Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff

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4 Simple Tweaks You Can Make to Your Training That Will Make You a Better Runner Immediately

What is one thing you can do to be a better runner today?

For those of you like me who eat, breathe and sleep running, it’s easy, and a lot of fun, to get caught up reading about the latest training theories, race-specific workouts, and nutrition secrets. The problem for most runners (and myself) is putting this advice into action; either it’s not specific to what you’re doing right now (how to recover from a marathon for example) or it’s not specifically actionable advice (learning about the 3 different types of thresholds).

To help you avoid information overload and to facilitate you being able to make positive changes to your running right now, I am going to share with you 4 quick wins you can implement right away.

Do one of these things each day this week (and continue doing them) and I guarantee you’ll be a better runner in just 4 days!

1. Add hip strengthening to your training

All coaches would agree that staying healthy and training consistently are the primary keys to success. If you can train healthy for months and years at a time you will improve – it’s one of the only guarantees in running.

The problem is actually staying healthy.

When research estimates that nearly 72% of runners will get injured sometime in their running career, how can you avoid being part of this statistic and actually run injury-free?

The easiest and simplest way is to strengthen the areas that are most likely to lead to injury. In running, that’s the hips.

Research clearly identifies weakness and tightness in the hips as the primary cause for almost all knee injuries (including IT band) as well as a secondary contributor to injuries such as plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis.

So, we know that strengthening the hips will greatly reduce the likelihood of running injuries.

Luckily, adding a running-specific hip strengthening routine to your training doesn’t have to take long. In fact, thanks to more great research we’ve uncovered, it takes as little as 5 exercises to strengthen the hips for running.

A simple and quick routine based around clamshell exercises, side-steps, single-leg glute bridges, and quadruped hip extensions will provide everything you need. Here’s a quick demo of these routines, but if you need more detail, you can learn here.

top-5-hip-exercises-for-run

Now, “not having enough time” is a terrible excuse. This routine takes 5 minutes at most and can go a long way towards keeping you healthy.

Can you do more in-depth and rigorous hip strengthening routines? Absolutely – and I hope you do. The more you can target the hips, the stronger and more injury-resilient you will become. Here is a great free routine you can try.

But if you can only do one thing today to make yourself a better runner, add this simple, effective hip routine that takes less than 5 minutes.

2. Perform a dynamic warm-up

Another quick, simple way to avoid injuries is to ensure that your muscles, tendons and ligaments are prepared to handle the impact and stresses of running before you actually begin to run.

Most runners think simply starting their run at a very easy pace will help get them warmed up, but you’re still landing on each leg with roughly 2.5 times your body weight with each step you take, even at a very slow pace. Personally, that’s still a little too much stress on the structural system, especially when you’re running almost every day.

Once again, luck is on our side as we now know that we can easily prepare the specific running muscles for the stress and impact of running with a short and simple dynamic warm-up.

The exact dynamic stretching routine you do in your warm up will depend on your fitness level and the type of running you plan to do. But, at the most basic level all it takes is 3 minutes.

Yes, just 3 minutes a day before each run could help reduce injuries and improve your stride.

Personally, I like the lunge matrix that was developed by Gary Grey and popularized by Jay Johnson. It’s a simple series of 5 lunge movements that will help engage your running muscles in all planes of motion. You can see a video demonstration here or an outline with pictures and descriptions here.

There are plenty of other sources for dynamic stretching on the internet: ankle rolls, toe pumps, leg swings, single leg deadlifts, etc. Finding routines is not the issue.

The issue is ensuring you avoid the massive temptation to miss it out before you run. You will come up with every excuse under the sun: “It’s too cold,” “I don’t have time,” “I’ll do extra tomorrow to make up for it.”

It’s just 3-5 minutes people!  Believe me, it will create focus, readiness, and mark the beginning of fewer injuries & improved running performance.

3. Improve your cadence

Most runners strive to improve their form, but actually improving running form can be a difficult and confusing process.

Not only is it a challenge to identify what specific improvements you should be making since running movements occur in fractions of a second, but it’s also difficult to feel if you are properly implementing these changes.

Moreover, everyone’s got a different take on how exactly you should improve your form, what good form looks like, and what you should be focusing on. One week you’ll read heelstriking is bad, the next you’ll read that heel striking is more efficient. On and on it goes until you’re so confused you don’t know what to actually work on.

We could debate endlessly about what is right and what is wrong ( and we’ve published tens of articles that discuss running mechanics in-depth), but the underlying question remains: What can I do to improve my running form today?

The simple answer is to work to gradually increase your cadence.

You can read our very in-depth articles on what cadence is and why it works here and here. But, we’ll keep it simple for the purpose of this article and helping you make an actionable improvement to your running starting today.

