Everyone wants to improve their run times. I get it - a better run time is hard evidence that shows your effort is paying off. It’s common for semi-serious runners to assume that the best way to improve running performance is to run more. While it is important to run to get better at running, there’s far more you can do to improve performance than just running more. Over the next few issues, we’re going to explore some of these interventions.
Running performance is underpinned by something called running economy. Running economy can be described as your physiological, biomechanical, and neuromuscular efficiency while you’re running, and training can influence all of these factors. So what do those terms actually mean, and why should you care about them? Let’s break it down.
If all you do is run, you’re going to adapt to one specific kind of stimulus. While this is often helpful at the start, you’re likely to lose out in the long run because you’re not maximising the capabilities of your muscles and systems. These (highly trainable) capabilities include everything from the amount of power you can generate with each foot strike, to how efficiently you can manage fatigue so you can last longer or push harder.
Additionally, the act of running, combined with your everyday postural habits and compensations, creates a set of imbalances that are unique to you. Over time, this leads to the development of a set of strengths, weaknesses, imbalances, restrictions and compensations that can affect your overall running performance, and your ability to keep improving over time.
Also, the running technique you’ve chosen to use, been coached to use, or just stumbled upon unintentionally, can affect your performance. Most people just start running and don’t think much about how they are running. When you run with the same pattern over and over again, step after step, mile after mile, whether intentionally or unintentionally, your body learns to get better at repeating that particular pattern, regardless of whether it’s actually good technique. It becomes the ‘go to’ pattern. Unfortunately, when combined with your unique set of strengths, weaknesses and limitations, this can become problematic, because the technique you’re using is often governed by the restrictions and compensations. This might mean that your running technique is perpetuating your imbalances.
As you can see, working for improvement can get complex very quickly.
So, where do I start?
Well, let’s get some of the simpler stuff out of the way, and build our knowledge base over the next few issues. There are a couple of concepts that have been heavily researched, that have consistently been shown to improve aspects of running performance. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is one such concept, and that’s where we’re going to start. Amongst other things, HIIT has been shown to improve lung capacity, heart capacity, power output and endurance, fat and carbohydrate oxidation, and body composition. What’s more, it’s been shown to accomplish these things in significantly less training time than traditional running training. What’s even better is that HIIT actually exposes you to less overall training volume, so you not only finish workouts quicker, but also get them done with less wear and tear.
What is HIIT?
Basically, it’s short bursts of exertion, followed by short periods of rest, repeated for a pretty short length of time, spanning anywhere from four minutes to 30 minutes total (you can go longer, but it’s generally neither necessary nor smart to do that). You could get some of the desired training effects from doing running sprints in this fashion, but since we’re talking about efficiency here, why not tackle some basic postural and strength issues at the same time? Central to performance improvement is good alignment. This can be at the joint level (i.e. whether your joints are centred and ‘in groove’), or overall (i.e. are the structures throughout the body functioning in unison and with balance). By training the basic human movement patterns during your HIIT, you can not only work on improving your running performance, but also do so while addressing some of the imbalances that your running might be causing. Notice that in theory, if done right, HIIT may be able to solve quite a few issues that may be limiting your running economy and performance.
What should I do?
Start with a few fundamental patterns. We’re going to start with a basic sequence of a lower body pull (deadlift), upper body pull (row), lower body push (squat), and upper body push (push-up). While this doesn’t encompass all of the basics, it’s a good starting point. Note that depending on your unique set of imbalances, you may express technique faults that may be hard for you to notice yourself, so if in doubt, it might be a good idea to see a fitness professional about it.
Keep the chest proud and stay tall.
Keep the abs and butt tight.
Row to the lower ribs.
Keep the neck aligned with the spine.
Keep the abs and butt tight.
Keep the elbows close (don’t let them flare out to the sides).
Start with the feet at about shoulder-width apart.
Sit the butt ‘back into a chair’ and don’t let the knees cave in.
Keep the back straight and chest proud.
Hinge at the hip – don’t make it a squat.
Keep the back flat throughout the movement.
Keep your weight on your heels.
*Note that these are not comprehensive descriptions of the exercises and should not be considered as instructional material. They simply provide highlights of key points to watch out for. If in doubt, consult a fitness professional.
How should I put this all together?
You might want to start with a short exertion period of 30 seconds, and a rest period that matches, and repeat the exercises in sequence for four sets. This adds up to just 16 minutes of total exercise time (not including your warm up), but you’ll be surprised at how challenging this is for most people. If it feels too hard in the beginning, simply stop the workout prematurely, or increase the rest time in between exercises. If it feels too easy, adjust the timings and find something challenging.
Using HIIT is a great way to train efficiently, and for efficiency. You’re going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. However, while you do want to feel pretty out of breath by the end of a HIIT session, don’t feel like you need to push to ridiculous extremes. Contrary to popular belief, pushing to the point of wanting to throw up is not necessary, not smart, and definitely not advisable. Train smart, and don’t break form, ever. And, as always, if this all sounds too confusing, consult someone with expertise on the matter.
About The Writer:
Ian Tan is a co-founder of Ritual Gym, and has served as the Program Director since the company’s formation in 2012. He is also the Strength and Conditioning coach for FightG, Singapore’s first Mixed Martial Arts academy. His interests include martial arts, weightlifting, active meditation and human optimization and he is currently pursuing his MSc in Strength and Conditioning."