Coach Don Scarpero of Dayton, OH graduated from the University of Missouri at Rolla (now known as the Missouri University of Technology) with a degree in Physics in 1967 and then went onto a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas in 1969. In high school, he competed in cross country and track and then did these sports in intramural competition in college. In 1990, as a middle-aged engineer, he got off his couch to participate in his first triathlon and immediately fell in love with the sport. He has now been coaching triathletes for five years (i.e., since 2012) and is certified as a coach by USA Triathlon. Coach Don attended the Healthy Running conference in Portland, OR in Feb. 2016 to learn new techniques for coaching the running aspect of triathlon as a way to keep his athletes healthy and in the sport for a long time. This blog article presents his perspective on what he has learned about running, both as an athlete and a coach.
Efficient Running Form
Efficient running form can be defined as the way humans run if they haven’t adapted to modern running shoes. Does that mean that if you are frequently injured and have bought running shoes at the local store that you should discard them and become a shoeless runner? No, it does not because you can not just jump into running without shoes without some underlying preparation. But, you might just benefit from considering changes to your running mechanics and training volume and distribution. Elastic recoil in a running gait can be defined as storing energy in the energy absorption phase and releasing it from mid-stance through toe off. Elastic recoil is good to have as it improves your running efficiency but it can be lost if your foot lands too far in front of your body or your cadence is too slow. The benefits of natural (efficient) running include a lower risk of injury and greater efficiency. But, common running inefficiencies include tight hip flexors and limited mobility of the ankle and big toe.
Running with an efficient cadence means running with a step rate that closely matches the natural frequency of your body. So, what is an efficient cadence for running? It is 178 to 235 steps per minute (Typically, Kenyan elites have cadences in the 188 to 196 range and elite Americans generally measure 180 to 188.). An easy way to measure your cadence is to count how many times your right foot strikes the ground in 15 seconds, then multiply that number by 8. (Or, you can measure the time it takes for a given number of steps with the right foot and then multiply that number by 120 divided by the time in seconds.)
Do you get injured frequently? Do you know why? Running injuries generally occur from a combination of instability, overuse, loading beyond the plastic limit, bad biomechanics, lack of strength, mobility issues (either excessive or insufficient), and shoes. If your running shoes have soft midsoles, they can cause problems. Soft material is undesirable because it is a relatively unstable surface. Also, running shoes with elevated heels are undesirable because they result in higher ground impact forces. And, marsh mellow midsoles in a running shoe are also undesirable because they flatten out quickly and result in an uneven surface under the foot.
Runners need strength because it is critical to maintaining alignment and you typically support 2 ½ to 5 times your body weight on each step. Runners also need good posture. What does good posture mean in the context of running? It means standing tall and maintaining alignment of the body column, with good rotation and a hip-dominant strategy. Running efficiently requires landing with the foot below the center of mass. A drill you can do to reinforce this is to put the toes of one foot on a curb and lift the other foot and let gravity return it to the ground, landing on the ball of the foot. When you incorporate this motion into your running, you do not lose elastic recoil as long as you keep the cadence at your body’s natural frequency.
Mobility refers to the range of motion of a given joint. Runners need enough mobility to be able to move forward in a way that complements the runner’s structural alignment, while minimizing out-of-plane movement. Sufficient mobility at the joints is important because it allows you to move your limbs with ease and reduces stress on connective tissues while running. Also, sufficient mobility makes it easier to run, reduces the risk of injury, and helps you run with more speed and less effort. So, what are the primary places that runners need great mobility? They are the toe, ankle, knee, hamstrings, and hip.
Based on completing the Healthy Running certification, I have added efforts targeted at gait analysis and mobility assessment to my coaching practice to help my runners and triathletes run more effectively with fewer injuries. One approach that a frequently injured runner can consider is to consult a physical therapist that specializes in treating runners. I know there is at least one physical therapy clinic in my metropolitan area that has this as a specialty and I do not try to compete with them. As a coach, I try to watch my athletes run to see if they might benefit by consulting a physical therapist. But, I also have my athletes do a few mobility assessment tests to see if they have issues within my knowledge to address. The ten tests I have them do are named dorsiflexion of the ankle, dorsiflexion of the big toe, hip extension, hamstring, tissue flossing, vertical compression for postural alignment, bilateral squat, bridge, isolating the big toe, and single-leg squat. If an athlete only has difficulty with one or two of these tests, I try to help them within the guidelines of Jay Dicharry’s excellent book Anatomy for Runners. If they have problems with more than two of these tests, I feel that I should refer them to a qualified physical therapist.
