Better Distance Running

Better Distance Running

By: Kevin Bowles

When it comes to running, every step we take is a step in the right direction.

It is a seemingly natural human tenancy to over complicate things that are complex and underestimate things that are simple. Since humans have been alive we have been running, therefore it should be a natural and simple endeavour. However, evolutionary and revolutionary progress has led to a natural degradation of our ability to do some simple, ordinary human tasks, running being one of them. Because we have genetically modified our running capabilities over time, we tend to undermine this natural human capacity. Popular culture has us many of us thinking that for better distance running we should mirror forest gump, when forest gump’s running was a fiction within a fiction. I wish the following didn’t need to be stated, but I am not writing this to condemn humanity for its growth, we simply must realize certain facts. Rather I feel compelled to write this to encourage the ambitious runner as a guide to practically building running back into their human abilities in a gradual approach, safely and effectively. As for our limit to running, well, we are still searching for that. People continue to push the boundaries through world records in speed and distance, as well as the discovery of age old cultures like the mayans.
Be it an olympian track star or someone attempting to run for the first time in their lives, deal with limitations. We have seen two major limitations throughout every level of runner, that come in the form of volume (distance) and intensity (speed); we can’t run far enough or fast enough. What we must realize is that when overcoming these limitations, we can use three main tactics:
  1. Technique
  2. Pacing
  3. Basic principles
Between volume and intensity lies pacing. A runner must know themselves well which is a major limitation when first starting out, because how can we know the unknown? We can’t. We have to find it. So, we start simple, with a warm-up.

Warm ups

If you’ve ever felt like when you are running you have been fighting you’re speed the whole way or you are simply fighting to keep running, you’ve probably bitten off more than you can chew initially in regards to volume or speed. Adversely, if you have ever felt like you are ‘in the zone’ sort of speak where you feel like you are gliding across the ground with very little effort, focused on breathing through your strides, you have most likely initiated, and built, your run productively. Our run starts before we start running.
It’s best to think about running like we would weightlifting, when going for a 1 RM back squat we don’t simply load up the bar and go for it, we progress to it through proper warm-up, drills/skills, and load progressing, running is no different.
So first, we should look at how we are initiating our runs: are we warming up at all or enough? Are we doing a proper warm-up progression that includes the right tools?  When we get to running, are we focused on our speed progression?
A warm up is intended to prepare the body for the task it is about to do. A simple concept when preparing to run with a warm-up is the longer the distance the lighter the warm-up, the shorter the distance the heavier the warm-up. This is because shorter runs will be faster, longer runs will be slower relative to the athlete and speed is force production, the greater the force production the greater the preparation. Each warm-up no matter how involved should include a general warm-up to initiate blood flow to specific areas, specific joint mobilization, and drills that address the skill of running.
Here is a 5km sample warm-up that includes all of the above and  takes 10mins:
A. General
3min Easy run, nose breathing
20 straight leg front to back swings/leg
20 straight leg side to side swings/leg
B. Mobility
Piked runners calf pedals 60s
Standing quad pull 30s/30s
-Squeeze the glute to increase hip flexor range
C. Specific
ABC drills 50ft x 2 on each
Running starts, like anything else, with proper progression. There will be a significant increase in your ability to sustain faster paces and greater distances when initiating your runs with proper warm-ups.

Technique

This is one of the most neglected aspects of running, we are dealing with major full body movement; when we are running we are dealing with a complex movement pattern through the transverse plane. Take this fact coupled with the idea that humanity has been deconditioned to this movement and we have issues that start right here. It is vital to, at least be thinking about running technique and mechanics. My main point on running technique is get a coach who has experience running. A general rule on a running coach: if they discuss proper footwear more than they discuss technique they do not have enough experience to teach you about running (more on that one later).
The first thing to note regarding the mechanism of running is that runners will use a lot of quad engagement because more than our bodyweight strikes the ground through the balls of the feet. It is more than our bodyweight because we are adding velocity to our bodyweight at the point of impact. Therefore, primarily our quads, secondary our calves, will become heavily use when running. Tracing this up the kinetic chain, our hip flexors, spinal erectors, and even our front delts will also become heavily used. So in order to maintain a balanced engagement we want to keep the body tilted forward, if we find ourselves reaching too far with our foot to increase stride length, we will strike the heels, engaging too much posterior chain and putting on the breaks in the process.
So rather than increase stride length, we want to focus on a quick toe strike on the ground to increase our time spent in the air, as there is less friction this way making for faster, more effortless, and decreased injury risk running. Think gazel or moonman.
The second thing we need to address with our technique is that we actually initiate each running stride with the arms, not the legs. This is true for not just distance runners but even more so with sprinters, watch a sprinter use their arms to propel their stride, it’s not the other way around. If we put our focus into our shoulders and arms when we run, our stride will naturally fall into place. The key to this is that our shoulders must remain relaxed and we must understand the concept of energy transfer. I see a lot of runners start to benefit from using the arms, but in an aggressive attempt to create propulsion, the arms will start to twist creating lateral momentum. This is a problem because distance running happens in a very straight line, meaning we want as little lateral force as possible. Momentum should all be generated forwards, with nothing being expended sideways. A rule of “thumb” for the arms is to relax the shoulders by relaxing the fist, hold the elbows at 90 degrees, driving the knuckles from the shoulders in a straight line. Like taking a key from our pocket and inserting it into a lock at shoulder height.

