Track Workouts and Running Form

Posted March 26th, 2010 by Mackey and filed in Fitness, workout plans
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Ironside vs. Chain, Semifinals, '09 Club Nationals. Photo taken by Keegan Uhl.

While the college season is picking up steam, a lot of club players are just getting in gear for the coming tryouts and season.

Ballometrics has been maintaining a fitness list for the past few months (tryouts start soon, if you’re interested in playing competitive mixed out of Boston, drop a line); people are starting to do track workouts now that the land is thawing.

I sent the following to the list about doing pre-season track workouts, which segued into a lot of thoughts on running form. As we still have the luxury of training without the constant performance demand of weekend tournaments and practices, it’s a great time to focus on technique and go into the season not only with a good base of strength and conditioning, but efficient form, as well.

It all depends on where you are athletically right now. It’s pretty early in pre-season right now, so I’d encourage you to focus on form at a brisk pace and short distance–”tempo runs” if you’ve heard the term–rather than doing either long slow distance (though that can have a similar place in getting ready to sprint, and if that’s your thing, that’s fine) or especially full-on sprints at this point if your body isn’t ready for it.

At the very least, I’d encourage pretty full recovery between runs for the first couple workouts. There are other ways to condition, doing circuits in the gym, etc, that have the side benefit of making you better fit without the risk of overdoing it that can come with sprinting full-on before you’re ready.

Again, this depends on what kind of shape you’re in. I know that for myself, for instance, I can’t really do more than a couple full-on sprints right now before my form starts breaking down and I’m liable to hurt myself without a good long break. I’m also working back from injury end of last season that had me hobbling around for a couple weeks, so you normal people might be ready to do more. Regardless, with the luxury of time it’s definitely worth focusing on running form–pretty much all of us can benefit from more work here.

I’d encourage everybody to work some running form drills into the warm-up, generally but especially before running workouts. Check out here for some of the classics (it’s for tennis, but the same drills carry over across sport), and here for ideas for more high-impact stuff that you can make part of your workout.

Doing some drills like the above to prime the nervous system before you run, and then focusing on various aspects of form (I’d say no more than 2 things at a time) while actually running, ideally at something more than a jog, can help train your nervous system to run more efficiently even when you’re going full-out and can’t focus on form as much (ie, in game).

When I say “various aspects of form” I mean things like:

  • Arm Swing: Straight forward and back rather than across the chest, angle around 90 degrees (a little less on backswing and a little more on upswing). When you’re jogging this angle increases, but when sprinting your hand should go from hip to lip. My old track coach used to cue us to imagine grabbing potato chips from our pockets and bringing them up to our mouth to eat while running. This also cues keeping the hands relaxed, since if you clench you’ll crush the chip. It’s important not to “force” the arm action and tense up, as this just leaks energy and hurts efficiency. Swing from the shoulders, keep your elbows close to your body, and relax.
  • Body Posture (keeping a tight core): More wisdom from my coach–if you take a yardstick and drop it on its end, it’ll bounce back up, force transfers from the stick to the ground and back when it’s one piece. If the yardstick has a hinge in the middle (a weak core, or hunched-over posture), it simply collapses, and all the energy in ground contact is lost. Keep your core tight and keep from hinging at the hips to run more efficiently. (Keep in mind that when you’re accelerating you lean–this lean should come from the ankles rather than the hips).
  • Foot Strike: This is a little more advanced and takes a bit more work to make second nature. Short form: Heel strike is bad. “Toe” running is also bad, but that’s more of a misnomer for proper form. The ideal is to land on the BALL of the foot. Whether you’re sprinting or running distance, the body’s designed to absorb force on footstrike with the ball enabling the muscles and tendons of your foot, ankle and calf to absorb force (and exert force going into the next step). When you heel strike most of that machinery is negated or worse, has to work overtime, which can lead to all sorts of issues, from chronic knee injury and wearing to shin splints and stress fractures.

