How you can improve your running performance
Trackstaa considers the latest physiological and scientific research alongside some key running style tips to help you improve your performance.
No matter your experience as a runner and whatever your goal is, everyone wants to improve their performance. Getting a coach with experience of high-performance running is the real key, of course, but there are other things you can do to.
Understanding your body and how it works is a good place to start because, that way, you can ensure you are training in the most efficient and effective manner for your ability, your body and your goals.
Often it is something we overlook because there is nothing more natural than running, see Shane Benzie’s critically-acclaimed book, ‘The Lost Art of Running: A Journey to Rediscover the Forgotten Essence of Human Movement’, but making small but timely changes to our running style, where necessary, can result in significant dividends from injury prevention and performance.
First though, let’s talk about the science.
Physiology of running – 7 ways to get faster at running in 2021
In a previous article (here), we discussed the importance of the proper utilisation of the different training paces to encourage different training adaptations. Everybody is different and proper physiological testing is necessary to guarantee accurate results, however by understanding the human body we can all run faster for longer on that all-important race day.
For improving running performance, the three most important factors are:
- How efficient a runner you are. In other words, the amount of oxygen your muscles require to run at a given speed. This is often termed ‘Running Economy’.
- The level at which the lactate in your blood begins to increase significantly, resulting in discomfort and fatigue. We tend to call this your ‘Lactate Threshold’.
- The total volume, or amount, of oxygen, measured in litres, your body is able to transport and effectively utilise during exercise; your VO2 Max.
How to improve Running Economy – 7 ways to get faster at running in 2021
Running economy is the easiest of the 3 key factors to improve and might be most closely related to our generic understanding of the term ‘fitness’. Although there are other contributory factors, a better running economy results in it feeling easier to run at faster paces. Although a specific test is required to measure running economy professionally, an effective alternative is to consider your heart rate. As your running economy improves, your heart rate should decrease for a given speed (note – there are external factors such as caffeine consumption which can affect heart rate) but it’s a useful rough guide.
The 3 top tips to improving running economy are:
- Strength training – conducting an appropriate strength training regime can facilitate a more efficient running form, reduce wasted energy and improve the runner’s ability to run at faster speeds. Your focus should be on the glutes, core, hips, and lower leg muscles.
- Hill training – To supplement a proper strength training program, regular hill sessions not only strengthen the muscles required to run efficiently, they also strengthen and alter the individual fibres of the muscles themselves and this results in the muscles requiring less oxygen to run at faster paces. Consider the following session: 10 x 200m hill repetitions at 80-85% of your maximum effort.
- Interval training – Completion of interval training and regularly exposing the body to faster paces trains the muscles to use oxygen more efficiently and thus making faster paces seem easier.
How to improve Lactate Threshold – 7 ways to get faster at running in 2021
Put simply, the higher your lactate threshold, the faster you will be able to run before your muscles fatigue and become painful. A high lactate threshold is essential for improved performance in endurance events and that’s why training to improve it is a key aspect of the Ingebrigsten’s training regime. We recently released a YouTube video discussing this form of training which you can watch here.
Running longer intervals at ‘tempo’ pace (see training paces article) trains the body to better deal with a consistent level of lactic acid in the blood. Tempo pace during training is often ran in efforts of between 20 and 40 minutes or in shorter ‘efforts’ of around 10 minutes with a small rest in between to reduce the overall impact on the body.
Completing intervals at threshold pace, which is slightly quicker per mile than tempo pace and is just below the level at which lactic acid levels no longer remain consistent, but start to rise drastically, help to improve the body’s ability to improve the pace at which the body begins to quickly produce lactic acid at a rate which the body can’t convert it to energy.
How to improve VO2 Max – 7 ways to get faster at running in 2021
Some scientific research has concluded that as VO2 max is linked to intrinsically to genetics, humans are only able to improve their VO2 max by up to 25%. However, small gains in VO2 max can result in huge improvements in the overall cardiovascular and respiratory system and contributes directly to muscle oxygen efficiency, strength and power. In order to improve VO2 max, you need to train at the pace which equates as close to your maximum aerobic oxygen capacity as possible.
VO2 max roughly equates to the pace that you could just about sustain for around 6 to 8 minutes and is best utilised as part of an interval training session such as:
6 x 800m with 4 – 6 minute jog recovery in between. Or, give this a go:
6 x 2 x 500m with 30 seconds recovery between the 500s and 4 – 6 minutes jog between the 6 sets.
How to improve Running technique – 7 ways to get faster at running in 2021
Of course, to maximise performance, knowing the science and how to improve your physiology is not enough. Understanding how to make small changes to your running technique and form can help you achieve previously insurmountable PBs and stave off injury.
There is no correct running form, running form and style is unique and natural to us all. Even the best elite athletes run in different ways and this is not an attempt to impose a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. Rather, these 5 top tips are simply designed to be read as guidance:
- Avoid over-striding – The most common tip, told by all physiotherapists and coaches is to avoid over-striding. Whether you’re a fore-foot, mid-foot or heel striker, over-striding can put the bones, joints and muscles under additional stress. Keeping your ankle in line with your knee during its flexion is essential. Attempting to increase your cadence will also help prevent over-striding. Try and ensure that your cadence is above 170 steps per minute. Getting a friend or training partner to video you can help you work-out whether you are over-striding.
- Eyes on the horizon – Keeping your head and eyes up has two benefits, firstly, it makes your head significantly lighter. A recent study showed that just a 15 degree forward tilt, increased the effective weight of the head by nearly three times. It also encourages you to keep a tall posture. A product of modern living, we all have under-active glutes and tight hip-flexors caused by far too much sitting down. Working on improving the mobility of the hip flexion can assist us in keeping a slight forward lean, head slightly ahead of the feet and a straight column from head through the shoulders, hips and feet.
- Don’t forget the arms – We often forget about our arms when we go for a run, as if they add additional weight. Actually, they help us maintain a steady rythym, power our legs forward and maintain our form when we fatigue. Whether running slow or fast, arm movement, swinging from the shoulder, is necessary albeit in bigger movements when running faster. In order to maximise our ability to utilise our arms, it’s crucial we relax our shoulders and eradicate any lingering tension and tightness when we run.
- Engage the glutes – The biggest and most powerful muscle in the body are the glutes. Strengthening these properly and thereby facilitating proper gluteal activation is essential in avoiding injury and improving performance. Incorporating regular strength training routine into your weekly schedule which focusses on glutes, hips and core will help deliver improved running form, especially as you fatigue in longer races. Planks, glute bridges and psoas march are all great exercises which can help. Adhering to the correct posture, as outlined in point 2 will also help you engage the glutes more effectively.
- Avoid the runner’s bounce – Effective running comes from efficient running; all your energy should be targeted at propelling you forwards, towards that finish line. If some of your energy is being used to propel you upwards, you’re wasting vital energy that, particularly in longer races like marathons, can have significant implications. Focus, on increasing your cadence, leaning forward slightly and moving forwards and not up as much as you can.
So, there you have it, by understanding your body and what physiological factors are vital for improved performance and how to train them, as well as incorporating some key running technique tips into your own running form, you can dramatically increase your speed and endurance. That means running faster, running further and crushing those PBs.