Pacing

Pacing is simple mathematics because of complex biology. The first thing that a distance runner, or any endurance athlete should become aware of is how our body’s metabolic system works. When putting in longer duration efforts we are generally within our aerobic metabolic energy system, this means oxygen is very important to us. It also means that if we become too eager and burn up our energy too much at the beginning of our effort, the rest of the effort will not be enjoyable and our performance will ultimately decrease. On Top of this, if we train in this manner, we are more at risk for injury, adrenal fatigue, and exponential performance decrease.  Adversely, if we gradually build our pace starting slower and gaining speed through the effort, we can find the ideal pace best suited for our ability and how we are feeling that day. For new runners, this poses a problem because it becomes a mere guessing game. But, if we are attentive to our pacing times, we will be able to gradually dial this in and watch our running get more effective and more enjoyable over time. It won’t feel like we are fighting ourselves anymore, it will feel like we are pushing ourselves.
Distance running is best thought of like driving a very simple car. You are the car, your energy is the gas tank, and your ability to pace is the pedal. If we push the pedal all the way to the floor, we will quickly run out of gas to the point where we are running on fumes. The closer the pedal gets to the floor, the more quickly our “gas” is used up. If we are attempting to run greater distances, than it is imperative to note that we only have just enough gas in the tank to get us from start to finish. As the Km’s decrease, we can afford to press the pedal down little by little. This can be a guessing game at first, and is not as black and white as we would like it to be.
However, it becomes very simple once we have our best times in a few different distances: 400m, 1,600m, 3km/5km are popular. Once we have these distances tested, we can use our times as a guide to our pacing. Hypothetically, if I have a 25:00min 5km as a best time there’s no way I should start at less than a 5min/km pace for a 5km effort. In fact, if I want to pr my 25min time, the best thing I can do is run a little bit slower than that at the start. Because, metabolically, if I work above an aerobic level, I will start burning up glycogen at a much too rapid pace, my body will start to feel weaker as my respiratory rate starts to skyrocket in response to this metabolic surprise. I will feel the body respond with lactic acid, and I can even experience exercise induced asthma this way. On the flip side, our fastest speed should be saved for the end of the run because the Anaerobic energy stores, such as ATP, that we need in order to produce our fastest speeds will only last up to 2mins in the best of conditioned athletes.
 We don’t bank time, we bank energy in the endurance game, this is a principle that will drastically change the game for us with regards to endurance. The name of this game is to be patient with ourselves and observe our running from a more macro standpoint. Run slower to run faster.

Principles

I is actually best to think of running as mostly strength, not cardio, from a definitive standpoint. What limits us from greater speeds and going further distances, is a very specific type of strength and/or power depending on the distance. The greater the distance the more strength endurance, the shorter the distance the more explosive power, the middle distance is the goldie locks zone, it elicits an Anaerobic threshold response that if trained properly through smart intervals, it can help us become better runners at many distances and overall better endurance athletes. This is the biggest mark missed by most runners who simply hit the pavement and push only the distance envelope, left to wonder why they can’t run more than 3km without stopping.

Volume vs speed

We need to incorporate both in our training but rarely at the same time. We can do so via three training days: Endurance Day (volume), Speed Day (Intensity), and a Tempo day (Finding a feel for pacing). We can calculate as much as we want and have all the fancy watches and gadgets, but nothing beats a runner who can accurately feel their pace. So,  if we currently only have the strength to run 3km without stopping, the most ineffective way to improve is to keep trying to run greater distances. A most efficient way is to break the 3Km’s down into various speed and tempo intervals that total 3km’s or higher and run faster. This coupled with longer slower training sessions will catapult us to greater distances, faster times, and more comfortable running.

Capacities

If we wouldn’t train with a max effort everyday in gymnastics or with a barbell, we shouldn’t do it with running either. When we are reaching outside of our distance capacities everyday our ambition stunts our growth, staying in the realms of our capacity and extrapolating what we can from within is the way to build a solid foundation and when it’s time we will watch our capacities start to grow exponentially. The answer to an overwatered plant is definitely not more water. This is why we must address all three endurance training areas every week: Speed, Tempo, Distance. When we train all three in a balanced manner, we will start to build real capacities, built on a foundation of rock, not sand.

Injuries

Injuries must be addressed when having any running discussion, since injury rates among runners are higher than they should be. Runners experience injury for many controllable reasons, including: Technique, equipment issues, track methods.
Technique is the obvious contributor, as stated previously. Equipment issues range from shoes to treadmills. Now, I am a big believer that runners don’t need anything fancy in regards to footwear, we do not need a shoe salesman to analyze our running stride in order to safely pick out shoes to wear. The biggest problem with our footwear happens after we make our purchase, not beforehand. Most runners hold onto running shoes for too long, the shoes begin to deteriorate, losing their rigidity, and the support turns into a soft cushion; not good when repetitively striking the feet to the ground. If running 3x/week with 5-12km/session, a runner should change their shoes every 6 months. Keeping the shoe rigid is very important, if not you might be better off running bare foot (which is not ideal).

The treadmill

If this is our only option, we might want to consider investing in some outdoor gear and selling the treadmill. It’s that bad. I began training with a running coach when I was 9 years old, I had 5-6 different running coaches through the 12 years I was a runner. Not once did I train with any of them on a treadmill. The treadmill causes future problems because of the artificial nature of the treadmill stride. The athlete’s foot strikes the machine and the belt pulls the foot back for us. This causes a disengagement of the hamstrings and overdeveloped quads over time. Something, like an air runner is much better and can drastically help our technique. However, nothing beats the outdoors.
Finally, when running on a track, runners do not often think about direction of travel. We have seen specific injuries such as patella femoral syndrome (runner’s knee) specifically linked to running the same way on a track each day. Simple fix: alternate directions of travel each session if possible.
With some attention to detail, running is a very safe and effective way to build an athlete’s endurance capacities.

You better be running

My highschool cross country and track team had this quote engrained in us that I want to leave you with, as it always revs me up to get out and hit the pavement:
“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
-Christopher McDougall, Born to Run

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