Running became an important part of my life just a few years ago and after I discovered all the benefits of running (read Running Benefits) I can’t imagine my life without it. I know that running is HUGE in the United States and people who do it find their lives much more satisfying and balanced than the ones who do not run. According to a recent poll held by Runner’s World magazine 89% of runners want to improve their running and it does not matter whether they are just beginners who run 1 mile a few times a week or whether they are pros who have ran in a lot of marathons. Somebody wants to run faster, somebody wants to run longer, somebody is concerned about injuries, and somebody is training for the Boston marathon. The reasons to be a better runner are different but the approaches surprisingly are very similar.
Why do I want to be a better runner? I want to be healthy and stay young for many years. I want to be able to run with my girls in 20, 30, 40 and maybe even 50 years. I want to be a good example for my children and for people around me. I want to achieve goals that I’ve never dreamt of achieving before. Do you want to be a better runner? Then here are a few things you can try to make your running more efficient.
- Exercise your legs. A lot of people are mistaken by thinking that running is all you need for strong legs. Actually running is possible only AFTER you have strong legs (otherwise injuries are guaranteed for you). The stronger your leg muscles are the faster you can run, the longer you can run and the safer you can run. What muscles are the most important? I was looking for an answer to this question and I didn’t find one because depending on the type of running you are doing (uphill, downhill, sprints, marathons) you will be using different groups of muscles. The best approach is to exercise all the groups of your leg muscles and if you feel that some muscles are weaker than the others then you should pay more attention to those muscles.
- According to a study at the Rocky Mountain University most inexperienced runners have weak hip flexors (inner thigh muscles and the front of the leg) and hip abductors (outer thigh).
- Bikers and triathlon participants have strong quadriceps (the front of the leg) and weak hamstrings (the back of the leg).
- Weak glutes (the main stabilizer muscles for running) are linked to lower back pain after running and hip joint problems.
- Strong midsection. Researchers at Barry University found that runners with a strong midsection finished their 5-K 30 seconds faster than runners who didn’t add core workouts to their running routine. A strong midsection prevents over-rotation and arm swinging that slows you down. Core workouts also improve your running posture that helps you run more efficiently. Add a core workout every other day and the improvement in your running will be seen quickly!
- Perfect your running posture. Most beginner runners face two problems: they either slouch their shoulders (yep, running the same way as they are sitting at their desks) or they run with a posterior pelvic tilt (sort of pushing the belly in front of them – this is especially common with women). Both of these poor running techniques are a result of weak torso muscles and eventually they will lead to injuries and back pains. (I have tried to show both of these techniques in the pictures below, but I am not the best artist, so sorry for that). Here is what you need to pay attention to while running:
- Shoulders are low and loose
- Your fists are not clenched and your forearms are not too tense
- Look at the horizon ahead of you, do not look down
- “Run tall”, do not slouch your shoulders
- The foot lands directly underneath your body (not in front of it)
- Land between your heel and midfoot
- For distance running: slight knee lift, quick leg turnover, short stride
- For speed running: high knee lift, long strides
- Do not pound
- Keep your knees slightly bent at all times
- Lean forward a little bit
- Drink coffee. For many years athletes were scared to death of coffee because it was considered to lead to dehydration (the last thing that you want during the run). The latest studies show that you need to drink about 5 cups of coffee to get dehydrated. Caffeine was linked to better performance (longer and faster runs) and faster recovery after runs (caffeinated drinks rebuild glycogen stores 66% faster than non-caffeinated carb-only drinks). By the way, if you want to lose weight then coffee also increases your metabolism that will help you burn more calories even after your run is over. (A java jolt may boost, not wreck, your workout) It is recommended to drink 1 cup of coffee 30 minutes before a workout. (Be sure to check with your doctor first to see if you should be drinking coffee before exercising. If you have any heart problems or high blood pressure you should probably skip this tip.)
My experience: the last time I drank coffee before a run I managed to run 7 minutes more than I usually do. Hooray!
- Stretching. If you have not heard about it yet (and I really doubt it) then stretching is essential for runners. It prevents injuries, keeps your muscles flexible and loosens them after and before the run. Apart from the regular before and after the run stretches add 1 or 2 Yoga workouts a week. You will be able to tell the difference very soon.
- Include plyometric exercises in your workouts. Plyometrics increases force in your stride and the stronger you can push off the ground the easier each stride will be and the faster you will run. (Watch these Animated Plyometric Exercises)
- Train your brain. When I run I usually constantly think about something to escape. Whether this is planning my day, thinking of a new post, planning supper or just day dreaming – my brain is always working. Running is the best problem solving time for me; however if something is bringing me down then my running suffers. Negative thoughts will put you in a poorer physiological state, make you tense and make your breathing shallower. If you feel blue then just try to let it go while you run and concentrate on your form and breathing.
- Rest days. Days off are essential for runners. If you do not let your muscles rest then in two weeks your performance will start to suffer and your will be prone to overuse injury. You need to have at least 1 day of rest a week. Do easier workouts on these days (walking instead of running, Yoga, swimming, Pilates) or just enjoy some laziness!
- Cross-training. Cross-training is as important as resting. Constant running brings imbalances into your body (leg muscles are overtrained, core and upper body muscles are relatively weak) and cross-training will help you correct these imbalances. Choose a workout that better suits you – cycling, weight-lifting, Yoga, Pilates, swimming – you name it.
- Change your routine. If you are training for a marathon then add faster runs 1 or 2 times a week. Running faster teaches your body to process lactic acid better and it will make your marathon running easier. If you need to build up speed then add a few miles at a slower pace 1 or 2 times a week. It will build up your endurance and make your legs stronger.
- Use treadmill. I personally prefer outdoor runs and consider running on a treadmill one of the most boring things in life. However on a treadmill I can try workouts that I would never dare to try outside because I know that I can always stop and just rest. I add intervals at higher speeds (10 was my maximum so far), add incline and resistance, and push my limits in every way possible (without going too crazy about it of course). Just try it and see what you can do!
- Add music. I usually do not go on a run without my iPod Shuffle (it is my best running friend ever :-)) because music always pumps up my running. Researchers at the Brunel School of Sport and Education in England found that runners who listened to high-energy tracks exhibited 15% more endurance and were more eager to try hard workouts.
- Tracking device. High-tech gear is not only an expensive toy for runners (though it is pretty cool) but it’s also a great way to monitor your progress and state. Just set a goal (your target heart rate for the entire workout, the maximum speed you would like to reach, goal time for 1 mile) and watch your results improve run after run.
- Add Pilates. Okay, I am a little bit partial about this one But I firmly believe that Pilates helps me to be a better runner. Pilates exercises:
- build up core strength (you already know why you need it from #2),
- improve your posture that increases your lung capacity,
- teach you to breathe more efficiently,
- provide rest for your joints (no high impact exercises) and improve joint mobility,
- improve your balance (this is true for standing Pilates exercises).
- Add Yoga. Yoga stretches will teach you to control and feel your body and most importantly they will loosen tight muscles in your legs that are a big source of injuries. Try this Yoga for Runners video, that’s the best one that I have found online.
I have tried most of these tips already but I am excited to add plyometric exercises into my routine and I am still waiting for the right moment to buy that running watch (actually, I think it can be a great present. That’s a hint for you, my dear :-)). Running helps me to find my way to balance in life and being a better runner will take me to that balance faster (I hope). I would really appreciate some feedback on what techniques you use to be a better runner and how they are working out for you.
Keep it balanced!