Run

Sand Running... Why?

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After just returning from our warm weather camp in Spain, I thought I would kick off my newsletter/blog with why I prescribe sand running and its benefits. Each February I take the team (and the London triathlon Academy) away for a warm weather camp. It’s the perfect time of year for us Brits to get away and feel some sun on our backs (although rumor has it the GB guys, who were there a few weeks prior to us, didn’t have such good weather… shhhh!).

There are a number of key sessions I like to replicate on camp, runs on the same hills, bike sessions over the same courses and swim sets in the same pool etc to see if we are in the same or better place physically than last year or 3 years ago.

However, one of the key benefits for us City dwellers is the use of around a kilometer of soft sandy beach, right outside the hotel.

Why is sand good?

Basically if you don’t already run economically or you are pone to high levels of running injuries, sand running does not teach you to run well and hold good form (even when tired)… it actually forces it. Over 15 years of experimenting on hundreds of athletes tells me that if your strike rate is low (under 90 steps per minute), if you over stride, if you are a heel striker or if you oscillate… you will sink into the sand, finding it very difficult to run well. Another benefit of the low impact - on the whole the age groupers I coach will run 3 times per week, but I can double their running frequency using sand without negative outcomes and still maintain freshness for the bike and swim sessions.

The science

The force/load generated during ground contact time (GCT) is obviously where most running injuries occur. Don’t get me wrong, I want to train and make the stretch shortening cycle in the muscles, ligaments and tendons strong, but the sand is working the antagonist muscles groups on strike. You are training the body to lighten the strike/to pull the foot off the ground quickly before it sinks too far and you lose friction. Moreover, you are teaching/forcing the body to hold good form from the hips through the shoulders and head, because if any part of the body is not connected thus working with/through the kinetic chain, again you will sink into the sand and lose the feeling of running well.

Outcome

Those who have never use sand before, will always comment post running back on hard surface how they feel like they are ‘floating’. I like to mix the sessions up and have a rep or two on the hard path beside the beach for contrast.

If you have ever had the privilege of running with a good elite running or observed them running, you will see that they float across the ground (even triathletes after a 40k hard bike). The air-time they achieve is incredible (time nether foot is in contact with the ground). But next time, also observe how quiet they are… you won’t hear hard thudding on the ground of the poor runner and as I like to say to the guys I coach… “Silence is deadly”.

The Secret to Performance Running

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No Two Ways…

JD Beckinsale M.Sc

There are no two ways about it; there’s only one true way to run for performance, but like you I have read lots of conflicting pieces on why this is good or that is good etc.  However, the “experts” don’t mention the real secret to performance running.

I have never observed much variation in the way two animals of the same species run e.g. horses, dogs, cheetahs etc.  Unlike us, they are not given shoes to run in as infants that allow them to change their mechanics to such a degree they stop using the tools nature provided.

Guaranteed - if you over-stride, heel-strike, cadence is too low or you oscillate (lateral or vertical); you are not running efficiently or naturally.  This article is not simply advocating forefoot striking, because if you just do that in isolation you will probably do more damage to yourself than sticking to heel striking…  In this article I am going to take you through why and also look at:

  • Economy of motion
  • The “secret” to performance running
  • Strength
  • Stride length
  • Stride frequency
  • Bare foot running
  • Body positioning
  • Body weight
  • VVO2 max
  • Progressions

What is Economy of Motion?

Economy of motion is one of the key areas of endurance performance; and improving the economy of the athlete is one of the most valuable parts of coaching, that can reduce the injury rate and significantly bring finish times down.

If runners continuously bounce up and down (vertical oscillation), bob from side to side (lateral oscillation), over-stride, keep their feet on the floor for too long or heel strike while running, the result will be increased oxygen consumption, muscle fiber recruitment and lactate production for the given speed = lower economy of motion.

I know some coaches do not worry so much about technique.  They would rather let total volume of training take its course.  This may work for some and possibly more for the elite athletes who are training day in day out.  But with limited time on your hands or if you want to optimize your performance, ensuring your economy is as close to perfect as you can get it, you will reap the rewards without requiring additional training time.

