which appeared to be fairly midfoot, his foot collapsed medially (to the inside) quite a bit. Yet when the video was freeze framed at this point and advanced one frame at a time there was no medial collapse of the knee. In fact, the knee and leg held a straight line from the hip to the ankle. That is unusual for a runner with such an extreme amount of pronation. Maintaining a straight line from hip to ankle means that the core muscles must be quite strong to keep the hip from dropping as the recovery leg swings through. If the hip drops the knee must collapse to maintain balance. With this runner, again being viewed from the back, the waistline of his shorts remained perfectly horizontal. That was because his core muscles kept everything nicely in place. So despite an excessively pronated foot there was no medial or lateral stress being placed on the leg, knee or hip. And, in fact, this athlete reported that he had never been injured despite many years of running.

Another video was presented in which a young female runner was viewed from the back as she ran. Her foot and ankle movement were nearly textbook with the ankle showing only a slight amount of pronation, which is considered ‘normal.’ However, she reported a significant history of iliotibial band (ITB) injuries. It was obvious why this was the case. As her recovery leg would swing through the hip on that side collapsed and the knee of the support leg buckled in considerably as a result. Going farther up the chain it was evident that her core muscles were quite weak because the waistband on her shorts rocked up and down pivoting around her SI joint region.

The bottom line of his presentation was that the core muscles are at least as critical to running stability and performance as are the feet. He gave an excellent presentation and much food for thought. I only wish I had gotten his name.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

More on Footstrike in Running

Research typically finds that how long your foot is in contact with the ground is closely related to how quickly you run [1,2]. This makes sense since a foot on the ground is essentially an anchor. You aren't going any place until it comes off the ground. The longer it stays fixed to terra firma the slower you will run. A recent Japanese study provides a lesson in this and reveals how to go about running faster without elevating VO2max or lactate threshold simply by shortening ground-contact time [3].

The Japanese researchers videotaped and later studied the footstrikes of 415 runners including elite international and Olympian runners at the 15-km point in a half marathon. Of these runners 74.9% were found to be rearfoort strikers (RFS), 23.7% were midfoot strikers (MFS), and 1.4% were forefoot strikers (FFS). The percentage of MFS was highest in the fastest runners. Time in contact with the ground was, on average, 9% longer in the RFS (200 +/-23.3 milliseconds) compared with the MFS and RFS (183 +/-16msec). The RFS runners had the slowest race times and MFS the fastest.

The Base period is the time to improve your running technique and for most runners the quickest way to become a faster runner before next season is to become more economical by learning to run with a midfoot strike rather than a heel strike. If you want to see what this looks like go to and click on FREE RESOURCES to find a video of a runner who uses the MFS technique. Be aware that forcing a dramatic change in footstrike in a short period of time can result in foot and leg injuries. Allow several weeks for the change by gradually increasing how much time you run with the new technique.


1. Paavolainen L, et al. 1999. Explosive strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology 86(5):1527-1533.

2. Paavolainen L, et al. 1999. Neuromuscular characteristics and fatigue during 10-km running. International Journal of Sports Medicine 20(8):516-521.

3. Hasegawa H, et al. 2007. Footstrike patterns of runners at the 15-km point during an elite-level half marathon. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (21(3):888-893.

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