On my journey as a coach, I have heard on a few occasions during a run form presentation that there are seven components to running fast. The one component that was talked about was the energy created through muscular activity that was supported by aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. The interesting thing is that they never talked about what the other six components were that helped the production of speed. After a quick Google search, there are lots of articles of what to do to be a better runner such as get good sleep, eat right or build strength in your glutes, but I didn’t find anything that talked about how one person can run at 75% max effort and be running at 8:00 per mile pace and someone else can be at 75% max effort and be at 10:00 minutes per mile or 5:00 per mile.
To fill that void of missing information, here is my opinion on the seven components of effective running to be able to run faster without running harder. Each of the components from #2 through #7 will amplify the base propulsive force created in #1, thus creating more output for the same effort. As you will read, some of the components do take effort, but, in my opinion, the aerobic impact to that effort is extremely small and won’t impact the overall amount of expended energy.
Part 1: Aerobic Fitness: We will start with the already identified component of muscular engagement supported by aerobic metabolism. As runners train the aerobic endurance system, slow twitch muscle fibers become stronger, other muscle fibers are trained to turn into slow twitch fibers and the aerobic metabolism becomes more efficient. The more slow-twitch fibers a runner has, the more propulsive force they will be able to create for extended periods of time.
Part 2: Torso Lean: Falling down doesn’t take any effort at all. You just need to tip your center of gravity beyond the base of your feet and let gravity do the rest. The trick is to fall 10,000 times when you go out for a long run without actually hitting the pavement. Every time your foot hits the ground as you are running, your center of gravity should be slightly in front of your foot to start the next cycle of fall and push. One of the keys to this is to lean from your ankles and not from your hips or spine.
Part 3: Relaxation, Mobility & Flow: Great runners are able to run at a consistent pace at a similar effort for long periods of time. Part of the key to this is not carrying extra tension in places where it isn’t helpful and being able to run in a flow state where the body isn’t fighting itself. If the human body can be in a place where it is not creating physical or mental obstacles that must be first overcome before it can get to a place of efficient production, it will always need to work harder to get the same output. Carrying tension in the shoulders, neck and face, having tight hip flexors and quads and wallowing in negative self-talk are all examples of things that hold runners back from maximum production.
Part 4: Pelvic & Leg Stability: This is the part where the core comes into play. This is work, but not necessarily aerobic work. We are talking muscular engagement involving many different muscles in the torso, hips and legs. The more a runner can stabilize their pelvis, the better the body is at channeling the dynamic forces that are created during the act of running. Some of these forces originate in the hips and legs and other forces are created in the torso and the arms. A strong and well synchronized core will help coordinate and direct all of these forces in a productive direction.
Part 5: Shin Angle: If you ask a person to push a heavy object like a car, the very first thing that they will do is to crouch down and angle their shins like that of an offensive and defensive lineman in football. When given a task to push something, the brain automatically knows that without a shin angled forward, there won’t be enough leverage to apply force in a horizontal direction. In running the goal is to have the same horizontal force application, but it gets lost for many runners because the task of moving a human body forward is a fraction of having to push a car. I will use a bungee shoulder harness to help runners experience what happens when they don’t keep a good shin angle. During the exercise they will get pulled over backwards and very quickly they will learn how to create leverage and resistance to the pull of the bungees.
Part 6: Leg Cadence: This is the first part of tapping into elastic return. Cadence is simply how many steps or strides a runner takes each minute. Many regard 180 steps or 90 strides per minute as the ideal cadence. As a runner lands on the ground certain parts of the body, like your achilles tendon and plantar fascia, are stretched like a rubber band. The quicker you can get your foot off the ground, the more the stored energy will be released. If you have ever used a sling shot, you will know that the bigger the stretch and the quicker the release, the faster and farther the object goes. Logically, the smaller the stretch and slower the release, less energy is produced and object moves much slower. Having a snappy cadence will allow that elastic energy to be released and increase the distance traveled with each step.
Part 7: Foot Speed: This is the second part of amplifying elastic return. It is also the hardest component to master in my opinion, but it is also so hard wired into human movement that it happens all the time…..just not in running. Foot Speed is not the same as Leg Cadence. As stated above, cadence is the rate of foot strikes per minute. Foot speed is how fast your foot is moving in a specific moment in the run cycle. This moment is the last few micro seconds before the foot comes off the ground. If you watch a video of an elite runner at normal speed, their feet appear to be moving at a constant speed, but if you watch the same footage in slow motion, you will realize that that is not the case. In the final few moments, as their leg reaches almost full extension behind them, the speed of the foot will accelerate and move extra fast. This final acceleration will amplify even more the effects of elastic return that has already been created by the higher cadence. It is this combination of constant cadence with a variable foot speed that creates a tremendous output of energy that gives many elite runners a stride length of almost 12 feet. If you want to experience the benefits of the force amplification of this foot speed, do an 18” box step up. First, put your right foot on top of the box and attempt to do a one leg step up without jumping off the left foot that is on the ground. Just a slow one legged squat. If you can do it, remember how hard your right leg had to work. Then do it again, but this time allow yourself to use your left leg for a little bit of a boost by performing a small, quick jump. The effort to step up onto the box will almost completely disappear. The energy that is released from the elastic return of the left leg is so big that it makes the step up task child’s play.
When people run, there is an effort to moving a body through space. What better runners do is capitalize on how they can amplify and increase the output of speed that is created by the input from muscles and oxygen. Of course, these seven components are not an all or nothing. Some runners might have a stronger aerobic system while others lean from their torso better. The result of these two different approaches is that they are running the same pace. The more a runner can capture more of each of the seven components, the faster they will be able to run without thinking that running at a higher intensity is the only option.