The secret to performance running

The secret to performance running is seen in utilising the stretch shortening cycle (SSC), which occurs in the muscles and tendons of the lower limb.  This mechanism, switches on as the foot lands, but can only work if the muscle and tendons are engaged immediately, as in hopping action.

In running it was traditionally thought that muscles lengthen or work eccentrically as the foot hits the floor, and shorten or work concentrically as the foot pushes off.  However, as Blazevich and Sharp (2006) point out, “recent evidence from human research, and experiments on animals, shows that muscles contract quasi-isometrically during the propulsive phase of many stretch shorten – type movements”.

To explain this “quasi-isometric muscle action”, isometric muscle action “the muscle contracts without any joint movement” so it is held static while under load.  The quasi (partly/ almost) means we have a sort of static or isometric contraction but we don’t… i.e. we still have a limited, but not a great deal of joint action.

To elicit quasi-isometric action in the muscles/ tendon (mostly tendon) the foot has be in contact with the floor for a very brief moment as this action occurs in roughly 0.5 second which gives nearly 50% of the energy required for propulsion to the next step, hence the need for high stride frequency to take advantage of this potential return of energy.

Injuries

It is the force production on foot strike, which, without a doubt, means humans are not designed to heel strike.  If you carried out the experiment above, you have just felt the hard thud and discomfort on heel-striking, which can lead to many injuries as the load is not taken up by stretchy/ elastic muscles and tendons.  If the muscles and tendons are allowed to switch on during that initial strike of the foot, this creates the running equivalent of the car suspension and the load is dissipated through soft tissue not bone.

The muscles and tendons need adequate strength to produce and reproduce this force over hundreds and thousands of repetitions of the run.

Strength

One of the biggest limiting factors in Caucasian endurance athletes, is a lack of strength - the more strength/ force that can be produced on foot strike (added to optimal body weight and aerobic capacity) the faster you will run.

We can see with the 100 – 200 – 400m runners that they are using maximum force production (on foot strike) to hit the times they do and, on the whole, mechanically these athletes run as close to perfect as you can get (it’s also amazing how much work they put into technique).  As soon as you go to 800 – 1500 and above, many people start to run with the injurious habits outlined above.

Running technique should not change whatever the distance, it should just be “smoothed out”: the longer the distance the less height on the knee/ heel cycle which equates to less force production on foot strike, less energy production but ultimately slower running of course.

You will notice in pictures of good elite runners, a point during the running cycle where both feet are off the floor (air time, see picture right).  It can take many years and hours/ miles of running to build the type of strength of top elite runners, but whatever your level, you can aid the improve your running performance by increasing the strength of your running muscles and tendons.

Stride length

Contrary to popular belief, a long stride length is not about kicking your foot as far forward as possible “striding out”.  Stride length is where the foot lifts from the floor, travels through the air and hits the floor again.

Our body is linked (kinetic chain), bones, muscles, tendons etc and for running to work optimally each area through the body must play its part.  So if you just stride out and the foot lands outside the body’s optimal reaction area, you will lose part of the process by producing a breaking force.  Muscles will not be recruited at the right time, leading to negative response and excess movements/ energy requirement.

Stride frequency (strike rate)

Lots of the elite African runners have been found to run around 94 – 98 strikes per min with the athletes trailing in their wake running, still running with high strike rate, but around 90 – 94 strikes per min.  If you are an average height runner whose stride frequency is around 70 or 80 strides per min or lower, your foot will be in contact with the floor for a much greater time, so there is no way you are ever going to utilise on the SSC.

For some of our better runners, who you may have seen running a bit flat or on their heel etc, most of the time they will get away with fast “ish” run splits due to a good high strike rate… add to that the use of the “secret to running performance” and what could happen?

The shorter you are the more steps you would naturally take and vice versa.  Lots of people I have coached find it really hard to get their strike rate up… that is, until they run bare foot!

