Maintaining good running form as you run is crucial if you want to optimise your performance and reduce the risk of injury. When you run many factors have an influence on your ability to maintain your pace, change pace and speed up, and avoid slowing down. As you run your muscles are exposed to prolonged impact and are continually working hard to propel you forwards. With time the muscles fatigue due to various factors such as micro traumas, build up of metabolic chemicals and running low on glycogen. During our training we must prepare ourselves to deal with these.
Running in general is the primary way that we adapt to cope with all these issues. Strength work is one area where we can also further improve.
Many people think of strength as only going in the gym and lifting weights or doing core work. However, there is more to it than just these. Below I've listed areas where you can improve running form and strength.
This is the most common and utilised form of strength work. I use free weights and my body weight and avoid machines. I do not do any open chain work*. The exercises vary from dead lifts, medicine ball work to running arm action with dumb bells. I like med balls as with throwing and catching the exercise is more dynamic. I like to focus on more dynamic work where each exercise might be slightly different to the last.
You don't need an expensive gym membership. I do my routine on my lounge floor and in sunny weather outside in the garden.
This involves lots of bridging exercises and planks, etc. It's vital to have a strong core to run with, and maintain, good running form. This can be especially so in the later stages of a race. If I look at a runner I can often see issues with their running form and understand how a weak core is either causing or exacerbating the issues. For instance, you might see someone who drops one hip as they reach mid stance. This can be either reduced or overcome with core work to address the issue. Some of these issues become more obvious when the runner becomes fatigued and they may run differently when sprinting. It's importance to look at form across a range of paces when trying to address issues.
I carry out my core work on the lounge floor, often with with the kids playing nearby. I also venture outside into the garden if it's a nice day.
Running faster than race pace is a form of strength work. For instance when you sprint your muscles are exposed to greater impact forces and they also have to generate more force to run with a quicker turn over of contractions.
Running up hills is a great way to improve your strength. You could say that it's sprinting in disguise as it has a similar outcome. However, during hill repeats you are running slower with less impact. The rate of contraction turn over is slower. Due to incline you run with a different form and you have to work hard to maintain your speed and form.
You sometimes see sprinters dragging a sledge or large tyre. They use a harness around their torso and drag the sled or tyre as they sprint. This is a great way of increasing the load on your muscles. However, as a distance runner it's not often used.
Another form of resistance work is running in sand. I love running next to the sea and running up sand dunes can bee extremely hard work. (Please remember to be aware of your environment - some areas of dunes are vulnerable to degradation - dunes are an important eco system - please avoid dunes that are protected.)
This is not only a great way to incorporate some strength training elements into your training mix but it can also be a refreshing change to your routine. My go to activity is paddle boarding. It's so peaceful out on the water and the paddling is great for my core. When you paddle the power for each stroke should come from your core. If you use your arms only you will quickly fatigue. Whilst you are padding you have to continually make tiny adjustments to maintain your balance. The water conditions, currents, wind and waves also mean that every stroke is slightly different to the last. This makes for a really dynamic workout. In a gym lifting weight or on a floor doing core work you don't have this dynamic influence. For instance lifting weights you use the same resistance through the same range of motion. You are also just staring at a gym wall which is not quite so nice as a cliff face!
Cross training is so varied, in fact almost any other fitness activity you do is cross training. I do a little cycling and I also do things like open water swimming, canoeing (Canadian Canoe), Kayaking (sit on kayak) and hiking. I love running but also walking in beautiful places. The great outdoors in one of the things that really fuels my motivation. Hiking up a steep hill on the coast or moors defiantly contributes to my weakly strength routine and I factor all these things into my training. The coast path is close by and so a hilly run is something that really gives my legs a good workout. On some of the climbs you are reduced to almost a walk and walking is fine. Even if you spend a few hours surfing or body boarding you'll notice the tiredness in your arms as you continually paddle out. So when you're not running remember that what you're doing can be beneficial to running. Be creative and find ways to mix it up and enjoy being outside and fit and healthy without necessarily always following an exact schedule. So long as you don't suddenly introduce something you're not used to doing then you should be adding an extra beneficial dimension to your training.
Running drills are a great way to work on your running form. When we try to improve our running form we don't always do it directly. You can't just say to a runner do a certain thing and they'll automatically do it from that point on. Running drills work indirectly through repeated practice. Over time there is learned response so that the movements are repeated without much conscious though and even a neurological adaptation to the movements being practiced. By practicing certain movements we not only add a strength element but also a gradual improvement in running form. These drills are movements that are often exaggerated components of the running stride. So for instance you lift your knees higher. With time this can impact on such things as the hip flexion or extension when running. It's normally advised to have an experienced coach with you to provide feedback on your technique as poor technique can cause injury and can negatively impact on the benefit of the drills.
This is a series of movements or exercises that place much great loads on the muscles. Again like drills they are often exaggerated movements. Plyometrics includes lots of bounding and jumping. When I did my Physiotherapy degree my thesis was about the stretch shortening cycles of muscles. Basically I looked at how an eccentric muscular contraction generates more power when it is preceded by a concentric contraction of the same muscle. This is how plyometric training works. A good example might be jumping down of a box to the floor and then jumping straight back up onto another box. Plyometrics do carry a higher level of injury risk and need to be undertaken with an experienced coach. It's important that runners start with beginners exercises and gradually work their way up to the more advanced exercises. You need to follow a programme whereby you move from one exercise slowly to a more advanced one. The first exercises you do are great in their own right but ultimately can be preparing the runner for the more advanced exercises. It's basically a process of conditioning - following a progressive system. Depending on your event you will only select certain plyometrics exercises. So a sprinter would do higher volumes and higher intensity exercises than a 10000m runner. Indeed many distance runners do not use plyometric training at all.