  1. Determine your current cadence by counting the number of times your left foot hits the ground whilst running for 30 seconds at normal easy pace. Let’s imagine yours was 40. Double that to get the total for 60 seconds (80); then double it again to get the total for both feet (160). Your cadence (for that particular running speed) is therefore 160spm.
  2. If your cadence is less than 170 spm, consiously increase this number by 5% for 30 seconds during your next run. If your cadence is already 170spm or higher, you don’t need to worry and can move on to our next piece of advice.
  3. Once you can comfortably run at your new spm (without thinking about it), add another 5% and repeat the process until you reach a cadence between 170-180spm.

This subtle increase in step rate can substantially reduce the loading to the hip and knee joints during running and may prove beneficial in the prevention and treatment of common running-related injuries

4. Slow down

Slowing down on your easy runs is not only one of the easiest ways to prevent injury, but it will help you race faster as well.

Wait. Running slower will help you race faster? Are you sure you’re reading RunnersConnect and not Runner’s World?

Yes, it’s true. And it’s all thanks to the aerobic system.

At the heart of aerobic training is the scientific fact that to exercise, your body needs to break down sugar and convert it to glycogen so it can be used as energy or fuel.

In the presence of adequate oxygen, the body utilizes the aerobic system, also known as aerobic glycolysis, to power continuous running. When you are “running aerobically” (or running easy), your muscles have enough oxygen to produce all the energy they need to perform.

Since the aerobic system contributes up to 85-99% of the energy needed to race, improving your capacity to transport and efficiently utilize available oxygen to produce energy will enable you to race faster.

Since running easy helps develop the aerobic system there’s no better way to increase aerobic development.

Scientific research as been able to identify exactly how the aerobic system responds and adapts to certain training paces. You can read the full research (and download your own optimal easy run pace calculator) here, but the body of evidence is clear, your optimal easy run pace for aerobic development is between 55 and 75 percent of your 5k pace, with the average pace being about 65 percent.  For a very simplistic example, that’s about 2 minutes to 2 minutes and 30 seconds per mile slower than 5k pace.

Running slower helps prevent injuries

If improving your performance by developing your aerobic system doesn’t convince you to slow down, perhaps looking at why running faster on easy days contributes to injuries will.

The faster you run on your easy days, the more stress you place on the muscles, tendons, ligaments in bones. For example, you may be able to head out the door and hammer out an easy day and feel fine with your breathing, but your hips might not be strong enough yet to handle the pace or the consecutive days of faster running and, as a result, your IT band becomes inflamed.

Easy days can also function as active recovery from your hard workouts – but not if you run them too fast. Easy running delivers oxygen and nutrients directly to the muscles used during running. When running easy enough, the stress and micro tears that result from running are virtually non-existent, so the recovery outweighs the slight muscle damage.

The simple answer to reducing your injury risk is to slow down. On your next easy run, really work to slow your pace down so you’re running at least 2 minutes slower than 5k pace. Even better is if you’re 2:30 slower per mile than 5k pace!

Don’t wait, become a better runner today

Don’t read this article, file it away and say “yes, I’ll come back to that”. Take action right now and start making yourself a better, more injury-resistant runner.

Implement one of these ideas each day for the next week. It will add a total of 8 minutes to your daily running routine – that’s it.

If you continue to implement these quick changes you’ll take dramatic steps towards reducing injuries and training healthy and consistent long-term.

Let us know how the changes went for you. Be accountable and share how these simple tweaks worked for you!

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2 Responses on “4 Simple Tweaks You Can Make to Your Training That Will Make You a Better Runner Immediately

  1. Excellent article Jeff, as always.
    I have been struggling with itbs for more than a year and put my trust towards barefoot running last May since I could not see any effect from clamshells, lounges or stretching.
    Barefoot running thought me step frequency, foot landing and calve strength but it was not the cure I needed for itbs.
    We then had a new baby boy in august and it gave me some time away running. Around new years I ordered two new pairs of running shoes for mild pronators. I did some running on a threadmill with high speed video and could clearly see that my old neutral shoes were totally shot in comparison to the new shoes.
    Upon your recommendation I tried to run recovery runs at a slow pace just recently and it feels so good, if the weather is nice.
    I reread a highly interesting article for the 10th time: http://www.sportsinjurybulletin.com/archive/tibialis-tendinitis.html
    And I eventually found that my tibialis-posterior muscle were exremly weak. Meaning if I tilt my heels and toes up and outwards a few times a day the strength has increased alot in only 5 days and it seems that in combination with slow runs the itbs seems to be fine.
    I have now done 4 runs over 5 miles pain free. Pain used to onset at 3 miles more so on slow runs and never failed to appear.
    This is a complex system but I am very hopeful this time.

  2. Superb article! I inevitably end up working with London Marathon runners at this time of year who often don’t have loads of running experience. This information is clear and incredibly useful. Sending the link to a few people right now. Thank you 🙂

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