Retool Your Running Mechanics: Outdoor Drills

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In Part 1 of this series on running mechanics, we started with home-based strength and coordination movements which were designed more to improve coordination (neuromuscular adaptation) than pure strength (the increased ability to produce force). Now that you have that down, it’s time to progress to outdoor running drills.

Note: If you missed Part 1, here’s a synopsis. If you have a reason to work on running mechanics (history, injuries or pain) fall and winter are a good time to do it because your training volume is typically lower, relative to spring and summer. Because you are further out from your goal events, your training at this time can be more generalized, too. Together, this means you can focus on running mechanics now without taking away from event-oriented training.

There are three phases to making changes in your running mechanics:

  1. Home-based strength, balance and coordination program
  2. Outdoor drills to learn new movement patterns
  3. Running, to apply and practice the changes

Why Outdoor Drills?
The movements recommended in Part 1 were a one-legged squat, one-legged reverse dead lift, and a forward lunge. While great exercises, they are isolated in the fact that you are focusing on one half of your gait at a time. Drills expand on that process by coordinating both legs in a fluid movement.

Outdoor drills are an important bridge between the work you completed in a gym or strength training setting, and your actual running mechanics on the road or trail. The movements in the drills described below leverage the coordination, neuromuscular adaptation and strength you recently developed. For instance, the mechanics of skipping are a dynamic way to leverage the hip movement you worked on with one-legged reverse dead lifts.

Recommended Outdoor Running Drills
As with the strength and coordination exercises, there are hundreds of drills out there you could choose from. The three I have described below are ones I recommend most often, because they are extremely simple movements that are effective and most people are familiar with. I recommend the following three, performed two to three times per week for four weeks. Each session should only take about 15 minutes.

Drill #1: Power Skips
Pushing hard off the ground and gaining altitude should be the focal point of your Power Skips. Forcefully raising your leading leg and swinging your arm forward will help you to gain as much height as you can.

Power Skips improve your running mechanics and performance by reducing ground contact time and improving leg stiffness, no matter your running speed. They help make your lower legs into better springs, thus improving running economy. They also improve how much and how fast you can generate force.

How to do Power Skips
Remember Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, skipping down the yellow brick road? This is the same thing, but with purpose (feel free to sing follow the yellow brick road in your head). If you’re starting your first skip from your right leg (photo 1), push off strongly with your right foot as you drive upward with your left knee, raising it slightly above and parallel with the ground (photo 2). Your right arm should swing forward forcefully as well. Land quietly on the ball of the same foot (Photo 3), take a small step forward with your left foot and push off strongly, continue skipping for 15-20 seconds. Repeat 4-6 times with 1-2 minutes of recovery. Focus on a maximum height you can achieve rather than your forward speed.

Bonus tip: Many adults, for whatever reason, overthink this drill. If you are having a hard time with the coordination, start with the skipping movement you did when you were a child. It does not have to be forceful or purposeful, just focus on the coordination. Once you get the coordination, focus on increasing the height of each skip.

Drill #2: High Knees
High Knees is another drill that helps improve running coordination and economy by making your lower legs into stronger springs and helping reduce ground contact time. Although the outcomes are similar, High Knees focuses on a different aspect of movement than Power Skips. With High Knees you should be actively thinking about getting your feet off the ground fast, just like you’re playing “the ground is hot lava” with your kids.

How to do High Knees
This drill should be done moving slightly forward. As you start running, focus on pushing off the ground in a deliberate fashion and raising your knees to the level of your waist (Photo 4). Keep your head up and body erect. Land on the balls of your feet and pump your arms as you continue stepping at a fast, sprinting-style cadence for 15-20 seconds. Rest one minute, repeat three times. (Photo 5).

Drill #3: Strides
Strides are short, high-intensity intervals intended to get the body used to operating at a high intensity. They are almost always incorporated into a runner’s warm-up prior to track and field events, high-intensity training sessions, and 5K and 10K races. They are also useful as a workout of their own during periods when ultrarunners are in a generalized training phase that includes very little high intensity work. Incorporating Strides helps runners maintain a little focus on high turnover, something they wouldn’t otherwise experience during those training periods.

How to do Strides
From a standing or slow running start, accelerate to about 5K race pace over 20 seconds. Rest for one minute. Repeat 4-6 times. These are not all-out explosive sprints, but rather accelerations to a pace well above your endurance pace.

These drills should be completed three times per week for four weeks, during a period when your overall running volume is low to moderate. They should be completed at the end of a normal length endurance run. Do not do these on a rest or recovery day. Drills are not recovery.

The third and final phase of this focus on running mechanics will tie everything together during runs as your training volume will likely start to increase again. Stay tuned for more information on Phase 3.

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About Author

Jason Koop is the author of Training Essentials for Ultrarunning and Coaching Director for CTS. Over his 15-year career as a coach he has worked with novice, age-group and elite ultrarunners, including Kaci Lickteig, Timothy Olson and Dylan Bowman. As Coaching Director, Jason oversees the performance and continuing education of more than 50 coaches. For information on CTS coaching and training camps, visit trainright.com.

1 Comment

  1. Hi,
    almost done with part I & II. But how about phase III?

    It’s saying “…again. Stay tuned for more information on Phase 3.” at the end of the article.

    Will something follow?

    Regards,
    Michael