How to run faster
HOW TO RUN FASTER
by Peak Performance
IMPROVE YOUR RUNNING FORM
If you are going to make alterations in your form in order to run faster, those changes must lead to either a quickening or elongation of your strides. If your stepping is neither faster nor longer, your form make-over may make you look prettier, but it won’t move you even one step towards a new PB.
How can form changes actually alter stride rate or length? Well, a true form improvement should make you more efficient (economical), so that it costs you less energy (and oxygen) to run at a particular race pace. Since cost is directly related to both the rate at which muscles fatigue and perceived effort, your muscles are more sprightly at your familiar pace and you mentally begin to feel that your old pace (the one utilised before your form make-over) is too easy. As a result, you step up to a higher velocity the next time you run the race (by changing stride rate or stride length, or both), producing a nice PB.
Your improved biomechanics allow you to move more swiftly without actually occurring additional physiological cost or added mental perception of effort.
What kind of form changes should you try to make? We focus on the biomechanical changes associated with ageing in order to find clues about what constitutes good form. That makes pretty good sense, since both form and speed change simultaneously with age. It’s quite reasonable to think that biomechanical downturns are at least partially responsible for the increased sluggishness in performance, which is associated with ageing. Perhaps the form differences between young and old runners are similar to the disparities observed between fast and slow performers.
AGE SHORTENS STRIDE LENGTH
Stride rate doesn’t change much with age, while stride length decreases drastically. For example, runners in their seventies have strides which are only 79% as long as runners in their thirties, although their stride RATES are quite similar. To put it another way, as you get older your feet strike the ground just as frequently as they did when you were a kid; you slow down because you cover less ground between strikes.
Support time (the actual amount of time the right or left foot remains in contact with the ground during each stride), deteriorates even more badly than stride length, swelling by 25 per cent in 70 year olds, compared to 30 year old runners. That’s bad, of course, because the support phase of the gait cycle represents the time when a runner’s body is “screwed into the ground” and is not moving ahead. To improve your performances, what you actually want is LESS support time and – within reason – more “air time”, because the flight portion of the gait cycle is the only time that you actually make progress across terra firma. Flight time dropped by up to 30% as support time increased; older athletes were spending more time attached to the ground and less time flying from one foot to the other.
This suggests that the older runners were not reacting quickly enough when their feet made contact with the ground, and that they were spending too much energy stabilising their bodies after their feet hit the earth – and too little energy “exploding” forcefully towards the next footstrike. The slowness to react and the need for greater stabilisation chewed up time (expanding support time by up to 25%), and the lack of explosiveness shortened air time and reduced overall stride length. Contact with the ground was more like a sad collapse than a forward detonation.
Older runners need to spend more time training their agility, coordination, reaction time and power. There is not a single runner who wouldn’t benefit from upgraded nimbleness, motor control and explosiveness. Of course, the way to achieve these fine things is to emphasise their development in a well-formulated “block” of training, a period which would follow on the heels of overall strength development and which would include such activities as hill arming, weight-vest training, speed bounding and very fast reps on the grass or track. SHIRV – for Speed bounding, hills, Reps and Vest work.
SHOOTING FROM THE HIP
But how can one relate actual form changes to greater explosiveness – less support time and more air time? Only hip ROM was a good predictor of running speed; runners with the greatest ROM at the hip were the fastest competitors.
The fastest runners have the greatest hip mobility during hip extension – the backward movement of the leg at the hip. Hip extension is the “kick” or drive phase of running – when the foot becomes a rigid lever for toe-off, the gluteasl and hamstring muscles recoil and contract to propel the leg backward, and the quads also activate themselves to help straighten the leg for the backward push. As this backward push becomes more powerful, hip ROM naturally increases, and movement occurs much more quickly (because the runner is rocketing through the air from foot to foot).
How do you enhance your hip ROM? Well the kind of training described above can make a huge difference, but other factors are also important. Flexibility of the quadriceps muscles is one key to greater ROM, since overly tight quads will resist backward leg movements. Consistent and thorough stretching routines for the quads – carried out only after a thorough warm-up – can certainly help make the quads and their associated connective tissues more supple.
Another key is to deliberately alter the way you run, eg. to focus intently on using the muscles around the buttocks to push backward. “Rather than reaching out with the foreleg to increase your stride length, think about pushing back as hard as you can on each step. Use the buttocks and hamstrings to do so, very much the way you might push out hard from a set of starting blocks. Run from your hips – not from your knees”. Don’t forget that a six-to-eight-week emphasis on SHIRV will help give your gluteus and hams enough puissance to really make a difference when they push you forward.
Although increased stride length is an important part of improved running, we should reinforce the contention that you shouldn’t artificially attempt to embolden your strides by reaching out for extra turf as you move along. The problem with such grasping is that it makes it impossible for your foot to land more or less under your centre of gravity. If your foot hits the ground ahead of your mass, a braking action is created which slows body movement and expands support time. Trying to reach out with your foot may also tend to make you a “leaper”; you may end up squandering energy to lift your body too far off the ground vertically – so that your foot won’t hit the ground “too soon”. In general, increased vertical movements are less than optimal; research has shown that elite runners have less vertical change in their centres of mass during running, compared to average runners, and investigations have also shown that reducing one’s quantity of vertical movement tends to improve economy.
