Running is quite possibly one of the most practiced fitness activities in the world. It is a wonderful blend of physical work, mental freedom, and social union that captures a massive percentage of the health community. Since it is such a common activity, it is very easy to overlook or write-off how incredibly complex the movement of running is. In my humble opinion, running is the most complex physical motion that we can possibly make (maybe could bend a bit looking at a quadruple toe loop in figure skating or a gymnastics routine on the uneven bars). Think about it: when you run you are doing an explosive plyometric activity on one foot at a time while the hips are rotating in a certain direction, and the upper body is rotating in the opposite direction. It requires supreme levels of balance, coordination, strength, power, and then, of course, the cardiopulmonary ability to withstand these challenges for however long you are choosing to run. All in all, running is complex. If it is something you enjoy doing and are trying to make progress in then it is worth the time to practice the nuance and technique behind it. In addition, if you are always practicing small, bite-sized concepts then you will incredibly reduce the risk of experiencing some type of repetitive stress injury that plagues runners every single day.
In this article, you will learn about five general practices that you can do every week to maximize your economy as a runner and reduce the risk of ever dealing with an injury as a result. When you have great economy and can train injury-free for a long period of time, progress is just inevitable.
#1 - Get a Jump Rope and Make It a Good Friend
Running is all about the forces from the ground traveling through your feet and thus your body. There is a concept called Ground Reaction Force (GRF) that describes the force the ground sends up into your body following the impact of your foot into the ground. The better the runner, the larger and quicker this reaction force it. This is something that is very hard to train by itself, especially on one foot at a time like when we run. Doing two feet at a time, like when you are doing basic rope skips on a jump rope, is a fantastic, balanced, yet challenging way to develop a fast GRF. As you get comfortable and skilled on the jump rope, you can toss in some single-leg skips and even alternating skips that really condition your running form.
Example Workout Set:
BEGINNER: 5 x 3 minutes double-leg skipping with 1-minute rest in between
ADVANCED: 3 x 3 minutes double-leg skipping with 30 seconds rest, into 3 x 30 seconds single-leg (per leg, each leg), with 30 seconds rest.
#2 - Embrace the Hills
If there was ever a magic formula to developing great running form and fitness, it would be hills + more hills = excellence. Hills are the perfect fail-safe (and yet at times, punishing) technique to be tricked into running your best form. Running up a hill actually reduces the forces of impact on your body simply because each step is slightly elevated from the last, meaning that you don’t have as much time to free-fall and increase pressure going down into the ground. So a hard workout running up a hill may feel challenging, but your body is likely going to be less stressed from a muscle / joint standpoint.
In addition, when you truly run up a hill with some effort, power, and vigor, your body has to automatically learn how to extend completely through the hip, and flex through the foot and ankle. It really does force you into running with good form while getting the cardiopulmonary training to help increase your fitness. One key to think about as you are running uphill is to truly use your entire body. Don’t try to conserve too much energy. Keep tall posture, drive the shoulders, push through the ground, and get yourself to the top of each rep as fast as you can while maintaining good form. The nice side-effect of this is that you will work up a GREAT sweat.
Example Workout Set:
2 rounds of 6 x 30 seconds running HARD (driving through the hips and pumping the shoulders) uphill, followed by an easy 1-minute active recovery. Then run a light 4-5 minutes flat, and repeat the set.
#3 - Learn and Create Your Favorite “Drill Set”
Just like any other technical sport in the world, running has endless drills that you can practice at any given time which can help address your imbalances and make your weaknesses your strengths. A runner never spending time doing drills would be the equivalent of an NFL team never practicing a basic play that they run regularly in a game situation. Running properly and with intensity simply IS our game time situation, so if we want to perform and execute with the consistency of the New England Patriots, then we better practice our form as well. You can’t just jump out of bed and out your door into the same old pace every time you run. Spend time finding what you need and practice it.
