Every runner is different. Some runners have impeccable mechanics and look smooth and effortless on the trail. Others have really ugly mechanics but manage to run fast and pain-free. Running ugly works for them. Then there are people who have trouble with running mechanics and struggle with the resulting pain and injuries. Fall can be a great time for athletes in the latter category to change how they run so they can enter the next season pain free.
There are three phases to making changes in your running mechanics:
- Home-based strength, balance and coordination program
- Outdoor drills to learn new movement patterns
- Apply and practice the changes while running
One column is not enough space to cover all three, so we’re going to cover the first phase in this column and the others in the next two. Because each phase lasts around four weeks, spreading them across three articles fits in well with the timeline for creating the desired changes.
Why address mechanics now?
For athletes with summertime goals, modifying running mechanics during the competitive season is difficult because the training workload is high. The end of the year is a much better time because workload is lower and you can focus on mechanics without taking away from your training.
Do you need to change the way you run?
I’m not a fan of trying to fix things that aren’t broken. If you are not injured, not dealing with pain and can train normally, this three-phase program isn’t necessary. Could your mechanics improve? Maybe, but there is a fallacy in chasing perfect running form. Perfecting form by some intangible nuance is an example where perfect will be the enemy of good.
Even for runners who have good reasons to work on mechanics, athletes are best served by making the fewest and smallest changes necessary to achieve the desired effect. Keep it simple, focus on only a few exercises, and don’t try to make changes overnight.
Phase 1: Home-Based Strength Balance and Coordination Program
There are hundreds of exercises you can choose from, but I recommend the following three, performed three times per week for four weeks. Each session should only take about 15 minutes.
Exercise #1: One-Legged Squat
One-legged squats impose a significant balance and coordination challenge as you lower and raise your hips. Initially, you may have more difficulty maintaining balance and form on one leg compared to the other. Begin with arms extended out to the side of your body or on your hips. Balance on one leg with opposite leg bent behind at about a 90-degree angle. Keeping your back straight, and supporting knee over your foot, lower your hips while keeping the elevated leg off the floor. Control is more important than the depth of the squat, so focus on smooth movement of the knee. Lower your hips just past the point where if you look down, your knee completely covers up your toes. Raise your body back up to the original position until the supporting leg is straight, but not locked. Repeat for 10 reps and switch legs. Complete three sets.
Exercise #2: One-legged Reverse Deadlift
For runners, I recommend adding an important variation to the end of a normal one-legged reverse deadlift. Begin in a one foot stance. Keeping your back straight and a slight bend in your supporting leg, lower your upper body by bending at the waist, lifting your non-supporting leg behind you and keeping your opposite arm of the supporting leg reaching for the ground. Aim to get your back and extended leg close to parallel with the ground.
As you rise back to the starting position, swing your non-supporting leg through to the front and raise your knee to hip level or higher. Simultaneously, swing the opposite arm forward and up to finish in a running position. Reverse the motion to start the next rep. Repeat for 10 reps and switch legs. Complete three sets.
Exercise #3: Forward Lunge
Start in a standing position with feet hip-width apart. Take a moderate step forward and, keeping your upper body straight and upright, lower your hips until your front thigh is parallel to the ground and your shin is roughly perpendicular to it. Overly narrowing your stance is one of the important mistakes to avoid with forward lunges. Your feet should still be about hip width apart, not in a straight line like you’re on a tightrope. Press into the forward heel to drive back up to the starting position. Repeat for 10 reps and switch legs. