Improve your running by working on form and core strength
By Tommy Ferris – Head Coach of Ignition Fitness
As race season has ended for most of us, it’s time to start thinking ahead to next year. What can we do differently with our training? How can we make the biggest gains with the smallest efforts? What is the least time-consuming thing I can do to make the most improvements with my running? In this first of a three-part series, we’ll take a look at a return-to-the-basics approach to swimming, biking and running, and what we’ll start off with is working on improving our basic running fundamentals. For seasoned runners it may seem silly, and for new runners it may never have crossed your mind, but making improvements in our running form will help us run faster with less effort. If you’re consistently getting in your running mileage week after week your fitness is improving, but without proper form you’re wasting energy because of your inefficiency, and setting yourself up for potential injury. Improved running form will help.
Imagine making a 1% improvement to your running economy. This tiny improvement could shave 20-30 seconds off your 10k time, and all that comes with only an additional 10 minutes added to your training each week. To improve running economy you need to improve your running form. So what does proper running form look like? Well, it’s going to look a little different on everyone, but some basic fundamentals will be the same. Here’s a video to get you started:
Running properly feels like you’re about to fall forward. You want to feel like you’re leaning over from the ankles with your body aligned from your ankles, not bent over from the waist. You want your heels to be off the ground without leaning so far forward that you’re on your toes. Proper running form includes mid-foot running, and proper body position helps us achieve that.
You may not realize it when you’re running, but arm swing and arm position help propel us forward when running. Ever tried running with your arms locked at your sides? Try it and you’ll feel just as ridiculous as you look. Proper arm swing creates momentum, and we try to keep our arms at about a 90-degree angle with hands swinging from cheek to bum cheek. We also don’t want white knuckles so we clench a loose fist that helps us relax our shoulders, which is where our arms should be swinging from. We want quiet upper body movement; the better our arms move, the better our legs move.
The last thing we want to work on is one of the most crucial, and that’s which part of our foot hits the ground first, and where. We want to be running with the ball of our foot hitting the ground first, ideally with very little or no heel strike, and your foot should hit the ground slightly behind your knee. If you’re running with your heel hitting the ground first in front of your knee, you’re slowing yourself down because running this way means your body’s mass is behind you. It’s like you’re hitting the breaks every time your foot hits the ground. This is a good way to set yourself up for injury as landing with your heel first and out in front of your knee puts a massive load on your knees with each and every foot strike. Proper foot strike position combined with proper body lean means you’re running with you body’s mass always ahead of you.
The winter season is also a great time to re-think your footwear. If you have a history of running-related injuries, your running shoes may be a culprit. If you’re running in bulky “supportive” running shoes it’s going to be harder to transition to mid-foot running because those bulky shoes make it difficult to keep your heels off the ground. Try switching to a “transitional” shoe, which are shoes specifically designed for runners trying to get away from bulky shoes and into something lighter, more flexible and less supportive, and will allow them to achieve proper mid-foot strike. These less-bulky shoes also allow your foot to move more naturally, which, in time, will make you a better runner. There are several articles online preaching the benefits of “natural” running, but if you are thinking of switching running shoes, be sure to be patient with the transition and do it gradually.
There are several drills that I regularly prescribe to my athletes, and those are the A/B/C drills, High Knees, Crossovers and Side Skips. We’ve already produced a video that goes into greater detail about these drills and explains the benefits of each, and you can watch that video here:
Drills are nothing more than exaggerations of proper running form, and doing drills on a regular basis will eventually provoke muscle memory, and before you know it your running form will have improved without you even noticing! You’ll be running more efficiently than ever, with increased speed and lowered heart rate. Drills can easily be added into your regular running program twice a week. After an easy 10-minute warm up, do a set of 2x running drills, and finish the rest of your run afterwards.
Let’s suppose you have absolutely perfect running form, all the drills you’ve practiced have become second nature and your running fitness is better than ever. Sounds pretty good, right? It is, and that’s what all of us are after. However, if you’ve overlooked core strength conditioning you’ll be right back to where you started. Like The Dude’s rug, a strong core ties it all together. You can spot a runner with a weak core from a mile away and we’ve all seen them: they’re the ones that look like they’re running up a football field, hunched over and protecting the ball as they approach the end zone. This hunched over look is even more prevalent in triathletes because by the time they’ve hit the running portion of their race, they’re fatigued and their weak cores have given in. Without a strong core there’s no touchdown. There’s only looking at your picture with your friends after the race and asking, “Do I really look like that when I’m running?”. Yes, you do. A strong core keeps us upright when we’re running, allowing us to maintain good form. All of my athletes will know how much I value core strength because I include so much of it in their training. There are any number of core exercises you can do to benefit your running performance, and my favourites are the ones that mimick the running movement and/or hit muscles like the psoas major, those pesky, hard to target deep abdominal muscles. Pike and mountain climber are two of my favorites.
You won’t notice the benefits of practicing proper running form overnight. It will take a bit of time. If you’re making the effort to be conscious of your running form, making corrections like adjusting your body position, arm swing and where your foot is striking the ground, and including drills as part of your warmup once or twice a week, you will notice and feel the benefits of improved running form and efficiency in 4-6 weeks. From here your speed will increase and chance of injury will decrease. The winter “off season” is the perfect time to start incorporating these drills into your training because you’re ready to start thinking differently about how you prepare for next year. Combined with core conditioning and a custom training program, all of these things will come together to help make you a better, stronger, faster runner.