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Four New Rules for Running Better, Faster, Smarter

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.

By Marty Munson

Hitting your next big running breakthrough might not require a complicated strategy. These simple rules can take you far, fast:

1. Losing the shoes? Switch slowly. Doesn’t matter who says it’s great and who says it’s not; chances are that plenty of you will try barefoot running or Vibram 5-Fingers shoes this year because you think it will make you more injury-proof, more efficient, faster, or – you know who you are – because it’s just plain trendy. Running barefoot naturally causes you to take shorter strides and land with a midfoot or forefoot strike, which reduces a certain amount of impact.

Ironically, in an effort to prevent injury, you can create some if you chuck your shoes without a plan. “Certain people can go out and run 6 miles barefoot, and nothing will happen,” says Jay Dicharry, MPT, CSCS, Director of the Center for Endurance Sport at the University of Virginia. “But for every 100 people who do it, one will have an injury right off. The middle group can get out there, but need to do some things first.” In the best of all worlds, you’d get evaluated by a doctor or physical therapist to see if you’re a good or bad candidate for running barefoot.

In lieu of that, Dicharry says, try this at-home test: Stand on a flat surface with your hands on your hips and your weight on one foot. Get a friend to watch you as you hold that position for 30 seconds. Have them see if you can maintain that with all your toes on the ground, no raising of the inside of the foot. Test the other leg. Then take a break, and do it again with your eyes closed.

If the inside of your foot and big toe come up off the ground, you use your trunk a lot to maintain balance, or you fall, that suggests that you don’t have good control of the muscles in your feet (yet), and need to do some work before you remove your shoes.

“The easy thing is that if you fail the test, the test becomes the exercise,” Dicharry says. Do it as often as you can—while you’re brushing your teeth, while you’re barbecuing, while you’re drinking a beer. When that gets easy, do it with your eyes closed. It’s better to do it 20 times a day for 30 seconds than for 5 minutes once a week.”

Of course, when you ace that, it still doesn’t mean it’s the best idea to go run today’s miles without shoes. In Dicharry’s view, “Running barefoot can be a great drill. A very functional drill.”

2. Train movements, not muscles. Part of what you’ll notice about some of the people who pass you (when you take your ego out of it and learn from them) is that they know how to put things together. “They have flow, agility, rhythm and connections,” explains Vern Gambetta, athletic development coach (www.gambetta.com) and author of Athletic Development: The Art and Science of Functional Sports Conditioning.

A hugely untapped place to train that is in your strength workouts. To make those sessions work for you, Gambetta says, stop thinking of them as “strength” or “weight” training. “It’s really coordination training with appropriate resistance,” Gambetta says.

In practical terms, that means doing workouts that always connect one body part to another. “If you’re in a machine, you’re not training movements, you’re training muscle,” Gambetta says (you don’t want to have to haul that extra muscle bulk around the course, anyway). Instead of a knee extension or hamstring curl, do a body weight squat, and you’ll connect the ankle to the knee to the hip. Instead of staying in one place with the bird dog exercise, crawl. You’ll strengthen your core AND practice maintaining that strength as you move through space.

Crawling? Seriously. Try crawling forward, back, and side-to-side and you’ll see that being a kid isn’t as easy as it looks. Gambetta, who is also co-founder of the USA Track and Field Coaching Education Program, has his pro and developing athletes (who have included Mets and Bulls, by the way) do this frequently. Other great connectors: lunges, push-ups, pull-ups. “The movements aren’t very exotic, but they’re effective and efficient. Try to incorporate 5 different types of movements in your gym workouts each week: pulling/rowing; pushing/pressing; squatting/lunging; rotational/bracing,” he says. “You don’t have to go to the gym for 45 minutes. Just 10-15 minutes a day, or 20 minutes 3 times a week, with different resistance depending on where you are in your racing cycle.”

3. Train in all directions and all planes. Yes, specificity of training still rules (in other words, if you want to run well, you have to practice running). But the paradoxical truth is that training in all planes (rotational, frontal, and transverse) helps you be more efficient in the saggital plane (the front-and-back plane in which we bike and run), Gambetta explains. Basically, “3-dimensional” training creates connections that rehearse the little inefficiencies out of your run. When you get tired, you start to drift from the saggital. You might start to drop your hips or swing your shoulders. Strengthening in other planes can help you control those movements so keep everything moving forward.

Think of multidirectional movements this way: If you had some race gear under a tarp on the roof of your car, you’d secure it before you left so the corners wouldn’t flap around and ruin the streamlining. “Over 200 (or 70.3 or 140.6 miles) that’s costing you a lot of gas mileage,” Gambetta says. Look at where you break down as fatigue sets in. Spend your gym energy shoring them up.

4. Run as fast as you want to, not as fast as you think you can. Who’s imposing your limits? Sometimes it’s you, says Elizabeth Waterstraat, coach and founder of Multisport Mastery (multisportmastery.com) in Chicago. “Especially when athletes train heavily with technology, they can become wrapped up and limited by where the numbers should be, rather than where they could be.” Unplug the technology now and then, she says, “and tune into how running fast feels in your legs, what it sounds like in your breathing, and what it speaks in your head. If you look down at your device and see you’re approaching 5K pace, you might begin to fear that you will blow up or not be able to hold it. But you just might be breaking through in that workout. Save the evaluation for later. Don’t let your fears and worries limit how much you are willing to give.”

Learn how to define what’s truly hard for yourself. “Many athletes look to coaches or formulas to tell them what hard is by heart rate, pace, or percentage of VO2max. Hard is hard. You run hard. Until you connect to that, you will not run as fast as you want to; you’ll run as fast as someone tells you to go.”

Then, listen to what you’re saying. “You may be focusing on the negative (I am so slow) rather than the positive (I am getting stronger; this is a solid starting point). Running fast is so much about managing the physical pain; there is no hiding behind equipment (bicycle) or conditions (waves); it’s usually just you and the pavement. Your legs must be strong, but your head must be stronger,” Waterstraat says.

“To know your limits, you have to be willing to test them,” she says. “The best athletes take logical risks in training so they know how far they can go in racing.” Don’t be surprised if it’s farther than you thought.

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