By Andy Smith, ‘Art of Running’ coach and Alexander Technique teacher
Sadly we can’t all run like Mo Farah but thankfully there are many tips, tricks and technical changes that anyone can make to help them run more efficiently and lower the risk of injury.
Even the world’s best runners work on honing their technique, and if it’s something they can benefit from, imagine how much a recreational or club runner can achieve from a few tweaks. And the best bit is, many of the tips are not as challenging as you might think.
Here are 3 top tips to improve your running and make your jog less of a slog and take it up to the next level.
1. Do less, not more
I firmly believe that the ability to run is hard-wired into everybody. It’s not like playing the violin or tap dancing which require dedicated lessons. Just look at a toddler run and you will generally see a tall, relaxed style with a good foot placement, a slight forward lean and great balance. Unless someone has a structural or neurological issue, everyone should be able to run well.
The problem comes as we grow older and develop habits that interefe with our body’s naturally free movement and coordination. Too much sitting at school and work, or lifestyles that are too sedentary, tend to have a particularly negative impact on our posture – and subsequently on our running technique. It therefore follows that if we can unpeel these layers of habit, we can rediscover the same natural, easy running style that we had when we were small.
So the first thing I’d recommend when you are next out for a run is to simply pay more attention to the way you are running. What do you notice? Can you discover something you never realised before?
By becoming more familiar with your style, and staying in tune with your body rather than letting your mind wander, you’ll discover some interesting things that can help make running easier. And once you have done this, you’ll be in a good place to explore my next two tips…
2. Good runners run tall
This is a maxim that all running coaches say and is something I stress every time I teach a first lesson.
Too often recreational runners have hunched shoulders, a slightly bent waist and a heavy footfall – all things that actually make running harder. However, if we run tall with a more relaxed posture, bending at the ankles not the waist, it creates a much more efficient technique and allows our arms and legs to work more freely.
When thinking of running tall, don’t forget your head and neck position. Instead of the back of your head pulling back and down, think of it going the other way, releasing forward and up away from the top of your spine. This way, the head leads, the body follows and movement becomes easier.
Another good way to encourage a taller posture is to warm up before every run. I know it can feel like a chore, particularly if time is tight, but spending at least 5-10 minutes warming-up both upper and lower body can help come out of a “desk posture”, improve times, reduce the risk of injury and make running more enjoyable.
Dynamic stretches such as leg and arms swings, skips and lunges are generally recommended, rather than static stretches that you hold for 30 seconds, and a dynamic calf stretch is also a must in my opinion. You can find many good examples of dynamic stretches online. Remember to warm down at the end too, again with some dynamic swings and also some static stretches if you find them useful.
3. Speed up your cadence
Put simply, your cadence is the number of steps you take per minute and for runners, a faster cadence usually equates to a better technique.
Taking between 170 and 190 steps per minute has been shown to prevent overstriding and encourage a shorter, more dynamic stride with a bent leg throughout, which in turn reduces injury risk. A quicker cadence also stops people thinking too much about which part of the foot they should land on. Much more important than whether you are a heel, mid-foot or forefoot striker is where you land your feet in relation to your body. A quicker cadence encourages your feet to land closer to your centre of mass which means less shock is transferred into your body every time you land.
Although our aim is to get into the 170-190 bracket, set yourself achievable goals initially. You’re not going to go from 150 to 180 at your first go. Instead aim for a 5-10% increase, then when that feels comfortable, set yourself another target of 5-10% more. It’s the same when making any changes to your technique – take things slowly.
To help quicken cadence, buy or download a metronome (you can get free versions in your app store) and set it to an achievable target, then have it ticking in the background as you go on a training run, matching the beat with your feet landing on the ground.
Other ways to achieve a faster cadence can include thinking of some specific cues that encourage a shorter stride:
- Your legs are more like pistons pumping up and down than pendulums swinging through. This idea lifts your knee and foot a little higher and activates the stretch/shorten reflex when you plant your foot to bring extra spring to your step.
- Imagine you are running up some stairs. This also encourages a better knee drive and encourges that all-important taller body posture.
So when you get a chance, play around with some of the ideas from this article and see what changes – and remember, there is no one perfect way to run that fits everyone. Our job as runners is to keep learning and experimenting in order to find new and easier ways of moving.