2016-01-08

Some Simple Strategies For Improved Running Speed

Remember when this used to be a running blog? Ha!

Experience Is More Important Than Talent

I've met a lot of runners who have been running 9- and 10-minute miles for years. They simply don't understand how I can pretty much stop running for nine months straight and then go out and run a 5K totally cold, but still at a 7:00-per-mile pace or faster. You could argue that part of this is "talent" or "genes," but I firmly believe the real explanation is experience.

Experience teaches you to make small adjustments to your running form, speed, cadence, or posture depending on the landscape or situation in which you find yourself. If you never vary the length of your stride, for example, then you'll slow way down when you have to run uphill. The reason for that is pure physics, not athletic ability. So, through the years, people like myself have figured out that taking shorter strides uphill - and longer strides downhill - makes an enormous difference to your running speed without costing you very much energy.

There are many such examples which, when taken together over the course of a run, turn me into a seven-minutes-a-mile guy even on my bad days, while others struggle. If they knew all these techniques, they'd probably be seven-minutes-a-mile runners, too. 

So today, I'll share one such strategy, learned from experience, that I had to use during my run this morning.

The Setup

I went for a run along a running path today. About halfway through the run, the path went under an overpass so that runners and pedestrians wouldn't have to cross a busy local street. But the running path was dug out underneath the road - the road itself did not change in elevation at all. So, it was a dip. I wasn't running under an overpass, I was running on an underpass.

Ordinarily, as you run over a landscape like this, your speed will naturally increase during the downhill section since it requires less energy to run downhill. Then, when you hit the uphill slope, you'll likely slow down a bit. The problem here is that when you reach the top of the hill, you almost always settle into a pace that was much slower than you were running before you came across the dip in the first place. So you slow down more than you otherwise would have.

Dig my MS Paint skills
A lot of runners - especially novices - lose a lot of energy, speed, and momentum when they hit little dips like this. They think the downhill slowed them down a bit, and then they returned to their old pace. Usually, they're still quite a bit behind their original pace.

This problem has a simple remedy.

First, Lean Into The Downhill

You probably already know this, but if you don't, here it is, briefly:

As you run downhill, lean forward. Don't just "lean forward," I mean really lean into it. You want to push your center of gravity far in front of your feet, so that your legs have to struggle to keep yourself from falling over. You should almost feel like you're losing control.

This reduces the amount of energy required to propel your body forward, because gravity is doing most of the work. You're not really expending any additional energy - in fact, you're probably expending less - but your body is moving a lot faster. The result is a quick burst of speed that continues even for a few steps after the decline flattens out. 

Like I said, though, you probably already knew this.

Push The Uphill Hard

But the trick that will really help you here is one that sounds kind of counter-intuitive. What you have to do is push yourself pretty hard on the uphill. 

Most people want to conserve their energy, so they don't mind taking things a little easier uphill. That's fine, as far as it goes, but like I said above, you'll often find that you don't return to your original pace, even after you've climbed the hill.

Instead, what you need to do when you hit the uphill is lean forward again and pick up the pace to something substantially faster than your original pace. Keep that pace all the way up the hill, then just as you reach the top, give yourself one additional burst of speed over the crest.

In doing so, you will have pushed your body harder than you wanted to, and naturally you will have climbed the hill faster than you otherwise would have. But most importantly, as you return to a more standard pace, you'll settle into something much closer to the pace at which you were originally running. In fact, you might even settle into a faster pace.

Conclusion

Keep in mind, this one tip is not going to revolutionize your running times. Great runners are made from many such tips all working together. But anything you can do to maintain a good pace and improve running economy will help. 

I've been running a lot more lately, so I aim to share more of these tips as I remember them. It's been a long time since I've run competitively, and even longer since I've actively coached anyone. But I've spent a lot of time developing running-related knowledge and experience, and it would be a waste to just sit on that. Hopefully, some of my readers will be able to benefit from this.