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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Another Pedaling Workout

Here's one I forgot about for improving your pedaling skills. If you have a favorite drill not listed here please let us all know in a comment.

Mountain biking. This isn’t a drill, but riding a mountain bike off road on hilly courses is good for improving pedaling skills. When you ride a mountain bike up a steep hill on a loosely packed surface such as dirt or gravel you must learn to keep even tension on the chain. If you mash the pedals the back wheel will slip and you won’t make any progress. Learning to keep even tension on the chain is just another way of saying learning to pedal smoothly and efficiently.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Pedaling Drills

One of the goals of the Base period is to improve your speed skills - the unique techniques of your sport. At first these are learned by isolating them and making the movements slowly. As the movement pattern becomes ingrained the movement becomes faster and more complex as it is combined with other critical movements.

Pedaling a bike seems like it ought to be simple and require little in the way of skill. That's not the case. In any group ride look around and you can pick out the riders who have good pedaling skills and those with poor skills. Efficiency - how much energy is wasted (or not) - is what this is all about.

Athletes who are efficient at pedaling a bike are especially good at the top, bottom and recovery side of the pedal stroke. At the top they transition efficiently from pedaling up and back to pedaling forward and down. At the bottom of the stroke they do just the opposite without wasting energy. Riders who are not very good at pedaling make these transitions too late. This wastes a tiny amount of energy in every stroke. In one-hour you may make 5,000 to 6,000 pedal strokes. That is potentially a lot of wasted energy.

Efficient cyclists slightly unweight the pedal on the recovery side, or backside, of the stroke. Inefficient riders let the foot and leg on the recovery side rest on the pedal causing the other leg, the one driving the pedal down, to work harder to lift the dead weight of the recovery leg. Again, this wastes a lot of energy.

Note that I’ve not said anything about the front side of the pedal stroke. This side is easy to get right. Pushing the pedal down does not require much in the way of skill. The problem is that inefficient riders focus only on the down stroke. They “stomp” the pedals typically with a lot of excess, side-to-side, upper body movement. This also wastes a tremendous amount of energy.

Let’s get rid of the energy wasters in this Base period. Drills will help you to pedal better. Following are the common ones I use with the athletes I coach. They may be mixed together in a single workout or each may be done by itself as a workout.

* Isolated leg training (ILT) drill. This is the quintessential pedaling drill, the one you should do a lot in the early weeks of Base. It’s done on an indoor trainer. Unclip one foot and rest it on a chair next to the bike so you are left to pedal with only one leg. With the bike in a low (easy) gear turn the crank at a comfortable cadence. The first thing you’ll notice is that getting through the top of the stroke, the 12-o’clock position, is difficult. Focus on smoothing this top transition. At first you may only last a few seconds before the hip flexors fatigue. When that happens switch to the other leg. When it fatigues clip both feet in and pedal for a few minutes applying what you have learned in the single-leg pedaling. Repeat the drill several times throughout the workout. A variation on this drill involves using Power Cranks™. These are cranks like the ones you have on your bike now, except they aren’t connected. So each leg pedals individually. If you get these it’s best to mount them on a spare bike so you don’t have to change crank arms when you want to do different workouts.

* Toe touch drill. In this mind drill you focus on your feet. Every time your foot approaches the top of the stroke imagine that you can push your foot forward in your shoe touching your toes to the front end of the shoe. Of course, you won’t be able to do this, but trying will cause you to transition more smoothly through the 12-o’clock position. Pedal in an easy gear going slowly as you learn how to make this movement. As you master the drill you’ll be able to turn the pedals faster.

* Top only drill. This is another foot-focused drill. Pedal the bike by keeping the top of your foot in constant and firm contact with the inside, top of the shoe. Try not to push down on the pedal at all. The actual pedaling is done just with the upstroke. Don’t apply excessive upward force. Make the pedaling movement gentle and smooth.

* 9-to-3 drill. As you pedal the bike imagine that you can drive the pedal forward from the 9-o’clock position on the backside to 3-o’clock on the front side of the stroke without going through 12 o’clock. Keep the gearing low so that you can pedal easily.

* Spin-up drill. During a ride shift to a low (easy) gear and gradually increase your cadence higher and higher until it is so fast that you begin to bounce on the saddle. Then return to a normal cadence. It should take 30 seconds or so for each “spin-up.” The bouncing is because you have reached and gone slightly beyond your optimal high cadence. You bounce because your foot is still pushing down at the bottom, six-o’clock position, of the stroke. And since the crank arm can’t get any longer, as you push down your butt comes off of the saddle. This drill is best done with a cadence meter on your pedal so you know what your top-end cadence is. The goal is raise your highest, optimal cadence by learning to transition smoothly at the bottom of the stroke.

