How to run faster is simply one of my favourite topics. The feeling of speed and abounding energy when you run is simply poetry in motion.
It is almost nirvana!
(And a small confession: even better, as a competitive athlete, the feeling of overtaking others when it really counts, never gets dull!)
But sadly for many runners, triathletes and duathletes, running is a necessary evil. Running is something they must do to maintain or improve fitness and reduce body fat.
To be honest when I look at most runners plodding around the streets or the parks, very few look happy or relaxed. Most have faces twisted in contorted agony, hating every minute.
But Don’t I Just Run How I Run?
As an athlete, I am sure that you, like me, are always looking for the edge, the “secret” way of training how to run faster – that does not take extra time or too much extra effort.
You see yourself, in your dreams in the last ¼ of the race, pulling away from the pack with plenty of reserves left in the tank, when everyone else is suffering, shuffling and slowing down.
The secret to achieving running speed is that you need to master running form
There is no way around this.
Yes there is a whole load of articles out there discussing interval training, speed training, explosive plyometric training and I agree, this is very important. But this is the subject for another article coming up later.
Today I will discuss form and “how” to run -as strength and speed on top of poor running form, will just get you injured and burnt out.
Poor running form is not economical
Poor running form will just hold you back from your potential
Poor running form will give you Achilles problems, shins splints, knee pain and plantar fasciitis.
Poor running form just is not fun!
Many coaches tend to focus more on the “what you do” rather than the “how to do it” but the quickest way to learn how to run faster, is to learn how to move faster with less energy.
Think about it for a minute: if you want to learn how to pitch a baseball, you have coaching in throwing technique.
If you wish to learn to play tennis, you take coaching in serve, volley and ground strokes.
Equally to run well, efficiently and injury free, you must study good running form and try to implement it in every session.
Elite and professional runners spend hours and hours perfecting technique.
Because it works!
Yes with the right knowledge, application and feedback, you CAN (and should) understand the basics of good running form and gradually implement it in your training sessions. You can change your running style.
It is strange that at recreational levels there is not much emphasis on basic running fundamentals which would save a LOT of us spending time with the physical therapist getting our ITB issues sorted out or the surgeon discussing our next arthroscopy.
How to run faster: There IS a correct way
As a physical therapist and expert in biomechanics, I see many, many injured runners.
In most cases, the injury was caused by the WAY they ran rather than a sudden increase in distance or a change in pace.
After treatment, if these runners return to running in the same poor gait, their injury would just re occur.
However with a bit of understanding of the basics and some implementation, the runner, could easily increase their distance, and speed with no injury and with less perceived effort. One way to start to learn how to improve your running gait is to check out the famous POSE method. Pose method of Running DVD’s The principles are sound and I know plenty of people who have fixed their chronic running injuries completely through implementing these techniques.
How to run faster: Correct Biomechanics
Whilst this is a very technical subject with a lot of physics involved, I will keep it as functional and relevant as possible and give you the major take-aways instead of a lecture on kinetic energy.
Many runners resist having any coaching or feedback on their running style citing that “running is a “natural” movement” and “they just run how they run”.
But running gait gets rapidly distorted by poor choice of running shoes, 14 hours a day of sitting in chairs, running on smooth, even, man made surfaces, poor core strength and lack of flexibility!
Over the last 30-40 years, we as a society, have created a whole new “unnatural” running style!
While everyone has an individual running style- there are some fundamentals, which must be in place in order to run faster, avoid injury and prolong longevity of your running career.
If we take running shoes for example- the “natural” way to run is barefoot.
If you try to run barefoot, even for 1 minute, it is very obvious that landing on your heel is immediately painful and feels unnatural. The body automatically corrects to a fore-foot/mid-foot land to take advantage of the natural cushioning in the foot.
But running in shoes with a highly cushioned heel removes this feedback and encourages us to adopt poor movement patterns.
Heel striking puts the brakes on your forward momentum and sets up a whole chain of disaster up the lower limb.
It is a common misconception that running is just about the feet and legs.
This is false.
Running is a whole body activity, and if you have something amiss in your core or you lack hip extension- you will be unable to run correctly.
The 4 keys to awesome running
1) Land on your fore-foot or mid-foot
This DOES NOT mean to run on your toes!
The heel can and should move towards the ground depending on your running speed. It is just not meant to be the place of initial impact.
This allows the arch of the foot to absorb most of the impact ( which is its job).
The lowering of the heel also allows the Achilles tendon to stretch which sets up a stretch-reflex cycle.
The Achilles-calf group goes from fully stretched during mid stance to fully contracted at toe-off. This allows for energy release at toe off. Effectively the Achilles tendon acts like a spring and effortlessly helps propulsion using passive stored energy.
If you stay on your toes too much this does not happen. Likewise if you land on your heel this does not happen.
Think of the Achilles tendon like a rubber band- when the rubber band is stretched, it has stored energy which gets released when you let go of the band. This helps your leg come through in recovery phase almost effortlessly.
2) Get hip extension
Power and forward drive should NOT come from the small foot and calf muscles. This is not their job and will predispose you to calf tears, shin splints and foot problems.
Rather the big, strong muscles in the hip- the gluteal group should be doing most of this work.
This is their job.
Unfortunately most recreational runners rarely use their gluteal muscles as they are weak due to sitting all day. You may have noticed that many poor runners have a very flat, weak back side.