Now for the challenging part: there are dozens upon dozens of drills each with dozens upon dozens of variations, but all I would ask you or one of my athletes to do is to find four to six that are specific to them individually. This is where it is certainly worth the time or money to enlist a professional coach or trainer to get you started. They could take a session or two and watch you run and then give you the drills that they think would help you the most. If that is not within reason, then it’s always a good idea to start with the BASICS and then you can seek some progressions from there.
Here is a good BASIC set of drills that I would use for my athletes:
Do 15 meters of the drill and then jog back each time:
Fast Feet / Ankling
#4 - Learn and Master “Strides”
I once asked one of the best and fastest runners I know for the one tip that he would give me to improve my runs and my speed, and his answer was incredibly simple and achievable. He simply said, “Run more strides and get better at them.” This was one of the most simple yet effective coaching tips I’ve ever received in my life. So now, what is a stride?
A stride is the runner’s term for doing short, fast, but very FORM-BASED runs generally on a softer surface to minimize stress from impact. It would be a mistake to call these “sprints” but to the novice runner that might be what they look like. Strides are runs that are all about over-recruitment of the running-specific muscles and mobilizing your hips and shoulders specific to your sport, aka running. We’ve all heard that when you run your fastest, your body starts to figure out what perfect running form looks like, and this is capturing a fraction of that concept. By repeatedly doing “strides” you are going to get more and more comfortable with your best form.
How to execute strides:
Start with about 60-80 meters of very open and managed terrain (my favorite place to do these is on a turf soccer/football field).
Make your first 10-15 strides relaxed, tall, and very powerful. Really focus on driving the shoulders and pushing through the big toe in the back of the stride.
Gradually start to make those strides a little quicker, so you are now getting a faster cadence/turnover as you are pacing the half-way mark on your run (generally about 30-40 meters in).
Maintain that powerful stride with fast turnover for the remainder of your run (about 20 meters). Maintain a strong, balanced trunk with your sternum pointing straight where you want to go. You will notice the effort creeping up here, but don’t exceed that. Just really focus on driving all the way through the run.
Take ample rest (usually double or triple the time of your strider).
I would recommend starting with about four at the end of some lighter runs. Then you can work your way up by twos until you are pretty comfortable doing 10 strides at the end of a lighter run session.
#5- Don’t be afraid to run slow
This one may seem slightly counter-intuitive, but it holds just as much importance as all of the other elements of this stride training puzzle. We must also give respect to the fact that to improve and maintain a healthy running stride, we have to have time in which we are able to train with a full, healthy body. A common trap that runner’s fall into is thinking that every run is their chance to be effective, sweat, burn lots of calories, and make the most of their workout time. If we only run with this intention, then we could end up dealing with a number of negative consequences such as injury, loss of interest/excitement, or the ever-present plateau that occurs from just doing the same thing over and over.
In fact, lots of people have a hard time learning to run slow. They feel awkward or uncoordinated. This is, in fact, a great chance to practice good posture and having quick feet. I believe that the problem a lot of people have with running slow is that their Ground Contact Time goes sky-high and they feel like a sack of potatoes collapsing into the ground each step. By practicing your cadence or fast-feet during a slow run, you can not only minimize the stress on your body but enhance the way you feel going into one of your harder runs.
Go on at least 1 lighter run a week, that feels pretty easy, and you can practice having some nice, quick feet. This will allow you to hit your hard sessions with a very prepared and fresh body, and thus give you more time to spend getting better and more fit in your running pursuits.
Michael Olzinski is currently an endurance coach for Purple Patch Fitness and Equinox, based in San Francisco. Michael studied Exercise Physiology at Long Island University where he graduated with a Master's of Science degree in the field. He is a certified USA Track and Field Coach, and also a Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition. Michael coaches fitness and performance through the sciences of cardiopulmonary training, kinesiology, and physiology. He has gained specializations working with local and global athletes in Track and Field, primarily the middle-distance events where he also competes himself in the 1500m and Cross-Country circuits.