A few weeks ago our running technique coaching business had its largest piece of mainstream media coverage to date in the Melbourne broadsheet The Age. Mark and I were interviewed by journalist Steve Cauchi (himself an avid runner) and then Mark conducted some impromptu technique training with two beginner runners setting out to train for and complete one of Melbourne’s big fun runs the City 2 Sea, which was held recently on November 11. The coaching session was filmed for a multimedia segment to accompany Steve’s article by Tessa van der Riet. Thanks to our friends at R4YL Magazine for making the connection.
There are millions of beginner and returning runners stepping out to run
Running is undertaking an unprecedented boom with more and more runners are stepping out to train for and race in big city fun runs and marathons. This can be an empowering experience, but for many would be runners the journey ends prematurely with soreness, injury and a big bucket of frustration. So we thought it would helpful to share some thoughts on how we approach conditioning and coaching beginner runners or those returning to the sport after long periods away from the sport.
The problem is many people through de-conditioning, and sometimes bad advice, struggle to understand how they should be running and don’t have the physical strength to run as nature intended. They then start increasing their training volume too aggressively before their body has adapted to handle it – injury soon follows. While we may well have been born to run many of us do a good job of letting our natural gifts dissipate over time – I’ve been there, by my mid twenties I was 93 kilograms and couldn’t run three kilometers!
Is running a skill and what part does strength play?
Running is a skill that can be learned; but it’s tough to implement well meaning advice if you’re not strong enough. Usually beginners should only run for short running segments separated by walking recovery e.g. 1 minute jog, then 1 minute walk etc. The key for beginners or runners returning after a long layoff is to keep your fitness, development of coordination (technique) and strength in balance. You stand a much better chance of being able to run reasonably well if you limit the duration of your runs in this way.
As I’ve written previously completing a well thought-out strength training regime that is based around exercises that are functionally similar to running is the best place to begin. Do the strength work well and you’ll begin to notice improvements in your running within a few weeks. The stronger and better coordinated you get over time the better your running will become. So even if you’re not interested in running form, doing some strength work will go along way towards pulling your body towards solid running movement patterns.
Walking isn’t running
Almost anyone has the strength to flick out their lower leg as most do in walking. It takes a bit more strength again to lift your thigh and drive it forwards, but it take a lot of strength and stability to support your body weight on the stance leg and even more again to exert meaningful force to propel the body forwards with every stride. Runners have a flight phase where both feet are off the ground and the same time and a reasonable distance covered for each stride.
This progression explains why so many beginner runners look like they’re walking fast rather than actually running. In some cases, as previously noted by Pete Larson in his real world analysis of marathon runners, some slower runners actually have both legs in contact with the ground at the same time. This is ironically a more restricted movement pattern than that of Olympic race-walkers who are required to have at least one foot in contact with the ground at all times. A deeper irony is that few ever do as they are moving at close to 3 hour marathon pace!
I’m not saying beginner runners need to propel themselves forward with the power and ferocity of an elite runner, but I am suggesting they should strive to at least be able to maintain stability and get a little drive from the supporting leg while the swing leg moves forwards. Sounds easy? Trying standing on one leg and do a shallow forward or back squat and see how well you do.
Strength development key for beginner runners
In terms of running technique the key elements are difficult to sustain for long periods in the early stages when fitness and strength is yet to develop. Running is a straight ahead sport that requires you to apply force down and back to drive your body forwards. Therefore we train runners to increase the strength and ability to activate the muscles needed to do this and prevent forces leaking sideways through instability and unnecessary twisting.
Initially the buttocks, hamstrings and lower back are targeted because these muscles seem to be the biggest victims of our largely sedentary working and lifestyle habits. The posterior muscles needed to run are often weak and switched off, sort of like a bear that has been hibernating for the winter, they take a while to wake up and get firing again.
It’s a difficult conversation to have with an aspiring runner, but in the long term it’s more important than to get strong in the gym before ramping up the running volume. In the short term a 60/40 mix of focus towards strength work in favor of running is not a bad place to start.
Get strong feet and lower legs
While many exercises we recommend target the hips, lower back and core we don’t ignore the lower legs, although rather than isolate the feet too much, we encourage runners to so some simple strength training barefoot which helps balance and coordination as well as strengthens the plantaflexors (muscles that stiffen the foot during running.) This combined with running in flexible footwear makes a good start in this area without too much conscious effort.
Learning to activate the posterior muscles to stabilise the hips and provide drive
If these posterior muscles (hamstrings and glutes) are active on ground contact they help absorb impact forces and load the muscles and tendons in the lower leg and foot that supply good runners with a lot of free energy stored in tendons, connective tissues and muscles. The other bonus is that strong buttocks in particular help stabilise and control the position of the thigh and knee in relation to the hip. This prevents force leaking sideways that slows you down and reduces twisting that can cause injuries to the hip, knee, lower leg and foot.
Top five beginner running training tips
So the take-away for beginners and returning runners is to train for and learn four main things:
- Strength training is running technique training – but it’s more about training and switching on the right muscles in a similar way to running than growing big muscles. In the early stages strength training is more important than accumulating mileage.
- Run with the posterior muscles (buttocks and hamstrings) active / switched on just before (pre-activation) and especially during ground contact. This requires re-building some strength before becoming effective.
- Learn to run with good technique before running long. Mix-up your training with walking and running segments until you’re confident your strength and technique can be sustained for longer unbroken runs. Throw in some squats, running drills or lunges in these rest and reset periods to get the buttocks and hamstrings firing again.
- Train in a way that stimulates and is sympathetic to running with good technique. Break-up your regime with walk/run sessions and also some gentle short hills and easy stride outs. When running hills it’s important not to run up hills that are too long or steep for your current level of strength and fitness. Once you feel like your strength is fading stop and walk down for full recovery.
- Use different training speeds to stimulate and sustain better movement patterns and don’t take rush to increase your mileage every week – progressive plateaus are safer.
There is no secret to successfully taking up running for the first time or returning to the sport after a long break. Steady patient progress is the key: if you’re a runner be kind to your body, if you’re a coach recognise that most runners will want to do more than they’re ready for, it’s your job to hold them back.
Words and images by Brian Martin