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How to mix in speed work, part 2: The very first steps

Welcome to part 2 of mixing in speed work. Last week we talked a little bit about the different things speed work targets in order to make us faster, so be sure to read that before we get any further (How to mix in speed work, Part 1). When we left off we had posed the question of what actually comes first when it comes to trying to get faster. The short answer: Train your weakness.

Obviously this requires knowing what your weakness is, but we often have a feel for what that is when we’re talking about our own running. Do you have a history of overuse injuries at “relatively low training volumes”? Then you probably have a biomechanical issue that results in an overload on that particular tissue, and you’d probably run faster with less effort if you were to clean the mechanics up a bit. Can you run at top speed (i.e. quick, not hard) and not have the legs give out before the lungs do? Then it’s probably a muscular power issue. If you can run hard (but not quick), then it’s probably a coordination issue and you need to work on your turnover rate a bit. And if you can run hard and quick, but just can’t sustain it for long, then it’s probably an aerobic power issue. Everyone has their own natural talents and training history, so it’s not going to be the same for everyone. And that’s okay. It just means you have to do the training that’s right for you and not necessarily do a canned plan. Doing what someone else is doing is a pretty good way to get hurt.

In my personal experience as a coach, the weak link is normally (but not always) the neuromuscular side of things most amateur or casual runners. The reason for this is that most of us simply don’t do a lot of biomechanical work. This normally results in sloppy technique and overuse injuries when the volume adds up. This becomes especially important as we start thinking about adding “speed” work into our training programs, as the extra intensity will put more load on the “weak” link if we’re simply trying to push through. This is why I almost always encourage folks to focus on mechanics first, even if it isn’t the weakest link in the chain. The better our mechanics are, the more reps we can do before overuse injuries become a problem. And no one has perfect mechanics.

Start small

Changes to your biomechanics result in loads on muscles and tissues that aren’t used to it. You probably (I hope) wouldn’t go into a gym for the first time in months or years and try to bust out 2000 extremely heavy squats. In the same vein, going for a long run with vastly different running mechanics is also a bad idea. Trying to bust out a hard workout on unprepared muscles will almost always result in injury. A good example of this was the barefoot running craze. The folks who advocated for barefoot running always warned people to start small and to shift to barefoot running GRADUALLY, but we all know how well endurance athletes are at taking things in moderation…

Here we see Ryan demonstrating a semi-decent glute activation. His glute and hamstring are engaged, but he's still going to land slightly in front of his center of gravity. The runner in the background however...

A lot of people just bought a pair of sandals or toe shoes and went out for their usual workout and got REALLY hurt. So start with small changes to your mechanics, incorporating them over shorter distances. At this point, a lot of people say “That all sounds good, but how do you actually DO that?”

I honestly tell people to start with the 100-ups drill (100-ups Demo). Yes, it’s the same drill that a lot of the barefoot running folks advocated for when making that switch, but that’s because it addresses one of the most common problems seen in amateur and casual runners: over-striding. Over-striding normally results in jamming your heal into the ground, but occasionally I’ve seen folks keep their ankle stiff and jam the ball of the foot into the ground as they prance along. Either way, it causes a breaking action on each and every step, and makes it a lot harder for the glute to stabilize the knee and prevent it from collapsing inward. From an injury prevention standpoint, both of these are a pretty big deal.

The excessive breaking action causes us to have to absorb a lot more impact on each and every step. Obviously this is a problem if we have a history of shin splints, plantar fasciitis, or overloading the calf. By contacting with the ground under our center of gravity we can avoid this breaking action and having to absorb all that kinetic energy somewhere (i.e. our calves, shins, and arches). And from a purely physics standpoint, breaking and accelerating is not the fastest or most fuel efficient way to move. That’s why highway miles are 1) more gas efficient, and 2) easier on our cars, right? The 100-ups drill helps to clean up the biomechanics that are (normally) the root cause of this overstriding: lack of hamstring and glute activation.

The Ruston Training Group doing the High Knee drill at practice. Notice the strong core activation, elbow drive, and knee lift Tommy (far left) is demonstrating.

Once we’ve been good about doing our 100-ups for a couple of weeks, and thinking about maintaining that body position while running, then we can start folding in some drills. The first drills I normally have folks start with are high knees and butt kicks. There’re a couple of reasons for this. First, they tend to be drills that we’re already familiar with from some point in our history. Second, they work pretty well together to get the posterior chain firing. This makes sense for butt kicks (especially if we’re focusing on keeping our knees together through the whole process), but the high knees help too. By getting a higher knee drive, we get a greater stretch reflex when we start the hip extension portion of the leg cycle (i.e. start pushing our leg down). Muscles tend to want to engage when they are stretched, so we can take advantage of that to actually get our leg to the ground (and behind us), rather than letting it fall to the ground (and land in front of us). The important part for both of these drills though is to keep the hips stable through the whole range of motion. If you’re knees are going high enough that your lower back is rounding, then you’re going past the end of range of motion in your hip. You’re not getting any more stretch reflex in the glutes by doing this, you’re only putting your back in danger of getting hurt.

Once we’re sure we’re landing relatively close to under our center of gravity and the glutes are engaged, then we’ll turn our focus to leg turnover, power output, and all the other “sexy” bits of speed work that normally get us into trouble. But you’ve got to be able to run before you can run fast, hard, or long. Come back next week when we’ll dive into the quicker end of the spectrum: working on our neuromuscular fitness and coordination.

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