How to Determine Your Running Weakness
While it has often been said that running is easy - you just put one foot in front of the other and so long as you remember to alternate feet you'll be all right - that only holds true to a certain level of proficiency. In order to improve your running, you first have to determine which area needs the most attention. That can be a difficult dilemma for many people so I have tried to simplify things by outlining a few simple ways you can try to determine your running weakness.
Many runners have seen the diagram below which outlines the concept of a Training Pyramid. It illustrates the fact that a good training program is built on the foundation of Endurance. Once a good level of Endurance is achieved, you can begin to add Strength specific workouts to your program. Finally, the addition of Speed workouts caps off the Pyramid. Each part of the pyramid should be focused on in relation to it's size. In other words, lot's of endurance and only a bit of speed work, especially for the marathon distance.
If we take the individual parts of the above pyramid and re-arrange them, we can visualize how these parts work in unison; for running is not just made up of these three factors, it's more of a combination of these factors.
By re-arranging the main parts, we can now see how they interact. For example, the combination of Strength and Speed gives us Power which we use in climbing short hills or sprinting at the finish of a race. Speed and Endurance combine to give us Speed/Endurance which is what short races (up to the 5k distance) are primarily made of. Strength plus Endurance gives us Muscular Endurance - the endurance that we use in the meat of a distance race.
In order to improve your running, you should first decide where your weakness lies so that you can customize your training to eliminate your weakness. For example, if you find that you regularly get passed every time you climb a hill in a race, then you may be lacking running Power. If your main races during the year are 5k races, then you'd probably be best advised to focus on Speed Endurance. Most runners (5k, 10k, marathon types) will benefit from specific Muscular Endurance training as this encompasses the major portion of a race. Let's examine what type of training specifically target each weakness.
To strengthen this aspect of your running you need to focus on two types of workouts: Long Tempo Runs and Anaerobic Threshold Workouts. Tempo runs are runs that are done at or near race pace for the middle portion of the run. For example, if you wanted to do a one hour workout, you'd warm-up for 15 minutes, run 30 minutes at or just below race pace , and then cool down for15 minutes. Anaerobic Threshold workouts specifically target your Anaerobic or Lactate Threshold - that point at which lactic acid builds to a level that can no longer be eliminated by the aerobic system. It's like the upper limit of how fast you can run without having to slow down because it's too hard to breathe. An entire discussion of AT workouts can be found here.
This aspect of your running can be trained with specific power-building exercises such as Plyometrics, bounding, weights, and hill sprints. These are the "non-traditional" running exercises that most beginners don't need but those who are looking to improve performance should consider. A full discussion on Plyometrics can be found here.
To improve your Speed/Endurance you need to do short runs at or above your Anaerobic Threshold with equal recovery periods. This would include track workouts, mile repeats, etc. The idea is to work at short distances where you can push the pace above your Anaerobic Threshold and then fully recover in between. Full recovery is important because if you don't fully recover you'll be too tired for the next repeat and you won't get the full benefits of these workouts.
Cadence vs. Stride Length
Once you have decided which side of your triangle needs the most attention, there is one more point you must consider. You see, there are only two ways to increase speed while running - take more steps or take bigger steps. Number of steps is referred to as Cadence (ie-leg turnover) and the size of your steps is called Stride Length. So, for you math types out there, running speed can be written in an equation which looks like this:
Speed = Cadence X Stride Length
In order to increase your speed you have to increase at least one of the variables - cadence or stride length. But which one? This is quite easy to test and I'd encourage you to test yourself on a run sometime to see if you need to make any corrections to your running mechanics.
We want to aim for a Cadence of 90-95 foot strikes per minute. That's a very efficient cadence. One note to Triathletes: those of you who have trouble running off the bike should compare your bike pedal cadence to your running cadence. If the two aren't close to equal, it may be hampering your transitions from bike to run. So, if you bike with a cadence of 80 rpm and then try to run with a cadence of 95 foot strikes per minute, you'll find it hard to get in a groove. Try to bike and run at the same cadence (90 rpm) and you'll make smoother transitions to running. Back to the testing:
If we want a running cadence of 90-95 foot strikes per minute, we first need to
test ourselves to see what our actual cadence is. On your next run, once you're warmed-up
and up to speed (test at or near 10k pace), count how many times your right foot strikes
the ground in 15 seconds. You want to do this twice in a ten minute period - once at 2
minutes and once at 8-10 minutes. If you count 22 strikes or less, your cadence is too
low. You'll want to work at consciously increasing your cadence in training until you
reach 90-95 strikes per minute. Then you can play around with increasing stride length.
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