Running smarter to perform better: key considerations to improve your distance running performance

Chris Bishop7th of January 2017www.thebiomechanicslab.com.au / blog / general / running-smarter

The start of a New Year brings all sorts of resolutions.

Work less. Spend more time with family. Get fit. Take up running. We hear it year on year, and rarely are these resolutions actually acted upon.

Enough of the excuses...

let us walk you through how you can get the most out of your running, stick to it and remain injury free! 

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The sun is out, the days are longer and the recreational running season starts to ramp up.

In my opinion, it is also the most important time of year for health professionals in terms of the advice they can give aspiring runners. In a job where my role is to increase the performance of runners whilst at the same time reducing their running injury risk, I often get asked what makes the elite, well elite?!

The answer is simple. Discipline.

Day after day, run after run, these athletes realise there are no shortcuts on the road to the podium. It takes tenacity, commitment, and an unresolved will to achieve each goal they set. Yet the difference between those who make it, and those that don’t, comes down to application.

In a society with too many choices and too little time, it is natural inclination to revert to old habits and practice what we have always done. This is the easy choice right? It’s hard enough just to get up and out of bed to commence that run, never mind find the energy and thinking power to consider the influence of all potential variables and how they might effect the time we clock. However, the problem is that we are all competitive beasts, with defined goals and we want to achieve our best every time we hit the road. We want to drop minutes not seconds off our times, we want to be more efficient, we want to run further, we want to win.

So to achieve those goals that are simply the beauty of human nature, the philosophy I try to translate to all of the runners who visit our lab, is there is more to running than simply running itself. Preparation is everything. Improved performance requires a new insight and approach to running preparation that will force you out of your predictable perceptions, and have you running smarter and better than ever before. Below I detail my five go to strategies.

Use SMART goals (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time Framed)

It is important that runners have a clear understanding of the reasons for them deciding to run. This sounds kind of counter-intuitive, yet the amount of runners we see in the lab who have no purpose, who have no goal…they end up lacking motivation and ultimately revert back to sitting on the couch. Helping runners to develop SMART goals creates a purpose and direction for training that also helps with motivation. Further, there is benefit in short term and long term goals. Having a long term goal is important, but creating short term goals that will help an athlete get there is crucial.

There is more to footwear choice than colour – think performance optimisation and injury risk.

We know runners buy shoes based on looks, price and comfort (and often in that order!). You can’t argue that they are some of the most important factors known. But what happens if I say shoes can improve a runner’s performance and help reduce injury?

This has now been confirmed with research. Recent research out of our Gait Lab at UniSA by Joel Fuller says that simply wearing a lightweight shoe can improve running performance by 2% (average 22 sec) over 5kms. Despite this logical benefit, it comes with caution; you put a heavy runner (i.e. > 85kgs) in a light weight shoe and they are twice as likely to get injured than if running in a traditional shoe! What has also been shown to be a good idea in terms of injury prevention is the concept of two shoes. Mixing up your training footwear. Research out of Europe has shown using two different shoes (e.g. lightweight for short distance and speed work and traditional shoes for long runs) in your training mixes up the input signals applied to the body which in turn reduces injury risk. 

Simple take home message – prescribe/recommend shoes on a protection weight scale, with the right shoe being fitted for the individual running in it and the volume included in their program. Oh and it has to be comfortable too!

Form over fatigue…at least to start with

Too often we see novice runners who are preparing for their first distance running event being more consumed with the concept of running and lasting 40 odd km’s  than whether they can efficiently run 5km’s in the first place, without succumbing to injury. Distance running training imposes a high load on the body, and often a higher load than an individual has ever experienced before. What influences an individual’s personal injury risk is the body’s ability to adapt and handle the repetitive load applied to it.  And remember these loads change the quicker we run, the more we run and also depend on the surfaces we run on and the shoes we wear. The simple solution for all runners is that they need an experienced professional to watch them run, screen their body for weaknesses, and iron out any inefficiencies that may also place them at increased risk of injury.

Once we have the form sorted, we can then worry about fatigue. In the presence of signs of fatigue (especially on a long run), it is wise to rest or decrease the intensity of your run in order to complete it with good form and technique. Yes it is possible to undergo advanced testing (e.g. VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold etc.) to understand your physiological profile. The results of these tests provide strategies to assist the runner to identify and train at their optimum physiological condition which in effect, helps improve running performance and reduce the impact of fatigue. Yet remember, no fancy physiological test is a substitute for a poor running technique, and often a gait analysis will provide the insights you need to run further and longer than ever before.

Mobility, strength and physical conditioning are the most important factors in reducing running related injuries.

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To perform, you need to be running. We know that by simply running, you have a 40-70% chance of sustaining a running related injury. There are numerous factors involved in the development of musculoskeletal injury, and often this is isolated as needing optimum strength. However, as health professionals we know that developing mobility (and promoting full range of motion) is just as important as strength. If an athlete does not have the mobility available to move freely through a required range, strength alone will not save them from injury.  In saying this, a stronger body with better movement patterns will be less likely to get injured! And remember there is a lot of factors that influence strength and pure ballistic power is not the be all and end all. The key in any strength program that will be of success for a runner is one that is customised to individual running loads, and aims to improve dynamic strength, control, and core stability during single limb support tasks. And unfortunately for females, the luck of being able to give birth to those darling children requires a little more attention to lumbo-pelvic control. Pilates really is a godsend for runners – the quicker you embrace it, the quicker you will reap the benefits.

Mix up your training…and don’t let it be set in concrete.

Running programs that use variations in terrain and intensity promote better lower limb control and adaptations. This ultimately helps decrease the risk of injury. It also breaks up those mundane circuit runs and keeps you interested and motivated, no matter the weather. When you and your coach decide it is time to progress your training, this is where we can again be creative. Progression doesn’t mean its always about the distance run - Exercises and programmed runs can be progressed by being performed faster, longer, more often, or with less rest. And don’t forget the magic of rest. Training sessions aimed at recovery and/or injury prevention have better compliance when they are regularly scheduled in to a program. Making them a routine from the start of a program works better than trying to implement them when an athlete begins to break down.

So that’s the spiel we give to our runners in our lab. Before things get too specific or complicated, it’s a matter of getting the basics right. It’s about understanding why you run and where you’re running towards. It’s about running correctly and efficiently. It’s about having the right shoes for your program, and preparing and ensuring your training incorporates components to promote mobility, flexibility, strength, dynamic control and endurance. And don’t forget that variation is a good thing!

Get all that right, and you will have your patients running better and further than ever before!

Happy running!

Dr Chris Bishop PhD
Director of The Biomechanics Lab