“Many times, runners morph into doing the same thing all of the time and through time, lose the challenge that the body needs to adapt and improve fitness or performance,” says Eric Orton, author of The Cool Impossible and the coach in Christopher McDougall’s cult read Born to Run. Moreover, we’ve been warned time and again about the dangers of steady pace running. So, how can we optimize the efficacy of our runs and avoid injury? We turned to three prominent running experts to find out.
Train Your Feet
“We are only as strong as our feet; foot strength is the single most important aspect of training runners and athletes,” says Orton. A simple but very potent way to improve foot strength and run athleticism he says is to balance on one leg barefoot on your forefoot only. “As you improve your ability to balance, incorporate running up stairs barefoot. Start out running easy and as you become stronger through time, add more power and explosion running up the stairs.”
“Position the arms so there’s about a 90-degree angle at the elbow and swing the arms from the shoulder joint in a straight line, not across the body,” says Mile High Run Club founder Debora Warner. “Arms should stay parallel with the shoulders relaxed and down.” John Henwood, founder of TheRUN, adds that runners should always look straight ahead, have hips forward, chest out, shoulders relaxed and a slight forward lean. He also suggests making sure your wrists are relaxed.
Get in Gear
Warner suggests avoiding arm bands or carrying water on a long run. “The items can affect the arm swing and/or gait. It’s important for the arms to swing freely when powering up hills or passing runners in a race. An accepted rule of thumb is that the legs follow the arms, so be careful with anything that could potentially cause an imbalance.”
“Regardless of run ability or run goals, every runner should look to incorporate some short, moderately fast sprints to their running regime,” says Orton. “Look to add 10 to 15 second sprints one to two times, either during or at the end of your run. Not only will this help build strength and speed, but sprints also help you improve your range of motion and recruit more muscle fibers — all to keep you healthy and they’ll make you feel good. Keep them relaxed and not at full max effort. I tell my athletes, ‘If you dread them, they are way too fast.’ Keep them fun, and you will be accomplishing what you need to.”
Adding hills to your run is essential, says Henwood. “Running hills forces you to lift your knees higher, which governs stride length and stride speed. Hills also boost the power of your muscles and will force you to breathe harder to increase your lung capacity.” He also suggests running on dirt paths as long as the surface is fairly even, as it’s easier on joints.
Take the Hard/Easy Approach
“Plateaus in performance and fitness occur many times when runners don’t run hard enough and/or slow enough during their week. Often runners morph into always running at a moderate effort, which might reap gains initially, but if continued for too long, will inevitably lead to that dreaded plateau,” explains Orton, who suggests that runners try running their normal easy run much slower than usual and make one to two runs per week much faster than normal during a three-week time period. “This will help you get out of the rut of always running at a moderate effort and the slower pace will help you recover, while still accomplishing endurance gains.”
In tandem with that, Orton says that when it comes to running, it’s important to opt for “less more often.” Frequency is crucial for run health and fitness gains he says, so for example, instead of running 45 minutes three to four times a week, run five to six times a week for 30 minutes. Or decrease long run time and add more time to your shorter weekday runs.
Cut Down to Speed Up
“For all runners, efficiency is the holy grail and something we all can improve upon,” says Orton. “Many times the slower we run, the more inefficient we are and therefore a lot of run dysfunction takes place during EASY runs and not during the faster runs we may blame the dysfunction on. One way to test your efficiency is to run easy and breathe only through your nose. Try doing this one day a week and look to increase the amount of time you can spend running continuously breathing through your nose. The harder it is for you to run slow like this, the less efficient you are and this is a great way to improve your speed without running faster.”