Bare foot running

When you put athletes on the treadmill and video their running, then sprinkle the magic dust (getting them to take their shoes off!) then video them again, they are always totally amazed at what a change this small adjustment makes aesthetically to the way they look.  In fact, they almost always say “I look like a runner”.  With a little coaching in muscle recruitment patterns (which needs to be re-learnt) they start to get the feeling and rhythm of economical running and even start to enjoy it, instead of running always feeling like hard work, whatever the pace.

Have you ever wondered why so many people have orthotics?  Basically the running shoe industry had been hindering runners for years by adding support to running shoes.  Why do these expensive trainers have lots of cushioning in the heel when the heel is not designed to take any load in running? (You felt this on the jumping on heels experiment).  Support is also prevalent along the inside of a run shoe for the arch of the foot, never giving the foot a chance to switch these muscles/ tendons back on and in most cases switching them off totally (if a muscle or tendon is not used it becomes weak and less useful).

When changing from supportive running shoes, you will see after a while that your arch starts to develop (it is after all just muscle and tendon).  This must be done slowly so your whole body can adjust to this new running style and build the right strength in the correct muscles throughout the body at the right time.

The rest of the body

To run well you also have to have the rest of the body in the right position.  For example, if your bum is sticking out because you are leaning too far forwards, you cannot switch on your bum muscles (glutes), which are needed to work when the foot hits the floor.  Your hips need to be driving forwards, your chest needs to be lifted and muscles that are not being used need to be relaxed.  Your pelvis also needs to aligned correctly and you will be amazed at how “out” your pelvis can be if you spend most of the day slumped at a desk.

Body weight (fat)

I am sorry to tell you, but if you are carrying excess body fat of 5–10kgs or more you are going to add more strain to the muscles and tendons of your body that are designed to carry you (at optimum fat %).   But if you are a bigger person don’t feel that running correctly is not for you - it still works but your progressions may have to take a little longer.

So again, take your time, make sure you build up the longer runs (don’t attempt the vVO2max stuff below until adapted for 3–6 months) and do lots of strides (200m on track on grass) as this in itself will build the strength and lower the body fat to ensure a seamless transition to more economical running.

VVO2 max

This is the velocity (pace) at which your body is utilising the maximum amount of oxygen.  Vo2max on its own is a poor predictor of performance but training at VVo2 max is a great way to improve economy.  At vVo2 you are running at the speed/ pace that are at your aerobic capacity.  This helps by increasing the strength and power of the running and cardiovascular muscles.

Progressions

I know lots of athletes will go and purchase a pair Newtons or racing flats having been told by their mates “this is the way to go”.  Pop them on and off they run with their new running style, for an hour or so, then would you believe it, they are injured.  The word soon spreads that forefoot running injures people… it does not, only progressing too fast, lack of strength and not running correctly injures you.

Conclusion

The bottom line:

  • If you are not running and allowing the SSC to activate, you are not running optimally.
  • The flip side, it is not just about buying some new trainers and landing on the forward portion of the foot and hey presto.
  • If you want to become a better runner, don’t do it as you start to panic about an upcoming race near summer, take the step now to change and use the winter months to build the progressions.

Finally, you still have to put in the hard yards in training, but this way you will do it smarter and get fewer injuries.

Happy training!

Further reading:

