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Many runners spend a lot of training and effort trying to get a quicker base pace. Endless reps, laps round a track, fartlek training and more. All of this is great for building on your cardio fitness and pushing your lactate threshold higher to be able to cope with faster speeds and higher heart rates, but often people forget the importance of posture and technique on running speed.

In this post, I’m going to give you a really simple childhood song to help you remember proper running form and teach you how to run faster… so let’s get back to basics!

The Phases of Running

Picture Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world. Now picture a marathon fun runner. Lightening bolt pose aside, there are some marked differences in the running style and form between each.


Support/Absorption Phase

In the above photo Bolt’s right leg is reaching for the ground, where it will be in the “support” or “absorption” phase of running. Once his foot touches the ground, the knee of that leg, and the hip of the opposite leg, begin to flex (bend) in order to absorb some of the forces that occur when the foot touches the ground. As Bolt’s foot comes closer to the ground the contact will actually be met with the ball of his foot, in a forefoot running style, this also engages the calves in absorption of forces.

Toe-off/Propulsion Phase

Moving on to the second photo, Bolt’s right leg is in the “propulsion” or “toe-off” phase, this is the next phase on from absorption. In this phase the knee extends (straightens) along with the hip, leaving the toe in contact with the ground as the force is applied by the quads (your thigh muscles). You can also see plantar flexion (pointing) of the foot, meaning that the calves are also activated, adding more power to the stride.

Recovery Phase

In both pictures the other leg is in the “recovery” phase, where the movement is generated more by transfer of forces rather than conscious action. However, the amount of hip flexion (bending) achieved in picture (b) of the right leg, and the hip extension (drawing the hip back) and knee flexion (bending) achieved in picture (a) of the left leg, will only be made possible by additional muscle power.

The Marathon Shuffle

In contrast, most (non-elite) long-distance runners develop a running style often nick-named the “marathon shuffle” where the feet stay in close proximity to the ground all the way through the running phases:

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London Marathon Masses

 

Absorption Phase

In the absorption phase a lot of people touch the ground with their heel, instantly applying braking forces because of the foot being so far ahead of your centre of gravity (lower abdomen, towards the hips). As well as this, the knee is more stiff allowing less flexion to occur, meaning forces are absorbed elsewhere, i.e. the bones in the lower leg and ankle, potentially causing injury as well as slowing you down.

Propulsion Phase

In the propulsion phase, there is less likely to be plantar flexion (pointing) of the foot, because the ankle joint is less flexible. This leaves the quads (thigh muscles) to do all of the work on their own, and with the knee not being flexed in the absorption phase, there is a much shorter length left for the quads to contract, instantly losing power.

Recovery Phase

Finally the recovery phase. In distance runners, the feet are often left much closer to the ground throughout the movement, with less hip flexion in the forward swing, and less hip extension and knee flexion in the backward swing.

Granted, no-one is expecting you to run a marathon at the speed of Bolt, but there is a lot we can all learn from his powerful running style, and most elite marathon runners look more like Bolt than you may first notice.

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Elite Marathon Runners

If all of that was like learning Japanese then read on for a really simple and memorable way to improve your posture and hopefully make you a better and more efficient runner… it involves a childhood song you may remember!

Sing while you run…

Do you remember that childhood song “head, shoulders, knees and toes”? You know, when you learnt what your different body parts were? Well:

  • Head: keep your head up, looking ahead rather than down. Try to think of a pole running along the length of your spine and up behind your head – imagine your head resting back against that pole. You should have a slight forward lean with your entire upper body, not just your head!
  • Shoulders: pull your shoulders back and down, so your shoulder blades are flat against your back. This will help with the swing in your arms, assisting with transfer of power to the opposing leg.
  • Knees: on the forward swing of your leg try to lift your knees up, using your hips to lift rather than your knee simply swinging forward.
  • Toes: on the backward swing of your leg, flick your toes up behind you… but not excessively, you’re not doing aerobics! Use the power in your glutes and hamstrings (your bum and back of your thighs) to really pull your leg up behind you.

Just these four simple adjustments could make such a difference to the speed you run at and make you more Bolt-like, and who wouldn’t want that?

Featured photo by Will Patrick photography.

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If you follow me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter you’ll know that I’ve fallen a little bit out of love with running over the last year or so, or since my stress fracture. I can’t justify or explain why, but I guess it has something to do with the fear of being rubbish, or it being really hard or painful!

Realistically though, this fear is mostly unfounded; I do CrossFit four or five times per week, where we do a little bit of running or rowing and plenty of high intensity workouts, so technically I should have enough general fitness to carry me through a short- to mid-distance run. But in practice, how does this style of training carry over to running, something people usually train very specifically for?

CrossFit for Cardio Endurance

There’s no denying that CrossFit has made me the strongest I’ve been in my life – I can do bodyweight pullups, throw 70+ kilos above my head, and pull nearly double my bodyweight off the floor in a deadlift. I’m sure, in some ways, I’m fitter too; I’ve clocked a 1:51 500m row and quite often push myself to the limits on high intensity WODs, but how does that compare to more endurance based exercise, such as running?

