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Traversing the training spectrum for improved running economy & technique


28 JAN 2024

Fitness pro: “Improving your running is simple dude - train power, plyometrics and lift heavy”.

Bit annoying isn’t it? Nobody wants to hear that.

Some smug coach implying running faster and with better form can be achieved at the flick of a switch.

Although it can be broken down in simple terms, in no way is it easy.

As I repeatedly find myself discovering throughout life, knowing what to do and then actually doing it are seldom the same thing.

Nevertheless, I am about to identify for you 5 so-called ‘simple’ steps for a naturally faster, more effortless running pace. That doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do it all to the letter and suddenly turn into a gazelle. There are a whole range of barriers that go beyond knowing what to do, which may prevent you from getting the job done, for example:

  • Lacking sufficient training days

  • Lacking sufficient session time windows

  • Dependance on accurate planning / programming

  • Equipment shortages

  • Motivation and consistency management

But despite these barriers, I’m still going to share with you what I have learned to be some of the most effective and time efficient methods for improving the speed and quality of running performance.

The Spectrum

Last year, I created a run down of the spectrum of exercise styles we use to measure ‘fitness’, which thanks to Dr. Andy Galpin’s appearance on the Huberman Lab podcast, was handily broken down into 9 different aspects of fitness. Regarding the simple steps towards improved running performance, I’m going to identify 4 of these Galpin components, which if carried out in order and combined into one training session (they don’t have to be), will allow the athlete to traverse the training spectrum, from skill focus, to speed focus, to light, to heavy. The adaptations which will occur from well-planned implementation of this training will be there for the runner to see in all its glory (usually some kind of PB or absence of injury / training difficulty).

  1. Jump or Hop & stick (singles and repeats) - Practicing various types of jumps and hops with stable landings is a crucial aspect of improving running performance. These can be done as vertical (pictured) or horizontal, usually for about 5 reps (each leg for hops), initially carried out with a brief pause between reps, then progressed to consecutive reps, where the athlete looks to minimise ground contact time for a ‘rebounding’ effect. These repeated efforts are much harder and specifically train the stretch-shortening cycle (the contractile capabilities of the muscle during rapid shortening and lengthening). The transfer to running occurs as our repeated ground striking actions occur with greater efficiency, improved rebound and ‘pop’ in our stride.

2. Wall drills - This drill develops the athlete in improving what is referred to as ‘limb exchange’, in other words, going from leg A being the base of support striking the ground downwards while leg B is driving upwards, flexing at the hip and knee, to then switching them to the opposite positions as swiftly and smoothly as possible. This is how we work on mastering the art of switching, which along with projection and reactivity, forms the 3 pillars of quality running technique.

Where many people struggle with the wall drill, is with the task of efficiently generating enough force and speed so that both legs are passing through the mid-point of the switching trajectory at the same time, rather than the planted foot not coming off the ground until the other leg has almost arrived alongside it.

3. Isometric Mid-Thigh Pulls - What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Well, you're going to find out. The iso mid-thigh pull requires you to take a barbell and place it under the safety bars of the squat rack, with the bars set up so that the bar is at (you guessed it) mid-thigh height when the knees are bent to a quarter-squat position. The key to this exercise (and all isometric exercises for that matter) is that there should be no observable movement from the person executing the skill. This means that as you enter the quarter-squat and begin gently pulling the barbell (which stays in contact with the thigh) up against the safety bars, you then find your best possible posture and bracing position for exerting the biggest possible 5 seconds of force you can muster. This obviously means a straight back, lats engaged, knees behind the toe line etc.

(Source: Sage Journals)

4. Loaded squat jump - A crucial aspect of power development is introducing an aspect of overload which introduces the body to maximal forces that far exceed those of the skill in question. The ‘sweet spot’ for training power is to make sure the load on the bar will still allow you to get a reasonable amount of flight time when you jump. You want to ensure it isn’t so heavy that your trajectory into the jump becomes slow and laboured, to the point you’re barely able to get any air time.

On the spectrum of training max strength > power > speed, as you can see, power sits in the middle. Too much load, you end up emphasising max strength and get less power adaptations. Not enough load, and you end up developing your speed more-so than your ability to move large forces at speed. It’s like training in the ‘Goldilocks zone’, get this balance jusssst right, and you’re onto a winner with your running.

5. Heavy Trap Bar (1-5 reps) -

For me, this is where the magic happens with training. When you expose yourself to your upper limits of maximal strength, expressing forces as large as possible into the floor, through the major joints we associate with running (ankle, knee, hips, spine), and creating an acute overload our body is forced to take notice of and make physical adaptations for.

Aim for north of 80% of your 1-rep max and try to lift the weight for 3-5 reps with perfect form.

So, perhaps when I put it in that much detail (which is only scratching the surface), we can see it’s certainly not easy to get this process right, although it is very easy to get it wrong. But to put it as simply as possible:

  • Hop & jump a lot (and don’t fall over)

  • Switch legs fast

  • Jump high often

  • Jump high with extra weight

  • Lift very heavy stuff

Now it’s time to get in touch and tell me what you activities you currently do to work on your running technique.

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