    I highly encourage you to examine the heel on your running shoe and consider investing in a pair of shoes with a lower, if not flat one, as most commercially designed shoes have heels that are way too high to allow a natural footstrike. I’ve been training and running in Nike Frees for years now after a couple years of knee woes and ankle sprains, and though it took me a while to adjust, I’ve had much healthier ankles and knees since. If you can’t afford or don’t want to get new shoes, at least do yourself a favor and start warming up and cooling down in bare feet on grass. Strengthening your feet means letting them do their own thing, and it’ll carry over to normal shoe wearing.
  • Stride Length/Rate: Goes right along with foot strike. You actually don’t need to focus on this too much, if you’re getting a good foot strike this should naturally limit your stride length. Keep in mind that the stronger you are the longer your “stride length” will be without you having to stretch; if you stride too far (are consciously trying to) your footfalls are going to become heel strikes, which in addition to being an injury risk also means your feet are too far in front of you and each step you take is braking, rather than accelerating or at least maintaining your speed. Same for rate–you shouldn’t need to focus on it too much. Let your body figure these ones out.
  • Knee Lift/Butt Kick: These are the things you focus on to boost stride rate and length. The more you can pick up your foot behind you, the shorter a lever your hip has to move forward before taking the next step. Makes a big difference for sprinting. Picking up your knee is a cue to maximize how much ground this short lever covers before you set down again–just make sure you let your foot fall naturally rather than reaching and overstriding.

Short-term, I’d encourage you to focus on arm swing, posture, and knee lift/butt kick depending on which of those you need the most work on (hopefully you can pay attention next time you’re running and pick out if your arms are swinging across your body instead of straight back-forward, or if your foot carry is pretty close to the ground). I find posture tends to increase pretty dramatically with more core strength, so if you’re not already doing core work, especially stuff like hanging leg raises or static holds, working some of that in should carry over to running form pretty well.

I spent a number of years running track in middle and high school and we did form drills for at least 15 minutes every day, so it’s something I take pretty seriously–it’s an easy way to get faster without becoming “stronger” or “better conditioned,” simply more efficient. Hopefully this gives you some rationale to understand and work with the form drills.

6 Responses to “Track Workouts and Running Form”

  1. Pete Gadomski says:

    > It all depends on where you are athletically right now.
    > It’s pretty early in pre-season right now, so I’d
    > encourage you to focus on form at a brisk pace and short
    > distance–”tempo runs” if you’ve heard the term–rather
    > than doing either long slow distance (though that can
    > have a similar place in getting ready to sprint, and if
    > that’s your thing, that’s fine) or especially full-on
    > sprints at this point if your body isn’t ready for it.

    Disagree, but that’s a philosophical difference I’ve had with folks for a while. I think a good base is SUPER important to late-season speed. I believe that the guy that’s fastest at noon on Sunday in September) is either the guy who put in the most miles in March or the guy that wasn’t running Saturday.

    Run all weekend. Log the miles now. :-)

    -notanutlimateplayer

  2. Mackey says:

    I know you do :-p

    To be fair, me giving distance work that much credit now is progress from what I’d have said a year or two ago.

    If that’s your thing, then hey, sure, go for it*. I’m not going to advocate it for everybody though.

    *Phrased differently: perhaps it’s the guy who is most given to building a base is already the fastest guy. You know? Plenty of folks put in plenty of miles and still get roasted, and plenty of folk don’t and do the roasting (and vice-versa as well, though I see fewer cases of people doing it short and hard and getting left behind. One way or another I think you have to get the speed work in).

    Come home soon.

  3. Pete Gadomski says:

    You’ve come so far! :-)

    I agree that you need speed work in order to fine-tune and get the extra oomph. Your speed work will be that much more meaningful when you have a strong base. Especially when you’re playing a sport that is much more like soccer or a middle-distance race than a 100m sprint (sure you do short sprints, but you’re doing them over and over and over again for two days).

    I think running 20 miles a week (5 miles 4 times a week) in the off season will not hurt anyone, and will help prevent injuries, increase productivity in speed workouts, and cure cancer. So why not? :-)

    But I agree there are many ways to skin the speed cat and I also know many successful folks that are fast without base. Do what makes you happy first…if you’re making yourself miserable running LSD (long slow distance), then stop. Have fun first, get good later.

    Flyin’ home today. Woot!

  4. AUTV says:

    What a lot of people neglect to consider is the effect of increased arm-movement speed on your leg speed/stride turnover.
    Being able to move your arms faster will result in your legs moving faster. “You sprint with your arms” is not as ridiculous as it sounds once you try it.

  5. James says:

    http://journal.crossfit.com/2010/03/a-violent-agreement1.tpl

    I certainly don’t pretend to have the knowledge base (beyond anecdotal experience) to argue about how to best build speed, but I thought this video was worth watching.

  6. Jesse says:

    I usually use the off-season an pre-season to work on technique as well. We do running, jumping etc with my team and we usually start off slowly, with longer runs.

    We also spent a lot of time on throwing technique during the winter. If you want to be a good cutter, you have to be a good thrower. This way, you’ll be dangerous to the disc, as well as away from the disc.

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