Running Skills: A Talent Or Ability That Comes From Training And Practice - By AJ Sobrilsky & Jason Lunden
By AJ Sobrilsky
Who’s ever picked up a golf club and tried to knock it stiff from 130 yards out? That’s a tough feat to accomplish; a skill one might say. In fact, I’d argue that consistently hitting a golf ball where you want it to go and how you want it to look is one of the most difficult skills to develop.
That’s probably why most professional golfers, and high caliber athletes across the sports world, spend more time practicing and developing the skills of their specific sport than they do truly competing and playing. In fact, in David Epstein’s book “The Sports Gene,” there is a lot of discussion about practice, talent, and the genetics surrounding athletic performance. This is a highly recommend read or listen to if you’re looking for a good new book and it might help us all understand a little better our true capabilities and athletic realities (He also has a lot of podcasts as well as a Ted talk. Click here to listen.
In the running world, there are those few individuals born with a unique physiological make up and a somewhat specific set of anatomical ingredients that lend them performance capabilities. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t specific contributors to performance and skill development that can’t be modified, practiced, and fine-tuned to become your own best version of yourself. Sure the best runners are the ones spending a lot of time running and logging a lot of miles. Which leads a lot of us to come to the conclusion that in order to be our own best we need to run a lot. While increasing volume will improve your economy and times to some degree, it’s ultimately not the best solution.
The old fallacy of more is better doesn’t hold true, at least not always. We can put time and effort into developing a bigger engine (cardio system, stronger muscles, more resilient mental game), but if we can’t control that engine and the forces it’s willing to produce, it’s useless. For instance, it’d be a bad idea to strap a jet engine onto a paper airplane or try to shoot a cannonball from a canoe. We need the right structure, skillset, and control to put these ingredients and tools to effective use.
What do the best athletes in the world have in common (beyond the best genes)? They train, refine, retool, and practice the skills required for their specific activity. Unlike a lot of other sports, running doesn’t have a whole lot of diverse movements like soccer or climbing. This ultimately confines our exposure to different movements and limits our breadth of exposure and adaptability to forces outside the confines of the running gait. On the other side it also means we have a pretty consistent recipe or set of instructions for developing the best gait pattern and running movement strategy (all relatively dependent on our own unique set of factors).
Jay Dicharry, a leading physical therapist and biomechanics researcher, delivers this message well when he says, “There are a lot of things that all runners of all abilities should be doing outside running to improve their running. If you want to run better, you need to move better”. Essentially that the winner isn’t always the one who stacks up the most Strava KOM/QOM’s but rather the ones who have put time into developing and practicing the essential movement skills; allowing them to avoid injuries and ultimately providing optimal consistency in training.
Running is essentially a fluid series of single leg jumps. The ability to produce enough force to drive your leg into the ground and propel yourself up and forward. To then coordinate the appropriate movements in the flight phase (while you’re going from step to step) in preparation for landing. And to then absorb 2-3 times your body’s weight through one leg, restoring that energy, and preparing to do it all over again in less than 0.4 seconds for each and every step throughout the duration of the run.
So yes, running is a skill. What can you do to move better and become a more skilled runner?
Before we dive into the specifics on the ingredients and tools required to address the skills of running, here are a few key essential components to practice during your next few runs:
- Don’t Overstride: A lot of runners make the mistake of overstriding: putting their foot out too far in front of their center of mass. When a runner overstrides or reach, they increase their braking impulse and essentially slow themselves down with each strike. This is an inefficient way to run and significantly increases the amount of impact your body has to absorb. Therefore, overstriding can often lead to injury. To avoid overstriding, avoid reaching your leg forward and try to strike just in front of your center of mass.
- Cadence: Cadence is the number of steps you take while running. A slower cadence (or taking fewer steps per run) can be indicative of overstriding. Therefore, working on your cadence can be one way to improve your efficiency and reduce overstriding. Every runner will have a different cadence, but in general efficient runners run with a cadence between 176-188 steps/min. To work on your cadence, use a metronome app or setting on your watch and try and time your foot strikes to the beat of a metronome for 2-3 minutes. Then relax into your run for 2-3 minutes. Repeat 3-5x throughout your run. Remember this is a drill to improve skill, so use it as a drill and don’t perform with every run or for your entire run.
- Try not to bounce: Much like overstriding, a bouncy gait is inefficient and can lead to injury. If you have a bouncy run, you are wasting energy pushing up rather than pushing forward. This also means your mass is landing from a higher height, increasing impact. To avoid a bouncy gait, drive your leg back pushing you forward and not up. Centering your gaze on a landmark ahead of you and as you run try and keep the landmark as still as possible .
- Drive from the hip and push from the ankle: The gluteus maximus is the biggest muscle in the human body. This is a big ingredient in the recipe to effectively and efficiently drive us forward with each step. Sometimes runners rely too much on their calves and quads to propel them. This typically leads to overstriding and the bouncy gait described earlier. Therefore maximize your running efficiency by driving from the hip using the gluteus maximus; making sure not to arch at the lower back. Practice striding by driving/pushing from the glutes while stabilizing through your core to avoid your back from arching.
Here at Excel PT, Our running physical therapist team works with runners every day in our Running Clinic. It’s like a specialized clinic within a clinic. We’re here to help you develop these strategies to help improve your running skills and performance as well as help you prevent injury.
AJ Sobrilsky, DPT, OCS is a Physical Therapist and Orthopedic Clinical Specialist in our Bozeman clinic. AJ specializes in the rehabilitation and prevention of orthopedic sports related injuries with a specific interest in the management of those involving the upper and lower extremities. AJ has been a lifelong athlete, competing in cross-country and track through college and then racing competitively post collegiately. As a result of his personal experiences and passions, AJ has focused his continued education and clinical development around the athletic individual with an emphasis in: running, skiing, and climbing related injuries. AJ has had the opportunity to provide care for an array of athletic populations including youth sports teams, high school and collegiate athletes, and those competing at professional and Olympic levels.
Jason Lunden, DPT, SCS specializes in the rehabilitation and prevention of sports-related injuries, with a particular interest in the biomechanics of sporting activities – running, cycling, skiing, snowboarding and overhead athletics in our Bozeman clinic. Jason is a Specialist in Sports Physical Therapy and serves as a physical therapist for the US Snowboarding and US Freeskiing teams, along with the US Paralympic Nordic Ski Team, and is a local and national presenter on sports rehabilitation and injury prevention topics. Jason is a Certified Clinical BikeFit Pro Fitter and co-owner of Excel Physical Therapy.