When Running Is The Only Option
This is the perfect time to NOT hate it and embrace that it's an effective form of exercise
Whether you're a strength junkie who strays from any set lasting more than 60 seconds, or if you're totally new to working out, this article will go over how to build baseline strength and power for running by NOT running for long distance. Just keep your distance from other people while we flatten the curve [COVID-19].
When I say power I'm talking about producing the max amount of force as fast as possible for a given exercise. I'm going to talk about positioning, warm ups, drills to improve mechanics, and how to turn it all into a progressive workout regimen for anyone new to running or who wants to run faster and feel more stable.
I want to credit coaches Derek Hansen and Ryan Hopkins for teaching me most of what I've learned to date, along with my own research and experience following the work of other coaches who contribute to the field. I take humility in being the guinea pig of any training regimen before coaching others or prescribing workouts, so what I write below comes directly from my challenges and progress in becoming a fast runner.
Why fast? In quarantined times like these with gyms closed for an unknown time frame, it's one of the few ways we can still push training intensity and yield positive adaptations outside a weight room. Any kind of interval training if programmed with high intensity bouts followed by according rest periods results in increased metabolism and potentially fat loss while developing strength, power output and work capacity.
Doing things fast is also more fun than doing things slow, and if you want to get faster you actually have to try to move faster. It's worth the effort in achieving potential that you always had stored in you, especially now that your athletic options are limited.
Everything from body position to how your foot strikes the ground will influence running economy (how efficient you are with your energy output), so when you're training there needs to be specific intent towards whatever quality you seek to improve. I've coached runners of all levels that don't always have the necessary strength nor foundational mechanics upon which to build their mileage or further drive their fitness, so both seasoned runners and beginners have something to gain from the following exercises.
Stand with feet together and rock back and forth on your feet until you land in your arches. That is your mid-foot. Press through your arches and you'll feel your heels lift off the floor just enough to swipe a credit card underneath. Your feet and lower legs will stiffen, and you'll feel the back of your legs and your trunk light up. If you don't feel it, relax your rib cage and let it melt down to your hips before pressing through your arches to stack up first.
1. Warm up: 1x 15-20 yds each
I've learned to warm up with all kinds of foot walks before going on a run, or for the drills to follow. The lower legs and feet cannot be neglected if you want to feel stable and increase performance. Even for the newcomer who just wants to start exercising safely or come back from an injury, it's likely this area hasn't been shown enough quality conditioning.
The intent here is to load your feet and ankles in multiple positions for the benefit of tissue tolerance, exposure to various angles and degrees of motion, and connecting up the chain to your knees, hips, trunk and shoulders. Everything will be LIT.
After foot walks you might go for some running laps with walk back recovery, increasing your speed each rep for 3-4 sets. If running just doesn't feel intuitive, then go into these drills to start getting a feel for mechanics:
2. March in place: 2-4 sets for :20-30 seconds
If you've never marched you might feel awkward the first time, but then after a few sets of :20-30 seconds you'll feel your abs integrating with your whole body and get over the people staring at you wondering why you're marching. This is why: it trains lower limb stiffness to punch your arches through the ground (vertical force production), mid-foot strike beneath your center of mass, upright posture, explosive hip separation (immediate flexion/extension when switching from one leg to the other), opposite arm & leg rhythm, and ultimately conditions you to stay in that position for carry over into running mechanics.
3. Marching: 4 sets, 10-15 yds
Once you feel out 2-4 sets of marching in place, start travelling forward. If you're lifting your foot to knee height, match your arm drive so that your hand meets in front of your face. Avoid taking big steps and keep your feet striking beneath you. You shouldn't move more than half to a full foot's length at a time, else you're reaching too far out in front and you don't want to run like that. If you're not feeling powerful through each foot contact, pull your toes slightly off the ground to create a pre-stretch in the Achilles, which will promote driving through your arches.
