By Mark Allen
Reach the next level of your running potential by focusing on foot strike, cadence, terrain, brick workouts and speed work.
In the last issue we gave guidelines on improving your running through increased run frequency, workout length and overall volume. These three areas give you the basics for bringing your run prep up to a higher level, but sheer volume is not the only aspect that will make you a better runner. There are several other essentials to work into your training regardless of the total volume you actually do. Just as the source of the calories in your diet is as important to your health as eating the right amount of food, the type of run training you do is going to be linked to your run fitness just as much as the total volume you undertake. The five keys I’d like to cover this month are foot strike, cadence, terrain choice, bricks and speed work.
If you grew up wearing shoes you are likely to be a heel-striker. This means that each time your foot comes into contact with the ground you put on the brakes just slightly until your center of mass gets over and past the midfoot. At that point gravity starts helping you again with a vector of force that accelerates your forward momentum free of charge. If you are running fast, the slight deceleration that takes place when your heel hits the ground first is not going to be noticeable. However, in a long race, if you end up very fatigued, the braking action of a heel strike is, well, striking (pun intended). You’ve seen it on many of the Ironman broadcasts where someone is barely plodding along with their upper body bent way over in an attempt to get enough forward momentum to compensate for the heel strike. None of that is getting you to maximum efficiency regardless of how many miles you run in training.
So here’s the drill. Go to a track and run a lap or two without shoes or socks. I guarantee that you will instantaneously start to land on your midfoot or maybe even slightly forward of it. This subtracts any braking action that a heel strike would have and immediately converts your running form to its most efficient foot plant pattern. Now put the shoes back on and try to continue to run with that same feel you had without the shoes.
Do this drill daily until you can replicate the midfoot strike and hold it throughout your training runs. Over time this will become your normal run form.
One thing that you will notice after perfecting a midfoot strike is that you get on and off your feet more quickly with each foot plant. This naturally increases your cadence, which is something that will benefit every runner. Top runners have about the same cadence as top cyclists, hitting the ground about 90 times per minute if strikes are counted on one side. Slower runners are down around 70-80 foot strikes per minute, which means that they are spending more time on the ground with each foot, and are usually guilty of braking by striking with the heel.
Increasing your cadence starts with getting to a midfoot strike. It is much easier to increase from 80 to 90 strides per minute with a midfoot strike than it is if you are landing heel-first. Generally, heel-strikers end up overstriding, especially when they attempt to go faster or when they try to increase their leg turnover.
Another way to increase your run cadence to that of an elite runner is to carry that same goal over to your cycling. If you are pushing 75 revolutions per minute (rpm) on the bike for hours on end, it will be very tough to get off and suddenly turn your tired legs over at 90 rpm on the run. However, watching your cadence on the bike and keeping it at 90-95 rpm for the bulk of your riding will help carry you to a similar cadence when it’s time to run.
The final tip on foot strike and cadence is to practice it on every run, even your slow recovery runs. Just because you’re running slowly on a recovery day does not mean that you should have a slower cadence or revert to a heel strike.
Hills or flat? Roads or trails? These are choices we make when we head out for every run workout. Each has its place and purpose in helping you become a faster runner. Trails have several advantages. The uneven terrain forces your feet and legs to manage some sideways motion and to create stability on slightly unstable ground. This strengthens lots of smaller support muscles that just don’t get worked by the predictability of pavement. Then, later in a race when you start to fatigue, these small muscles can come into play to help support the larger muscles as they tire, which allows you to maintain good form and stay efficient much longer than if you never do any trail running. A second benefit to trails is that the jarring on your body is less than on pavement, which enables a person to put in more training miles with less breakdown. The net result is more training volume and training consistency with less likelihood of injury.
But there is a reason to run on the roads as well. Unless you are going to be racing on a trail it is important to have your legs adapted to the impact of pavement. Early in my career I did almost all my run training on trails, especially my longer runs. However, when I got to Ironman I found that running the marathon on pavement caused a huge amount of muscle breakdown, and the critical switch point where the impact surpassed the brain’s override mechanism hit at around the half-marathon point. This meant it became impossible for me to actually run the second half of the run. Finally in 1989 I figured this out. I gradually transitioned to running more miles on the roads as I got closer to Ironman, so that my leg muscles and joints were adapted to the added impact. The results were profound. I still had some breakdown, but the big impasse where I had struggled in previous years didn’t hit me until I was within a couple of miles of the finish. At that point, the horse could smell the barn and I was able to keep my pace up.
The actual profile of your training terrain is also important. If you have hills in your race, you will want to run them in training. Same for flat courses. Bounding up hills won’t be the most effective way to get you ready to run fast on a dead flat course. A variety of training terrain is ideal for building overall run fitness and also for preventing repetitive motion injuries that running on one single terrain type can cause. As you get close to your key races, transition to doing around two-thirds of your runs on the terrain that you will encounter on race day. Then split the remaining third of your runs between the two other terrain options (hilly, rolling or flat) that are less a part of your race course profile.
As a triathlete, running off the bike is a skill that must be perfected in training. Even though both sports use your legs, your body is in very different positions for each and the muscles that get used, as well as the range of motion for the two sports, are very different. There is a transition period that happens when you get off the bike and start running where your cycling muscles gradually stop trying to do their job and your running muscles start to take over. A brick workout trains you to make this transition quickly and efficiently.
When it comes to brick workouts, the main decision you have to make is the length of run you should do. An efficient brick workout should be a bike ride that is followed fairly quickly with a run of about 20-50 minutes. This is not an endurance-building run, but rather a neurological transition workout that is teaching your brain how to disengage your cycling muscles and engage your running muscles. The endurance you need to complete the actual run in your triathlon, even an Ironman, is gained from a combination of your over-distance training on the bike and from your long run workouts. Running more than about 8-10 miles off the bike can cause muscle breakdown that enters the unsafe zone. It is best to save those extended runs off the bike for race day when you are not going to be demanding that your body to go out the next day and train again.
If you have never done a brick, start by doing the run after a short ride, and then gradually transition to doing them after your longest ride of the week. It is not necessary to do a brick every week, especially if it takes more than a couple days of recovery to get your legs back to normal. When doing a brick, try to do the run before you let your energy level come down from the ride. You don’t necessarily have to run the second you get off the bike, but don’t wait until you’re in front of the fridge looking for a snack while making a few phone calls. As long as you’re running within about 15 minutes of finishing your ride, you’ll be able to reap all the physiological benefits of the brick.
To run fast in a race you first have to run fast in your workouts. However, just like a brick workout, more is not always better when it comes to doing speed work. A total of 15-20 minutes of fast running in a speed session does the trick. Thirty to 40 minutes of speed work is too long to be able to go fast enough to garner the big gains that anaerobic training can give you. One of the markers that becomes elevated from doing speed work is your VO2 max, which is a measure of your ability to take up oxygen. The more oxygen you can get in for any unit of time, the more likely it is that you will be able to go faster. In running, the biggest gains in VO2 max come when you approach your maximum heart rate. (Cycling and swimming get those gains at lower heart rates.)
So let’s say you are doing a speed session on the track where you are trying to run 10 x 1000 meters. You will likely find that because of the length of this workout you are only able to go fast enough to get your heart rate up to something like 160 beats per minute (bpm) rather than closer to your max heart rate (let’s say 180 bpm for this example). Certainly you will be very tired from the workout, but you will not have gotten as much benefit out of it as you could have. However, if you shorten that workout to 5 x 1000 meters, now you will likely find that you can indeed push fast enough to get your heart rate up to over 170 on the last few 1,000’s and you will get the biggest bang for your buck from the interval session.