When I am prescribing workouts for my athletes and myself, there are a few guidelines that I try to follow. I think that everyone knows the old 10% rule that applies to your longest weekly (or other period) long run and total running volume. But, I have added a couple of other guidelines to that. One of them is that the long run should not be longer than 50% of the weekly total running volume. As a 72-year-old athlete, I have also developed a rule that I apply to myself and generally to my athletes as well to not add more than one mile from one week to the next to either their weekly long run or total volume; I have found that this guideline seems to work very well most of the time as long as it is kept in context. For example, in a recovery week, we typically cut total volume roughly in half. But, then, the next week may return to the previous week’s volume plus a little bit more.
According to renowned endurance coach Joe Friel, single sport runners and their coaches do not work on improving their running technique but triathletes do. I can certainly see a little bit of truth in this statement in that triathletes generally have to learn swimming technique and figure out that knowing better technique makes them better overall athletes. However, I do not know that those who run only do not care about developing good technique. But, based on the assumption that it might be true, let me talk a little bit about good running technique here.
I discussed running posture briefly above. Let me reiterate on that here. Good running posture means keeping the back straight and the head up. You should look straight ahead when running. For distance runners, the arms are only used for balance; there is no need for a lot of movement. The center of gravity should be in line with the body and forward of the feet. The hands should be about where the waistband is on your shorts. Ask yourself when you’re running if your thumb can touch your waist line.
There should be enough forward lean when running to land on the balls of the feet or the mid-foot (running is similar to riding a unicycle – you have to lean forward; runners also need to keep a straight line from their head to the hip to the ankle). Running on the balls of the feet allows the ankle to act like a spring thereby capturing the elastic recoil discussed earlier. Running on the heels basically puts on the brakes on every stride and forces the lower leg to use energy to produce that spring-like motion that is free when you are running on the balls of your feet. If you want to judge the runners around you, watch them run from the front. When they are running toward you, if they have good running form, you will not be able to see the bottoms of their shoes. If you are not sure how you are running, have someone make a video of you both from the front and the side; you could learn a lot by studying the video.
Once a runner gets into this preferred position, they can then work on running faster. Elite runners spend less time with a foot on the ground because they are running faster with a higher cadence; therefore, the foot has to lift off the ground quicker. Running faster with the same cadence that they use when running at a slower speed would require them to put the foot further forward, thereby introducing breaking forces and losing elastic recoil or, alternatively, to push off harder and glide through the air longer, resulting in larger impact forces. But, that harder push and longer glide would result in undesirable vertical displacement (i.e., their body and head would move up and down more). To reduce that vertical displacement and to achieve faster running without introducing significantly larger impact forces, the solution is to increase the cadence.
Watch an elite runner and you will see that their cadence is faster. And, the beauty of the faster cadence is that with the foot on the ground for a shorter time, there is less potential energy lost. So, how fast can that cadence be? As I said above, elite Kenyan and American distance runners have a cadence of 180 to 196 steps per minute. Occasionally, someone gets into the 235 steps per minute range; my guess is that this number is achieved only by very light, short-legged sprinters but I do not really know that. I do know that there is a practical upper limit on how fast the cadence can be. As a coach, I will leave it to other coaches at the top of the sport to figure out how to change current best running form to go faster than the top runners achieve today. For the athletes I am coaching, just getting into good running form and increasing the cadence has been all we have needed to do to make them able to run faster. Beyond that point, my athletes run into limits imposed by their aerobic fitness and ability to extract oxygen from the air they breathe.