* High-cadence drill. Throughout a workout insert high-cadence intervals of a few minutes each. During each of these intervals increase your cadence to a level which is just slightly uncomfortable and then maintain it for the length of the interval. Use a low (easy) gear. Recover between the intervals for several minutes while pedaling at your normal cadence. Over the course of several weeks extend the duration of each interval and the combined interval time for the workout.

* Fixed-gear drill. This requires special equipment – a fixed-gear bike. Your local bike shop can help you set up such a bike. This is a bike that has only one chain ring, one cog and no derailleurs or freewheel. When the wheels go around the pedals also go around. You can’t coast. When riding a fixed gear you must learn to relax and let the bike do the work. The first few times you ride it go to some place flat with no traffic and no stop signs. A large parking lot would be perfect. Keep the workouts short at first. Be forewarned that this is a dangerous workout until you master riding the “fixie.”

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More Thoughts on Base Period

I often see comments posted on my blog and receive emails from athletes implying that the Base period should be a time of very low intensity. Some seem to believe that is what I have athletes I coach do. That's really not the case.

This sort of training was called long, slow distance back in the 1970s when it became popular with road runners. It may actually be of some benefit for that sport since running even at very slow speeds is somewhat stressful. If runners were to walk for LSD training they'd be doing something akin to riding a bike or swimming very slowly.

There's not much to be gained for the serious athlete by a winter of noodling along at low effort in zone 1. This sort of low intensity is best for recovery, not for improving fitness. When the effort is down around 50% of VO2max then little is happening to boost cardiovascular or muscular development. The way to do that is to lift the intensity a bit. In recent posts here, here and here I've tried to explain that. But some how the message doesn't seem to be coming across as I expected it would.

As explained in the posts linked above, zone 2 is necessary to boost aerobic endurance. Going very slowly for a long time in zone 1 just won't do it. To improve your speed skills you need to include some very fast-paced swims, bikes or runs for a few seconds at a time with long recoveries. To build force also requires very brief episodes of high effort and long recoveries. And muscular endurance improves with moderate to moderately high intensities such as zones 3 and 4.

So winter is not a time to just cruise along taking in the sights and singing to yourself. Nor is it a time when you should be doing relatively long, high-intensity, anaerobic endurance intervals or fast-paced group workouts that are mini-races. (This assumes, of course, that you have a few months until your first A-priority race of the new season. If you've got an important race in February then high intensity now is the way to go.)

As I told one of my client-athletes yesterday, building fitness is like building a house (my father was a carpenter and sometimes it shows up in how I see the world). The foundation and framework (Base training) must be built carefully and diligently. Everything you do later in the construction depends on this. Training at very hard intensities (zone 5 with lactate/hydrogen accumulation) now is like starting to build the house by doing the finish work first and skipping the foundation and framework. It's not very effective.

So train with some moderate intensity - just don't overdo it. Save the zone 1 stuff for days when you need to recover from harder workouts.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Thoughts on the Base Period

All of the athletes I coach are now in their early Base periods. So I've been talking with them about why this period is so important. Here's the gist of what these conversations have been about.

In many ways Base is the most important training period of the entire season. If it goes well you will be able to train at a higher level in the following periods. If it doesn’t go so well you won’t be able to train to your limits later on in the Build period and you’ll be more likely to break down due to overtraining, illness and injury.

Training in the Base period has been compared with laying the foundation for the construction of a house. Build a solid foundation and the house will be sound and free of cracked walls and sagging corners. Do a very poor job of constructing the foundation and the house is likely to collapse as it is stressed by harsh conditions.

The Base period has also been described as being like an Egyptian pyramid: The broader the base of the pyramid, the higher the peak that can be built on it. I've always liked this analogy.

However you like to think about it, the bottom line is that the Base period is when you construct your season. Everything you do after this period is dependent on what you accomplish now. It’s certainly not an 'off season' in the sense that it is relatively unimportant. This is a time that is critical to your success later on. You need to have defined objectives for the Base period and a training plan for accomplishing them. The higher your goals are for your racing this season, the more important clear objectives and a plan become.

The biggest mistake athletes make in the Base period is by-passing the basic-ability workouts that should be done in order to get to the truly hard sessions of the Build period such as high-intensity intervals, anaerobic hill repeats and 'racing' with training partners. Athletes commonly skip the Base period because the workouts seem too easy. They come to the conclusion that they aren’t working hard (read 'intensely') enough. If that happens and you cut out Base training, your fitness will not be as great later on as it would have been following several weeks of laying down a solid foundation.

There are four 'abilities' I strive to improve in the Base period for the athletes I coach: aerobic endurance, speed skills, muscular force and muscular endurance. The last of these is dependent on the previous development of aerobic endurance and muscular force so is delayed until later in the Base period. These are described in my books.

The bottom line for the serious athlete: Know what it is you must accomplish in the next few weeks, develop a plan and follow it closely.

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