On Labor Day of this year, I ran a 20k race and was ecstatic afterwards when looking through the post-race photographs. I am typically not the most photogenic of runners, but the finish line photo from that race is probably the best one I will ever take. Being the analytical person that I am, I remembered that I had raced a half marathon on Labor Day the previous year, so I decided to compare photos. The physical difference was astounding. In the most recent photo, my arms were held in better position, my hips had better alignment, my knees were driving forward, and my lower legs weren’t flipping outwards as badly. How did I change so much in 1 short year? Below are the factors that influenced this transformation.
In the off-season, I do form drills once or twice per week, particularly focusing on having good dorsiflexion in my feet (i.e. raising my toe towards my shin). Once I start speed work, I perform these drills before every workout or race, as they help activate important muscles such as glutes and hamstrings. If you are new to drills, start with A skip, B skip, and C skip (a good video featuring Olympian Meb Keflezighi can be found here).
One reason that runners struggle when it comes to maintaining good form is that they don’t get enough practice engaging the functional muscles that help them run fast. Strides can help bridge this gap, which are 100 m sprints at 90% effort. After an easy run, perform 6 – 8 x 100 m strides. The goal is to go as fast as you can while maintaining good form, taking as much recovery as you need in between. If possible, run these in a flat, grassy area. If you are unsure how far 100 m is, run for 20 – 30 seconds instead.
Many runners lack core strength, which is defined as the area from hamstrings to shoulders. Without power in this region, runners are more likely to hunch over in response to fatigue, causing a complete breakdown in proper running biomechanics. To develop good core habits, start small. For instance, aim to do 5 minutes of core exercises twice per week and gradually increase the amount of time devoted to this activity, or add an additional day. Example exercises can be found here.
Hamstring, hip, back, and shoulder flexibility all play an important role in helping you run your best. Prior to this year, my hip flexibility was especially poor. After devoting time to working on this issue, I have noticed an improvement in stride length and knee drive, both of which have helped me run more efficiently. To improve your flexibility, you must both stretch and strengthen. Hip opening exercises for runners can be found here.
Finally, one great way to improve your form is simply to enhance your body awareness. Have a friend video you while you run at both easy and race pace, and analyze it for deficiencies. Simply knowing where you can improve can help you make the right mental connections to initiate change.
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