Running is a fickle mistress. One day you might go out an crush your favourite 5K route, and the next it can leave you a shell of a person gasping for breath at the side of the road. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing dips in your performance and not understanding what you are doing wrong. Especially for new runners, it is important to understand the little thing that make a big difference and what you can focus on to do better and feel great about pounding the pavement (or trails or track).
1. It’s Not About The Shoes
To paraphrase everyone’s favorite disgraced cyclist, your shoes don’t matter that much. In fact, the more time, energy, and money you spend on your shoes, the more likely you are to get hurt. In his paradigm-shifting book Born to Run Christopher MacDougall cites research that shows there is a correlation between spending more money on footwear and spending more time in recovery. Get something cheap and comfortable that allows you to focus on your form instead of trying to correct it for you.
2. Foot Strike
One of the things to focus on right out of the gate is what part of your foot is hitting the ground first. While conventional super-cushioned running shoes might encourage you to strike the ground with your heel, you should consider the fact that this might be causing you harm. Heel striking sends impact forces up your leg, through your knee, and into your lower back. These are all sensitive areas for a runner. Consider shortening your stride and striking the ground with the ball of your foot (forefoot) or midfoot.
Next, pay attention to how fast you are moving your feet. When you increase your running speed it is tempting to take longer strides when what you should really be doing is speeding up the rate that your feet are moving. A quick, shuffling, midfoot stride with a cadence of about 180 steps per minute is what you want to aim for. There are lots of activity tracking watches and other gadgets that can estimate your cadence for you so you don’t have to count at light speed in your head.
4. Mind Your Bouncing
When you run, you want to use as much energy as possible to moving forward and reduce the amount you waste on unproductive movement. Smooth running will not only cut your risk of injury, it will allow you to increase your distance and your speed. Minimize what running experts call your vertical oscillation by focusing on a distant object like a tree branch or street sign and try to adjust your gait so it is steady in your view and not bouncing around.
5. Ground Contact Time
Closely related to the idea of cadence is the notion of ground contact time. The longer your foot is in contact with the ground on each stride, the slower you are moving overall. Ideally you want to be touching the ground for less than 250 milliseconds, which is of course impossible to measure on your own. A fancy running watch or other fitness tracker can help you with this but so can your own mental games. Act like a 6 year old and pretend you are running on lava or hot coals. Do whatever you need to do to keep those feet moving.
6. Work on Your Lean
While it may be the goal of most runners to be lean, not many focus on the word in its verb sense. Leaning is a great way to improve your energy efficiency on long runs. To achieve a good lean, stand with your back straight and your shoulders directly over your feet. Now, keeping your entire body straight, lean forward at your ankles. Lean forward until you are about to fall over, then put a foot out to catch yourself. Keep leaning and catching yourself over and over again and you should be running in the most efficient way possible.
Working on these 6 details can help you shave seconds or even minutes off all your Personal Bests. Don’t worry though, the more you run the better you will get at each of these, even if you don’t consciously mean to.