  1. Blazevich, A, J., and Sharp, N, C, C., (1995) Physiology of Human Running: From Motors to Fuel Pumps. Sports Science, Brunel University, UB8 3PH, UK.
  2. Bergmann G, Kniggendorf H, Graichen F, Rohlmann A (1995). Influence of shoes and heel strike on the loading of the hip joint. Journal of Biomechanics 28, 817-827
  3. Clarke TE, Frederick EC, Cooper LB (1983). Effects of shoe cushioning upon ground reaction forces in running. International Journal of Sports Medicine 4, 247-251.
  4. Ker, R. F., Bennet, M, B., Bibby, S, R., Kester, R, C., and Alexander, R, McN., (1987) The spring in the arch of the human foot. Nature 325, 157-149.
  5. J., Farrell (date unknown) TRAINING IMPLICATIONS OF STRIDE LENGTH ANALYSIS - XC/Track Coach, Thousand Oaks High School, CA (unpublished).
  6. McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., and Katch, V. L. (2001). Exercise Physiology, Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. USA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  1. Millet, G, P., Jaouen, B., Barrani, F., Candau, R., (2003): Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running. Medicine Science Sports Exercise. 34(8): 1351-9.
  1. M., Warburton (2001) Barefoot Running, Gateway Physiotherapy, Capalaba, Queensland, Australia 4157. Sport science 5(3).
  2. Regan, E, A.(1 ); T, D, Noakes.(1 ); Liane, B, A.(1 ); Romanov, N.(1); Schwellnus, P, M.(1 ); Graham, F.(2) (2004). ‘Reduced Eccentric Loading of the Knee with the Pose Running Method’, in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: Volume 36(2), pp 272-277.
  3. Robbins SE, Hanna AM (1987). Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 19, 148-156.
  4. Siff, M,C., Verkhoshansky YV (1999). Supertraining (4th Ed.). Denver, Colorado. Supertraining International.
  5. Williams, D, E., (2002). Review of “Stride pattern preference in racehorses”.  California State University – San Marcos (Kentucky Equine Research, Inc).

Done in an hour: Run

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The third in our series of “Done in an hour” articles is looking to give you three run sessions specifically targeting skills and technique, technique and aerobic capacity and finally lactate tolerance and strength.


Running is by far the predominant area in which triathletes pick up most of their injuries and this can be caused by poor technique, over training (as it is the only weight-bearing discipline) or conducting brick type sessions thus running tired off the bike (again poor technique/ poor economy of motion).

It is also the area where if you are not strong physically or mentally, you will always end your triathlon experience on a low.  How nice would it be to be coming in off the bike thinking “I have worked hard on my running over winter, I can’t wait to get on the run and put it into practice” That said, if you have just hammered the bike to try and get a good time, thus worked above your functional power threshold, no amount of run training is going to save you from the pain!

Before we start, remember we are not runners, we are triathletes.  Therefore, we ride before we run and when we ride we rely heavily on our quads, they (our quads) then become very tired, so we do not want to over use them on the run.  Instead we want to utilise our hamstrings and only use our quads as stabilisers.

Session one

I find the introduction of a treadmill really speeds up the learning process when coaching athletes. You see when you increase the incline, the athlete naturally has to run with soft knees and as you increase the speed the athlete is forced into recruiting the running muscles in the correct pattern (with some coaching!). I have seen some dramatic results using this technique and it negates the need of long sessions on the track trying to teach athletes (especially juniors) optimum economy of motion.

Skill/technique: the aim is to improve the neural firing patterns of your running muscles.

Equipment required: skipping rope, treadmill, mirror, video camera (use your mobile phone), friend/ partner.

Warm up: Skipping for 5mins (you can build this until you can skip for the time it will take you to run 10km), do not increase duration of skip by more than 10% each week and use single leg skipping not just double feet. (Time 5mins)

Main set: Put the treadmill up to about 10-12% and at a speed that is around your 10km race pace.  Straddle the treadmill, test the pace of the treadmill with one foot, keep holding onto the side and the jump on. Keep hold of the sides until you are comfortable running then let go.

Set 1 = 4 x 1min with 3mins recovery between (jump off treadmill once finished first run and just walk around) Set 2 = 4 x 30 secs (increase speed + 1km per hour, ie if on 10kph go to 11kph) with 3mins recovery between each rep. Set 3 = 2 x 15 secs increase incline by 2% and increase speed by 2kph with 3mins recovery between each rep. (Time 43mins)

Cool down: 5mins easy spin on bike. (Time 5mins)

(Total session time 53mins)

Ask a friend to video your running so you can let your coach see it or try to do some self analysis. Here are some points to focus on while watching.