Many fast runners have a developed, powerful backside. THIS is essential for good running.
(By the way you do not have the get a BIG butt if you don’t want to – but your gluteals should be active!)
Hip extension is the position at toe off when your leg and foot are behind you.
Too many amateur runners toe off with their foot underneath their hip.
This is a position of zero hip extension and will require a huge effort from your hip flexors to lift your leg up in order to stride forward.
Instead if you can get your foot behind you and toe off in hip extension, another stretch-reflex cycle is set up from a lengthened hip flexor which then releases its stored energy to effortlessly and passively bring the leg forward ready for the next foot contact.
The more extension you achieve in your hip, the faster speed you can generate in your legs.
All good runners have good hip extension bar none!
If you have to actively lift your leg through, you waste energy, run with a higher heart rate and disrupt your natural running gait.
3) Land under your center of gravity on a bent knee
Ideal landing of the foot is under the center of gravity and directly underneath the knee.
Land on your fore-foot or mid-foot. This will give you the stretch-release reflex in the Achilles tendon and the arch to allow you to absorb shock easily and maintain your forward momentum.
Landing with your leg outstretched way in front of your body puts the brakes on your forward momentum, sends shock all the way up through your legs and then requires a massive effort to get your center of gravity over your foot disrupting the easy running mechanics that we should have to run faster.
4) Do not neglect the upper body
Posture is really important. I see many runners, running in a slumped crumpled posture.
This makes it really tough on the lower body to carry this dead weight around.
Instead make sure you are upright with a very slight lean forward from the ankles, not from the waist.
The arm swing should occur from the shoulder joint in a forward and back relaxed motion, NOT across the front of the body.
Try to have an awareness of a stable trunk. Your obliques and lower abdominals stabilise the torso so it is not swaying, rotating or rocking. This allows your legs to move off a strong, stable platform.
Looking forward, not down at your feet will help too.
How do I put this altogether to change my running gait?
When drills are used in isolation, it is still very difficult to put it all together. For example butt kicks stimulate the hamstrings but in good running form, we bring the heel through passively via the stretch reflex cycle of the hip flexor.
So training butt kicks excessively is not simulating good running at all!
It is better to focus on just 1-2 aspects of your running technique as you are running.
There is a lot to think about so do not try to “fix” everything at once
Also do not be unrealistic.
You will not change your running style in just one or two sessions. Also do not expect it to feel “natural” immediately. Any change will feel awkward at first unless you retrain your motor patterns.
It may even feel more difficult at first. You may be slower at first.
You have developed your current running style over many, many years. It will take at least 6-8 weeks to start to feel “normal”.
Think of it like a coach changing your tennis swing or your golf swing. To get better you need to first go back to basics, think about your movements and retrain them until it feels “normal” and “natural” before you start loading up on speed.
Once you have achieved this, then you can swing, hit or run further, faster and stronger than before.
If you would like some step by step guidance, Kinetic Revolution has produced an awesome video course on how to run better. It is very comprehensive and includes 6 and 12 programs to improve your running gait plus lots of bonuses on running flexibility and gluteal strengthening
I advise you to focus on one aspect of running at a time and think about this as you run for a few sessions. Then think about another aspect, you will make gradual improvements that overall will result in superior running, faster running and extend the longevity of your joints, tendons and running career.
Eventually this will become your new “normal” and will feel effortless. You will wonder how you could ever run like you did before.
I think about it as “optimising”. Just making 1% improvements each time I go running, overall will add up to a major improvement over the span of 1 year.
This is more realistic than trying to change everything in one-two sessions, then completely giving up!
How to run faster: Build endurance in your running form
The other factor, which is useful to note, is that you will need to gradually build up your endurance as the correct motor pattern becomes more and more ingrained.
For example in the beginning, you may think about it intensely as you run for 1 minute on, 1 minute off.
Then increase it to 5 minutes on, 1 minute off and so on.
Later you will be able to run for 45 minutes easily with good form.
As it starts to feel more natural, start to focus on good running mechanics during speed sessions and aim to hold good form.
You will find as you fatigue or get stressed, good running form will be harder to maintain, and you may revert back to your old habits.
Keep persisting as this is what training is for!
As I always suggest, if you have the opportunity to get video of your gait, you will get so much valuable feedback.
These resources have slightly different emphasis on different elements of running but share the basic fundamentals. When you are leaning a new skill, it is often helpful to hear or read the same thing in different ways.
Alberto Salazar, one of the world’s top running coaches is obsessed with good running form, “ You show me someone with bad form and I’ll show you someone one’s going to have a lot of injuries and a short career.”
He also said “…can’t be a heel striker and expect to run as good as the best forefoot runners.”
When trying to set your plan for the season and examining how to run faster, do make the effort to examine not only what you do, but how you do it.
It is pointless getting stronger at the wrong thing.
It is pointless training really hard, then suffering heart break as you have to pull out of your “A” race with injury 3 weeks before.
It is pointless pushing your body to the limit, when you could simply run faster and longer by a few small tweaks in technique.
When you look at good runners in marathons, sprints or triathlons, they all share the same basic characteristics. Make sure you gradually develop them into your running style.
All my athletes I have worked with reported new personal records within 3 months of tweaking their running gait.
In short: you will see faster times, without any extra training. You are learning how to move your body from A to B with the least effort- and it pays off BIG time!
Happy running-Train Smart!
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