Surprisingly, speed bounding, because it emphasises quick-horizontal rather than vertical motion, is one technique which helps reduce up-and-down movements (speed bounding, is just VERY fast running with longer-than-usual strides). Weighted-vest training also helps you learn to avoid hopping about like a jackrabbit.
In addition to increasing your hip ROM, reducing your vertical oscillations and enhancing your explosiveness (achieving more air time and less support time), what other positive improvements can you make in the way you run? Changing your stride frequency may actually help you a little, especially if you’re currently a slow strider. Elite runners usually make impact with the ground about 180 to 200 times per minute. While average runners tend to settle for 170 steps per minute or so (85 strides). It’s likely that learning to run with a footfall frequency of 180 or more can be helpful. It’s relatively easy to do so: just count the number of times your right foot strikes the ground during a minute of your regular training or racing and then multiply that number by two. If you’re below 180, you can set your runner’s watch to beep 90 times a minute and let your left or right footstrikes coincide with the beeps as you train.
A fair amount of the form research has examined joint angles during running and then correlate them with either performance or efficiency of movement. Not surprisingly, these investigations have shown that more acute (smaller) knee angles during the swing phase of running (when the leg moves back after toe-off and is then drawn forward for the next contact with the ground) are better than larger angles.
This basically means that your foot should be up by your buttocks during the swing phase and not dangling at some distance from your body, a fact which should be intuitively obvious to all runners: as you flex your knee and move your foot more towards your bum, you in effect create a shorter leg to move back and forth and thereby decrease the work which must be completed by your hip muscles, compared to what happens when your knee is less flexed and your extended foot must be swung through the air like a shod anvil. To put it another way, by placing less resistance on your hip muscles, you allow those muscles to work more powerfully, and you run faster.
Other research has shown that having a relatively straighter leg at toe-off (instead of maintaining greater flexion at the knee) is associated with better economy.
Thus, it appears to be important to nearly eliminate knee flexion at the moment of toe-off – but then rapidly flex the knee for the subsequent swing stage of the gait cycle. Studies carried out have shown that heightened plantar flexion of the ankle at toe-off and the rapidity of plantar flexion is also critical.
In plantar flexion, the toes move away from – rather than toward – the shin. Thus, the optimal anatomical position for toe-off seems to be a nearly straight leg with pointed toes.
DON’T IMITATE GROUCHO
Over flexion of the knee appears to be a bad thing in general during the stance phase of the gait cycle. The leg must be straightened prior to toe-off, so having excessive flexion at the knee increases the time needed to straighten the leg and thus increases support time. Studies in which subjects have run with exaggerated knee flexion (“Groucho running”) have documented a nearly 50% increase in the energetic (and oxygen) cost of running.
What about the arms? While many runners, believing that the arms help propel them forward use rather expansive arm swings, the research convincingly paints a different picture: More economical runners actually have less arm movement, compared to inefficient competitors. Quick little arm movements – in synchrony with the swings of the legs – are the ones which produce the most economical running.
Of course, economy is hurt by excessive motions of the upper body. Research has determined that as both the speed and amount of rotation of the shoulders and hips around the centre axis of the body increases during running, economy is harmed. Such wash-tub-like motions are controlled by the “core” muscles of the body (the muscles of the upper torso which attach to the pelvic girdle and spine), bringing into focus once again the importance of utilising core exercises to promote efficiency.
The bottom-line? There are lots of possible changes you can make in your running form, but not all of them will produce improvements in economy and performance; in fact some may actually make you less efficient. One of the worst things you can do is to simply decide that you need to take longer strides – and then begin reaching out for more turf as you train. If you attempt to take longer steps in your workouts and races, you will probably hurt your economy rather that help it. Expansions of stride length are good, but they should occur the natural way – by improving your coordination, flexibility and explosiveness, not by making naive adjustments in your running style.
To summarise: Increasing hip ROM by swelling leg extension is a good and necessary part of becoming a faster runner. To do so, you must increase the power of your gluteus and hams (through SHIRV training) and mentally focus on pushing backward with each footfall.
If you’re below 180 steps per minute, increasing your stride rate is also probably good, and reducing vertical oscillations while running is definitely a fine thing to do. You also want less knee flexion during the support phase of running, and you want to shoot for a pretty straight leg at toe-off. In contrast, you should look for MORE flexion at the knee during the swing phase, so that your hip muscles don’t have to throw too much foot-weight around.
And remember that your arm movements should be minimal, and that excessive upper-body rotation and rocking will cost you too much energy (you must strengthen your core!). Finally, don’t forget that strength and SHIRV training will make you stable and powerful enough so that many of your concerns about form will diminish. As your form improves, you’ll begin running economically and quickly to some new PB’s.