A Stay tall and lift the chest. Limit the twisting of the shoulders and arms crossing the midline. Drive arms forward and back like a sprinter (not such big movements!).
B Centre of gravity constantly moves forward stabilised by glutes, quads and trunk muscles. Body has a very slight forward lean.
C High heel lift uses hamstrings (which are not so tired off the bike!) to accentuate recovery and flow. Watch Tim Don running to see how well he does this!
D Knee does not so much lift as drive through/ forward with a mid/ forefoot strike. Skipping will help to strengthen this stance. This optimises the stretch/shortening cycle. Foot does not go forward of the knee prior to strike which reduces the load on the quads to a stabilisation process - they are tired after the bike.
E Legs cycle in a continuous flow under the hips. Lift the heel and the knee at the same time.

NB: It takes the mind and body (neural pathways) around six weeks to develop/ learn a new skill, so persevere; you’ll soon be injury free and flying!

Session two

Technique/aerobic aim: to develop running skills while developing aerobic capacity

Equipment required: running track, HR monitor, video

Warm up: 10mins easy jogging (Time 10mins)

Drills: about 5mins of different running type drills, ballistic stretch (ask someone if you don’t understand this term) (Time 5mins)

Main set: 6 x 1mile reps at 10k race pace (ie off the bike run pace) – on laps 2 and 4 focus on the above running skill points and on laps 1 and 3 ensure you maintain the correct pace. Take 90 seconds to 3mins (depending on fitness) recovery between each rep but do not just stand around go through running drills. This is not a stressful session and as you complete the reps think “could I maintain this pace in a race”? If you work too hard you will not be able to focus on good form on laps 2 and 4. (Time 30/ 35 mins)

Again try to get a friend to record what your running is looking like; visual feedback can paint a thousand words.

Cool down: 5 – 10mins easy jog and static stretch (Time 5 mins)

(Total session time 55 mins)

Session three – SUPER-SET

Lactate tolerance strength aim: to increase the rate of lactate dissipation from cells and increase run specific strength.

Equipment required: strong heart and mind, track, HR monitor

Warm up: do four laps of the track: first is easy, second medium, third is building from medium to hard and finish with one lap as pick up’s (50 hard 100 easy etc) then do some ballistic stretching (ask someone!) (Time 10 mins)

Main set: this set is done at maximum effort throughout. As you go through 200m into 400m the build up of pyruvate and proton accumulation at cell level ensures you will not be able to keep up the 200m pace and it's the same for the 1km. This is a fantastic session to increase the mental strength of the athlete, as they have to hold onto form as they endure the pain, it makes running off the bike a doddle!

Start with a 200m run, straight into a 400m run then straight into 1km. There is no rest between each distance. Recovery is waiting until HR drops below 120 bpm or for around 90 secs to 3mins depending on fitness. Repeat this 1 to 6 times (Time 30 – 35 mins)

Depending on your fitness you will start to get jelly legs as you head into the second half of the 400m phase (600m) and it is at this point you will need to be mentally strong to hold good form (the first 2 to 600m is where you will develop run specific strength). As you get into the 1km part, you will not be running fast, but just trying to hold good form and a moderate pace. It is during this phase you are training the body to dissipate the lactate from the cells. As you improve your fitness/ strength you will be able to run the last km at closer and closer to race pace.

Don’t worry so much about the times you take to run each segment, just try and keep working at your maximum intensity for the specific distance.

One of the main limiting factors of white (as opposed to African endurance runners is their lack of strength endurance, improve your specific run strength and watch your run times tumble.

Cool down: do at least 10 mins of easy jogging – when you get home do hot and cold contrast on your legs; get in a shower (or bath with ice in) and run cold water over your legs for about 5mins – then put it to hot and repeat the process (try and cover all of the major muscles from the hips down) repeat x 3 to 6. (Time 10 mins)

(Total training time 55 mins)