The best runners I know are able to pace themselves purely on perceived exertion (i.e., how hard does the effort feel?). They know instinctively how a long run feels versus how a tempo or interval effort feels. Unfortunately, most of us can’t determine by feel how hard we are working and often do our easy workouts with too much intensity and our hard workouts with too little. One of the first breakthroughs in endurance pacing was achieved with the introduction of the heart rate monitor. It was certainly a major step in the right direction; but, setting your effort based on your heart rate, either in training or in racing, is really not the best way to pace yourself today. Why not? Well, if the sun is beating down on you, your heart beats faster to send cooling blood into your extremities. If you are excited about a race, your heart rate will go up by as much as 20 beats per minute before the race even begins. If you have any feelings of pain, either physical or emotional, your heart rate increases. And, when you run up a hill, your heart rate will increase but the peak heart rate typically trails the effort by as much as 90 seconds (in other words, you may be on the downhill by the time your monitor tells you to slow down). Worst of all, for long events, there is a phenomenon called cardiac drift or cardiac creep, in which the heart rate starts creeping upward as the effort goes on. So, if you are pacing yourself based on your heart rate, for a long event, you are likely to go too strong early and then slow down later to stay in your heart rate zone. This is the exact opposite of what you should try to do in a long event.
With the advent of GPS technology, training watches that show the runner very precisely how fast they are moving have been available for about the last decade. For running on a flat road or a track, these watches are very useful. There are even short test sets one can do to determine via some log-log calculations what their target pace should be for a given distance. However, trying to maintain a calculated pace up and down hills can be very counterproductive. A few years ago, I asked a fellow coach, who was also in the business of running a store selling triathlon gear, if he knew of any watches that could determine a runner’s degree of uphill or downhill slope and convert the runner’s pace on a hill into an equivalent pace on flat ground. He replied that he did not know of such a device but, if he did, he would be the first to buy it. Now, there is a device that effectively does just that.
A company in Colorado has introduced the first power measuring device for runners. With three accelerometers on board, the Stryd device (which pairs with almost all the available training watches that accept outside sensors) measures the runner’s accelerations in three dimensions and converts those accelerations into velocity to calculate the runner’s power (calculated as force times velocity). This device is not yet perfect; it still can’t determine how hard the wind is blowing and correct for it. It is not water-proof; I have already ruined one such device by pouring cold water over my head during some hot races. But, when it is working correctly and the run course is not flat, it is the best pacing device I have found. I can even run intervals on hilly terrain and adjust my pace by holding a calculated flat-earth equivalent power for the target pace.
Stryd produces, at the current time, two versions of their running power meter: a heart rate strap version and a foot pod version. The heart rate strap version is the older of the two and the only one I have personally used. I like it a lot because it allows me to put on the strap and measure both power and heart rate. When I am using it, I only display the power on my watch (along with elapsed time, distance, and speed). After a workout, I am able to also see the heart rate and cadence for the workout and for each interval. After a run in which I was targeting a certain effort level corresponding to an old heart rate zone, I can confirm that the average power I produced resulted in an average heart rate in my desired training zone. Since I have been training as a runner for a very long time and know my established heart rate zones very well (and know that they have not changed in the last 20 years), I can use my workout results to determine when my training has led me to a point where my fitness has improved or declined and it is time to change my power zone numbers.
The Stryd foot pod also measures some other interesting quantities beyond power, such as ground time, form power, and leg spring stiffness. With these two different Stryd sensors, there can now really be two schools of thought in how to use them. My preference is to use it as a pacing device because my locale is hilly and any measure of how effectively I am running seems to vary less than my produced power reading. The other school of thought is to use Stryd to reduce the power produced to the minimum that will hold a given pace (in other words, to help a runner reach their optimum efficiency). I have no qualms with this second school of thought; I just do not feel that I can use it effectively where I live and I need good pacing first and foremost. Nonetheless, based on the comments I have seen from some of the established runners who are now using Stryd, I think we can assume that Joe Friel’s thought that only triathletes work on their running technique is about to be antiquated.
Now that there is a device that will pair with running watches and measure power, new approaches to determining training zones have come along as well as some new thoughts on the best approaches to use in training runners. There are even four different recommended approaches to measuring a runner’s maximum power over a given distance and converting it into power zones. I think the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the new thoughts on training with power but have no doubt that new methods of run training are about to be discovered. There is also one book already in publication: Run with Power by Jim Vance. And, unlike the advent of power-based training and racing in the cycling world, the sensor for running with a power meter will likely cost you less than the watch you use to display its output.
I sincerely hope that everyone reading this blog article has found it helpful, enlightening, and inspirational. If you arrive at this point wanting to become a better runner or triathlete and have new ideas on how to accomplish your objectives, then the article has served my intended purpose. If you would like to discuss the possibility of having me coach your athletic endeavors, please see my website at www.dcsendurancecoaching.com or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.