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As is CrossFit’s aim, you should be capable of doing almost anything you want or need to do, simply with doing regular CrossFit classes. Taking the running example, strength work makes your muscles able to deal with the demands of uphill inclines, and to generally carry you the distance. Metabolic conditioning (met con) keeps your cardiovascular system ticking over and coping with a certain amount of lactic acid build up. And the mental toughness required to push yourself harder makes the world of difference when it comes to those moments of every race/run when you just want to give up!

By building on general strength and mobility, CrossFit is able to help make you a more efficient runner – taking longer strides, generating more power out of every step and helping to prevent damaging movement patterns like heel striking, overpronation and valgus knee collapse. I found evidence of this myself after going for a gait assessment with Asics a few weeks ago – I am now a neutral runner after years of overpronation!

The Proof is in the Pudding

Over the last year I’ve had two fairly standout moments that have made me think about CrossFit’s effect on my running performance. The first was at the Hatfield Broad Oak 10k race at the end of May bank holiday in 2015. I had signed up to run with a couple of my husband’s friends and, despite best intentions, only trained two to three times, max 3 miles, in the lead-up to the race. But even with this lack of specific training, I clocked a time only 2 minutes slower than my 10k personal best time set in 2012 (when I was marathon training).

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The second standout moment was only a week ago when I managed to force myself out for a run for the first time in months. I started off feeling nervous in anticipation of a struggle round the 5k route I’d set myself, but soon realised that, actually, my pace wasn’t too bad and I was feeling pretty decent. I pushed myself for the last mile, and finished 2.5 minutes slower than my 5k PB… with NO specific training.

CrossFit x Run Training in Practice

In an effort to kick-start my running motivation I thought I’d book myself a race to give myself a reason to run. Rather than pushing myself for a half marathon distance, which would require a fair amount of training and dedication, I thought I’d go for something more realistic for my sporadic running attempts… the Vitality British 10k in London. An achievable distance, 10k pushes me to train a little, even if only to finish without hurling.

I love running in London, and I even got a training run in while attending an event with Stance Socks last week. Stance combine art with performance in their running socks (which you can buy from Whatever it Takes, Pro:Direct Running or [Kit]box), and we wore some for a tour with Alternative London of some of East London’s best street art, including Banksy, Roa and Ben Wilson, as part of Stance Socks’s European Street Art Tour. One of the finds that amazed me the most was Ben Wilson’s chewing gum art – he paints tiny little scenes on chewing gum that people have dropped on the streets, turning something ugly and thoughtless into pieces of art protected with varnish! Next on the street art tour is a run in Copenhagen on 25th May – you can keep up with the tour using the hashtag #stancerun.

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I wonder if I’ll see any of Ben’s work on the British 10k course? Even without street art, the course looks particularly scenic, passing landmarks including the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Starting on Hyde Park Corner, the route takes in Piccadilly, Regent Street, Pall Mall, St James Palace, Trafalgar Square and Embankment too. Having never gotten into the London Marathon (despite many, many attempts!), it’s my only chance to really take in the sights on a run. 

In terms of training, I aim to complete just one to two runs per week… my only specific running training. My priority will be a distance run, which will amount to between 4-6 miles, and if I can fit it in, then I’ll also do a tempo run of around 3 miles. Normally, if I was to train specifically for a race, I would aim to complete a third run each week, which would be speedwork or hill based, but with CrossFit taking me to a high intensity regularly, I feel as though I could sacrifice this quite safely. Any more than three runs per week seems to be a waste to me anyway (unless you’re looking to build really high weekly mileage into your legs, e.g. for ultra training), and I’d much rather get my CrossFit sessions in for strength training, and a yoga class in for mobility.

So my training programme should, hopefully, look something like this:

Monday – CrossFit 6am

Tuesday – CrossFit 6am

Wednesday – CrossFit 6am, Run 6pm (or Midweek League race)

Thursday – Yoga 6pm, or Weightlifting Club 7:30pm

Friday – CrossFit 6am

Saturday – Weightlifting Club 10:30am, or Run 9:30am

Sunday – Rest day

8 Week Countdown

So now I’ve signed up for the British 10k I’m committed to racing it… I don’t want to put my foot in it by stating a goal time, but let’s just say I’m hoping to prove I can run just as fast off the back of CrossFit as I can with months and months of specific training in my legs. I have another 10k race, plus some running club midweek league races that I can do to get the timing practice in between now and race day, and 8 weeks to do it all in. Watch this space!

Are you a running CrossFitter? Have you noticed a difference in your running training since starting CrossFit? How do you think strength training helps your running? Comment below!

This post is sponsored by Vitality British 10k. Photos courtesy of Lucy Rakauskas, ContreJour Photography and Stance Socks.