5 Tips to Improve Your Running

Did you start running – or running more often – when COVID-19 hit? After all these months, you’re probably turning into a pretty good runner. But, how do you improve even further?

Strength training may hold the answer. It seems odd to suggest that lifting heavy weights can make you a better runner but that’s what the evidence tells us. Strength training stiffens your tendons, improving your muscle contraction which translates to better running performance. Strengthening your calves, knees, hips as well as your glutes, is another way to improve your speed.

There are a lot of running myths out there though. So, we’ve sifted through the evidence for you and summarised the best 5 tips to improve your running.

All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion.

5 Evidence-Based Tips to Improve Your Running

Did you rummage around at the back of your wardrobe to find your old runners during lockdown? Did you escape home for some exercise and go for a jog around your suburb?

It felt good, didn’t it?

You weren’t the only one who turned to running when the pandemic hit. It was an officially permitted reason to leave home, it got you out into the fresh air and sunshine and it stopped you piling on the corona kilos. No wonder running has become so popular.

With each run, your fitness and stamina improved. You maintained those regular runs to improve your fitness and reduce your stress levels. You think of yourself as a runner now. But you’d love to be better at it.

There’s a lot of information out there about running techniques. There are a fair few running myths that litter the internet too. So here are 5 evidence-based tips to improve your running. Some of them may surprise you!


Tip 1: Stiffen Your Tendons Using Slow, Heavy Resistance Training

You’re probably used to thinking of stiffness as a bad thing – after all, no-one wants a stiff neck.

Odd as it may seem, a stiff tendon is actually a bonus. It reduces the ‘slack’ to be taken up when the muscle contracts (gets shorter). To put it another way, it means your muscle contracts more quickly. And that improves your running economy and performance.

So, how do you develop stiffer tendons? You’d think it would make sense to focus your gym training on activities that mimic running’s high-rep, low-load movements, wouldn’t you? Something that helps you achieve a high step count using only your bodyweight.

On the surface, this seems to make sense. But it’s not supported by the evidence.

Mikkola and colleagues (2011) have shown endurance running performance is best improved, not by using light loads, but using very heavy loads. That means you should incorporate slow, heavy resistance training as this may reduce your chance of injury and best improves the stiffness of your tendon.

Can you achieve the same tendon results using low weights? It seems not. Bohm and colleagues found that your tendon stiffness will only increase if you’re training with heavy weights.

Heavy weights are, well, heavy though. So, if you’re not used to heavy resistance training, it’s best to start with a short preparatory cycle of moderate resistance training before moving to very heavy weights.


Tip 2: Get Stronger but not Heavier

If strength training makes you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s giant muscles, then you’d understandably be worried that it’ll make you too heavy to run fast.

Many runners worry that strength training will increase muscle size, which will increase total body weight, which will result in a decrease in running performance.

Thankfully, that’s not true. Weight gain only happens when you consume more calories than you burn.

Rønnestad & Mujika (2013) have shown that total body mass doesn’t increase when strength training is added into an endurance running program. That means you can do strength training as part of endurance running without gaining weight.

In fact, heavy resistance training is likely to improve your running performance. In one study, led by Bettina and colleagues (2016), a group of moderately trained runners did 6 weeks of heavy resistance training and found that their 5km race times improved by almost 4%. The control group, who ran but didn’t do strength training during those 6 weeks, saw no improvement in their race times.

So, do some strength training alongside your running but don’t start eating more calories than you expend.


Tip 3: Target Your Calves, Thighs and Hips

Many runners focus on improving their glutes – and that’s certainly an important muscle group for running.

But your calves and thighs are arguably more important for supporting the body during running. In fact, for endurance-type running the calf muscles supply approximately 50% of the total torque needed for propulsion.

The push-off power of your calves declines by over 30% between the ages of 20 and 60. That weaker push-off is why older runners tend to run using shorter strides. It’s also why some elderly people tend to shuffle when walking.

The muscles you rely on most depend a bit on your running style. If you have a short stride, then your feet and ankles are doing most of the work. If you have a longer stride, then you rely more on your knees, hips and other muscles higher up your legs.

You can make use of this if you’re nursing an injury. For example, if you have a sore knee, then running with a shorter stride will offload the knee and use your feet and ankles more. Once your knee feels better, you can go back to running with your preferred stride.

So, what’s the take-home message? It’s that you need a comprehensive heavy resistance training program that targets the calf, thigh and hip muscles. As you get older, pay more attention to your calf muscles.


Tip 4: Don’t Stress About the ‘Proper’ Running Technique

It’s often silly to call running technique ‘poor’! Sure, if you are running a marathon, it’s probably safe to say running backwards is poor technique. But nitpicking subtle differences in technique is often unhelpful.

When you look at high-level runners, you frequently see a number of biomechanical ‘flaws’. These include arms crossing midline, knee valgus (see Priscah Jeptoo) and over-pronation at foot contact (see Haile Gebrselassie).

It’s commonly believed that the key to fixing poor running technique is to incorporate certain special exercises in the gym. This is often done to reduce knee valgus (where your knee collapses inwards), which can lead to overuse injuries such as runner’s knee.

You may have been told to train your glutes in order to reduce hip adduction and therefore reduce knee valgus.

But there’s no evidence that weak glutes cause valgus when running or that strengthening the glutes will help. Retraining your gait may help improve your hip coordination when running though.

The best advice is to have a good level of overall fitness, run in a style that works for your body and give any injuries time to heal.


Tip 5: Use Gym Exercises to Increase Your Capacity

The weights room isn’t there to help you mimic the movement patterns of your chosen sport. It’s not supposed to be ‘representative’ or ‘functional’ like this. When it comes to training for running, doing multi-joint, ‘functional’ exercises that mimic the movement patterns of running does not seem to transfer to running itself.


Rather, the weights room is a place to train capacities that you can harness when running.

That means single-joint exercises, which better help you achieve running-relevant levels of muscle forces.

Single leg squats are a good example to strengthen the hip and thigh muscles. However, a squat minimally loads the calf complex and minimally moves the ankle through ranges that mimic those utilised in running.

To train your calves, try a single leg calf raise to isolate the calf musculature and enable you to work through a full range of motion at the ankle. Running exposes your Achilles tendon to forces 6-8x bodyweight so heavy resistance exercises are appropriate.


How Can Sycamore Health Help?

To summarise, a good heavy resistance training program that utilises both multi-joint and single-joint exercises seems appropriate to ensure suitable adaptations in the muscles and tendons.

If you’re unsure where to start or how to maximise your running performance, then please make an appointment to see us. Physiotherapists are specialists in exercise and we would love to help you take control of your health. We can even address any underlying or lingering injuries or pain you may have.


Disclaimer

All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion.



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