Elvin (6) shows how it’s done naturally (during his first 1km race)..
“GET READY, SET….GOOOOOO!”.....it does not matter where we are: pre-school, super market, parking lot, airport…..”the race to beat papa or mama is always on”...anytime of the day. Sprinting like a maniac across the school yard I am trying to keep up with some turbo charged speedy Gonzalez. This “rocket boy” has no mercy for a half-a-sleep, stiff old man. Like a squirrel in “rally mode” Elvin jumps over tires and benches without effort or loss of momentum. My desperate shouts for a “false start” are in vain as he rapidly approaches the front door…”damn there is only 20 meters left to go”….papa with a heart rate that should be forbidden at 7:30 in the morning makes a final attempt to close the gap. In the last 5 meters, when Elvin has already started to slow down, convinced of his epic victory of the day, I make a final surge before slamming into the building wall. Just like in a 60m indoor sprint final. While still gasping for air I hear Elvin say: “that was fun papa! Let’s do it again!” to which I reply: “yeah sure, man if it doesn’t kill me it will make you stronger, right?...”.
So, what’s my point? Well, kids are naturally gifted to accelerate their physical development. They do it by embracing failure and with a phenomenal sense of playfulness that make us all look like a bunch of nutty professors trying to re-invent the wheel. Wow! As we get older, whether we like it or not, we have already subconsciously defined our limits even though we consciously try to ignore them on race day. Kids on the other hand, go out sprinting whether it’s a 100m race or a 1km race….they have no set boundaries when it comes to speed, endurance, mobility, balance and coordination. “Ignorance is bliss” when developing your own unique natural running style at a young age. It only starts to become an issue when we stop running and moving around naturally and start to live sedentary live styles.
In fact, the day where we start to plan our “daily dose of increased heart rate” is the day where we are at risk to destroy what’s already perfectly engrained in our DNA of evolution. OK, that sounds great but what the hell does that mean in plain English please! Well, depending on your ability to run, age, physiology, past injuries, etc there is no hiding from it and relatively more time is going to be spend on preparing and maintaining your run rather than actually running! The facts don’t lie, as we get older, we need more time to recover, our max heart rate gradually drops, it takes longer to warm-up, our stride turns slowly into a turbo shuffle and last but not least we start to lose overall strength. It sounds depressing I know and guess what….it does not get any better by just doing more of the same stuff you have been doing for years. The rehab to recover from my quadriceps rupture in 2017 opened my eyes to look outside the world of “simply running free” and dive into the world of “improving running economy”. The benefits: you can run faster before you hit your maximum rate of oxygen consumption and you can run farther before running out of muscle fuel.
Keeping the above in mind, I started an enthusiastic spring cleaning exercise to remove the dust and cob webs from my “training methods shelf”. The objective being: 1) only keeping those elements that maintain it’s validity for the future (such as: train by feeling not by time, intensity prevails over pure distance) and most importantly 2) dump the types of runs that can be considered as garbage mileage, without purpose or simply badly timed. OK, now that I have freed-up some “shelf space” for extra energy and training time. What am I going to replace it with? Aha, in order to answer that question, I first needed to find those “nasty buggers” that have been trying to slow me down over the last few years. Guess what, it didn’t take me very long to find three main suspects. They were eventually charged with a whole range of attacks on my running economy. Here’s a brief summary:
1. Mobility (lack in range of motion right leg swing, feeling tight in the hips and lower back)
2. Strength (weak calf muscles, lower abdomen and hamstrings, lazy glutes, improve posture endurance)
3. Technique (right leg feels out of sync, improve foot push off mechanics, work on a more fluid / relaxed forward momentum at higher speed, lack of explosiveness)
I think we can all agree that running in some form is the basis for many sports, including swimrun. Even so, it’s deeply rooted in our belief system that everybody supposedly knows how to run. When asking people to try out swimrun the response is often something like this: “What?...are you nuts....I first need to take swimming lessons”. Then I reply with: “OK fair enough, but did you take any running lessons lately?”. This is often the end of a smooth “chit-chat” conversation because people pause,……(think), and don’t know what to say next. So, not being a complete jerk, I explain my theory and then ask a more specific question, such as: “When is the last time you performed a set of dynamic running drills as part of your training to let’s say: get better at running”? It’s funny that most people include some kind of routine in their swim session to improve technique but not when running. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that people don’t know that they are “running wrong” or don’t know how to correct it or simply don’t see any immediate gains in doing specific running drills. This year I will turn 47 and I have noticed that there is less room for error in my overall running form and technique. In the past I could easily compensate small errors in posture with pure strength because I could run with a higher heart rate. I didn’t care I had still so much more reserve. The challenge of today has turned into something like “try to do more with less” and it’s really a fun project!
