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Three ways to build power and a better running form so that you can stay strong through the last mile of your next race.
It’s late in the race, your form is starting to fall apart and there’s no spring left in your stride. Your legs are battered and depleted, and you are struggling just to put one foot in front of the other as you accept the fact that your stride will continue to disintegrate all the way to the finish line. It’s an ugly end to a period of preparation that had you feeling like you were firing on all cylinders heading into your goal race.
This collapse comes as a bit of a surprise. You’ve been feeling strong during long runs and your workouts have gone so well that you can roll out of bed and run race pace all the way to the office. You covered all your bases in training—or thought you did, anyway. What went wrong?
While you made the efforts to hone your speed, improve your efficiency and nail down your nutrition in the weeks leading up to race day, there’s a good chance you never turned on the power switch at any point of your last training cycle. While a lot of triathletes will log months of mega-mileage and run workouts until the world stops turning, none of it will matter if you don’t have the strength in your stride to prevent your legs from fading into failure before you reach the finish line on race day.
Here are three simple drills recommended by a few top athletes and coaches that will help improve your stride power and prevent your form from falling apart next season.
High Knee Skips
Skipping isn’t just a fun recess activity for 8-year-old schoolgirls; lifting your knees up high and covering a stretch of flat ground is a simple yet effective drill for anyone looking to increase his stride power and fine-tune his mechanics.
“Skipping forces you to be light on your feet and use explosive power while employing a bounding type of motion,” says Matt Valyo, a USAT Level II coach. “This will recruit more motor units and can also be used as an effective pre-run warm-up drill.”
So what’s the right way to skip? Valyo suggests starting off slowly: Walk before you can run. Begin by standing up as straight as possible and walking with an exaggerated knee lift. The idea is to drive your lead leg slightly past your waistline while toeing off on your back leg, which should be straight and always in contact with the ground. When you do it right, you should start to feel some fatigue in the hip flexors and even a bit in the calves. When you reach the point where you can skip-walk for 30 meters with picture-perfect form, slowly start picking up the pace.
“Form is the key factor here,” says Valyo. “It does you no good to rush through this drill. I have my athletes walk through it first and gradually progress to a run to make sure that they’re doing it properly.”
Valyo has his athletes perform three to five sets of this drill twice a week as part of a complete strengthening program during the base phase of training. He also has them use skipping as a way to loosen up before a key run workout, as the motion is very specific to running and gets the right muscles ready to tackle the task at hand.
“Skipping is simple and you don’t need anything fancy,” Valyo says. “You just do it.”
Short Hill Sprints
These aren’t hill repeats—this is running-specific strength work. Think of it as weightlifting without the weights. A set of short hill sprints on a steep grade—six to 10 maximum-intensity efforts of 10 seconds on a roughly 8-percent incline—forces you to focus on form, and also strengthens your stabilizers and gets your glutes firing much more effectively than squatting a barbell ever will.
“All of your fast-twitch fibers get recruited during the short sprints,” says Dennis Barker, head coach of Team USA Minnesota elite running group. “It helps your overall leg strength and improves your running economy.”
Recovery is key here. Even though the sprints are short, the recovery between them shouldn’t be. Take your time between the efforts; one to two minutes is ideal.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a coach today who doesn’t employ some variation of this workout in his training programs. I’ve used short hill sprints with my own athletes as an alternative means of working on power and mechanics early in the training cycle rather than having them hit the weight room or perform plyometrics. The results speak for themselves: Form doesn’t fade as quickly, finishing speed increases, overall lower-leg strength is improved and perhaps most importantly, instances of injury decrease.
This is an excellent ancillary exercise that can be done on flat ground or even a slight incline. Like the skipping drill described earlier, the focus here isn’t on how fast you can cover ground but rather on making sure that you’re employing proper form and exhibiting explosiveness.
“Power equals force times velocity, and to improve both you need to work on both,” says Mike Roberts, a 9:29 Ironman, physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Bounding will do this and is as specific to running as you can get.”
As with any other new addition to a training program, proceed with caution when introducing bounding into your regular routine. Bounding is a very ballistic movement and can cause injury if too much is done too soon.
“If you purely want to work on power, then it has to have an explosive component,” Roberts says. “These can be killer and are very stressful on the body.”
After an easy run or a short warm-up of 10 to 15 minutes, Roberts recommends starting with a slow jog to build some momentum before building into a forward bound, driving the knee of your lead leg up into the air while exploding off your back leg. Land on your lead leg and continue propelling yourself forward in this manner for 30 to 40 meters. Initially, one to two sets is plenty. As you start to perfect your form and strengthen your main movers, slowly add sets until you can comfortably complete six to eight in a given session.
For a different stress and the added benefit of working with resistance, try bounding on a very gradual incline of 4 to 5 percent. The incline naturally promotes knee lift and encourages perfect form. It takes power to propel yourself up the hill, so if you’re not driving off your back leg properly, you won’t get anywhere.
“The dose should be determined by the athlete’s resiliency, volume and training history,” says Roberts. “Start slowly and progress gradually.”