4. Skipping: 4-6 sets, 10-15 yds
To carry over marching posture into a more elastic demand exercise, skip! Again this may be something you've never done, so instead of skipping in place just skip forwards like you would on the playground, no rules. After a few reps, focus on getting a good push off from the ground, then drive your arms up like you would marching to emphasize vertical force production. This trains the elastic qualities of the lower leg tissues and further develops the musculature needed for long-term improvement. When the elastic recoil starts to click, punch the ground with the goal of moving forward covering the same distance but with less foot contact to develop a feel for horizontal propulsion. For easy learning, vertical and horizontal forces can be emphasized separately in different reps and then integrated together as you improve the skill over the course of each training session.
5. Running 'A': 4 sets, 5-15 yds
By now you've felt what mid-foot is and why it's necessary for being elastic off the ground. With the same tall posture start running in place keeping the same intent from marching and skipping: getting your feet to spring right back off the ground but now with higher velocity. This one gets tiring real quick, so it's best to start with a lower step over height just above your ankles letting your arm drive hover about belly button height to train the speed and elastic qualities that would carry over to sprinting.
The demands of this exercise are similar to the metabolic demands of sprinting and serve as a smooth introduction to a true high velocity effort. After a few weeks you may progress to a higher step over height lifting your feet to mid-shin and eventually knee height to mimic top-end speed mechanics, but don't force it if compromises speed and posture. The more conditioned you become at maintaining height and elastic limbs, the more you'll be able to maintain speed for longer distances without energy leaks and develop strength without compensation.
The point of the Running 'A' is fast step frequency that carries over to running faster, so you want to perform this drill at the rate of 4 steps per second (240 bpm if you download a metronome to keep you on track). Why so fast? Based on top-end speed mechanics, elite sprinters will average 4-5 steps per second in a short race, so building your capacity to sustain that step frequency over short duration repeats will recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers responsible for power and speed. That's what you're developing in addition to short ground contact time, which means you're faster off your feet, which means you're learning to produce force and get an elastic recoil every stride.
Again the intent behind any exercise determines which training qualities develop, so the benefits derived from running fast span across runners with all kinds of goals:
Competitive distance runners who want to improve their race time
Recreational runners who want the "high" from a smooth & springy run rather than a dragging, slow jog
Team sport athletes who want to be quicker, recover faster and grow explosive at their game
Already fit folks who want to ease into running workouts without sacrificing too much time or muscle gains built in the weight room
Exercise newcomers who don't have a gym but want to start training
Though it's not the focus of this article, sprinting is the kind of training that helps you decrease your mile time whether you're a competitive athlete or simply want to see gradual improvement for yourself. Running at 90-98% of your top speed throughout your training program serves to maintain speed capabilities, while running at 98-100% of your top speed is the intensity range that yields speed improvement over time. You can only sustain such an effort for up to 10 seconds, hence the short duration, short distance approach for developing power. The rest periods between real sprint efforts are anywhere from 1-5 minutes depending on the intensity and distance covered. For the purpose of introducing foundations and mechanics, everything I've discussed so far will be a safe starting point for anyone new to speed training.
Just doing these drills alone will be a workout for most people, and I'm a huge fan of the core conditioning aspect derived from moving opposite arm and leg through different intensities. It's also self-limiting in that once you gas out you're unlikely to compensate position because you'll just feel slow. If you do have some energy left in the tank after performing the above drills, try running out a moderately fast 50-100 yds to test out your mechanics. Walk back for recovery and perform up to 4 sets so long as your form doesn't break down.
For those runners accustomed to heel or toe striking, it may take longer to unlearn old habits. In that case, work on these drills twice a week either as warm ups for a short run or on your active recovery day to develop the necessary musculature and elasticity in these positions.
For beginners or strength athletes, mid-foot strike and arm drive will be easy skills to pick up and you can perform the same workout up to 3 days per week with varied distances and intensity. Eventually you'll need more stimulus to keep improving power and speed qualities, but for someone who's got a clean slate in the running realm this will be a solid starting point to start building a foundation. Significant glute and hamstring development will most certainly follow in addition to improved recovery time between your strength sets once you get back to the weight room. You'll be more explosive overall and will have developed baseline endurance should you ever have to actually run for something.