Running drills are good for everyone and not just for sprinters. They are a very powerful tool to include in your daily training routine and since they can be used in so many different ways it makes sense to cut short or even ditch some of your old running routines. There is a whole new world out there to be explored and it does not take long before I figured out that it’s not that hard to use drills as an alternative means to build strength, mobility, flexibility, balance, explosiveness, coordination, speed, endurance. It’s just a matter of figuring out what drills give you most “bang for your buck”. For instance one single drill like “running with high-knee’s” can be done in so many different ways depending how and where you do them:
1. Coordination / rhythm / warm-up: 3-5 x 20m normal frequency / relaxed upper body / focus is on tall posture / brain muscle connection / long recoveries in between reps
2. Endurance / Efficiency: 5 x 75-100m / focus on breathing, tight core and holding onto cadence / shorter recovery time in between reps / execute in negative split mode (i.e. last one is fastest)
3. Strength / explosives / speed: Steep short uphill 3 x 20m / really lift the knee as high as possible while keep pointing your toes up / minimize ground contact time / use powerful supporting arm motions / enough recovery for pulse to come down
4. Form / technique: 4 x 25m high-knee walking into high-knee running accelerations (hips driving body forward) / enough recoveries for pulse to come down
So for instance if you know that you lack form or technique somewhere in your running stride then find out why: is it due to a lack of stretching or core stability, caused by muscle stiffness due to overuse, impact of past injuries, underdeveloped muscle group due to bad posture (e.g. sitting or hunched), simply a lack of coordination or a combination of things. It can be a daunting task to find out the root cause of bad running economy but an experienced (athletics) coach will be able to tell you pretty quick what’s wrong or missing in your stride. If that’s too confronting, then try to put a mirror in front of you on the treadmill and to the side so you can see yourself running. Next step is to break your stride down in pieces: do you run straight (i.e. tall)?, do you lean slightly forward from the ankles or from your hips, do you engage your core? All these kind of self-reflection questions should pass your mind to find the problem areas and then to come up with specific dynamic drills to correct them.
In my view, the single biggest challenge with drills is: “Focus to do them right or it’s a waste of time!” If you do it right the nervous system of your target muscle group is stimulated much more intense as if
you were just running. That’s why drills are so effective (but also consuming) so that you don’t necessarily need a lot of them in one go. The secret is to turn them into a habit so that it is part of your daily life and not an added stress factor or burden. Some example for strength drills: I do sets of calf raises at least 3 to 4 times a day: after breakfast and before going to bed (while brushing my teeth), when walking up and down the stair cases (instead of taking the elevator), at the bus stop curbstone, at the sandbox while Viivi is playing. Same concept to strengthen my hamstrings and hip drive I have incorporated some specific aqua jogging exercises which I now simply add to a normal swim session. The best drills are not static but dynamic running drills especially for the purpose of improving mobility. For instance, use a set of hurdles to boost hip flexibility and good posture by performing hurdle skips (see video link). Use them as part of your warm-up, but also on the treadmill they can be done at low speed while looking in the front or side mirror to observe the actual motion and make small corrections.
There are plenty running technique drills. Just look in you tube and you will be overloaded with them. The question becomes more who to believe and who not. Most of the time the purpose and benefit of the drill is well explained but the execution is appalling! Yes it’s so embarrassingly bad to the extent that I am no longer surprised to see so many people (young and old) with bad posture and messed up running gate. Make your own judgement if something is worth watching but in case of doubt grab an old fashion textbook from the library…
The thing is that there are so many theories about running form and technique that it’s simply too much to grasp. One time I was in Iten (Kenyia) and while I was really trying hard to run like a Kenyan a young school boy came running up next time to me and said: “Nice watch you have!...” I said: “yes but it doesn’t make me run as fast as you do…” He said: “well that’s because you run like an elephant”… I said: “aha OK…what do you mean?” He said: “you bounce too much my friend but you not going anywhere…”. In the meantime I had already slowed down to a shuffle and replied: “yes actually maybe you’re right! Let me work on that!” His final words were: “can I have your watch now?..”
I will never forget that rare and special encounter of “straight in your face honesty”. It made me re-think how I run but without making desperate attempts to run like a Kenyan….it obviously didn’t look very good….
I have to conclude that there isn’t a perfect running style that fits everybody as we are all unique. The only thing I do believe in are two simple rules of physics as the basis for good running economy because they are intrinsically pure and not commercially driven…
1) Minimize accelerations and decelerations as much as possible. In other words run fluid. Relaxed upper body, minimize ground contact time. Find the rhythm and run with a frequency of between 160 and 180. (i.e. count the number of strides for 15 seconds and multiply by 4)
2) Be in control of your own generated momentum. In other words, no (angry elephant) head banging, no vertical body oscillations (i.e. bouncing), foot placement: ideal is right under your body, no breaking effect. How you land on your feet is less important. If you are a heel striker and you also land in front of your hips, then you’re literally braking all the time. Keep the momentum going all day around so keep moving. Driving a car, sitting in an office chair or air plane seat, watching TV, playing video games, eating at the table. It all results in your whole body feeling tight and stiff. Instead shock the body once and a while…run up a stair case, perform school yard sprints, do calf raises below your office desk or running drills while waiting for the bus. Who cares, people in your direct vicinity get used to it pretty fast and the ones that don’t you don’t want to know anyway....
In order to get some idea that this improved running economy project is heading in the right direction I signed up for the Helsinki Spring half marathon last weekend. With far less training volume in my legs (as I ditched 20%...!), I managed a time of 1hr 21minutes (sub 4:00 pace / kilometer). For the first time I
was able to maintain a good posture and rhythm 90% of the race before muscle fatigue kicked in. The numerous drills have made me more aware of: 1) how it feels to be in control of my own running movements and 2) recognize that certain movements are restricted but can be made fluid and mobile again.
Well, that’s it for now. I hope some of it also makes sense to you. Enjoy the beautiful spring everybody!
Swimrun Team: Say No! to Doping
I am overdue for a special thank you…for being a continuous source of inspiration
Jasmina demonstrating different kind of running drills that are particularly good for me….
Me: Thomas Schreven
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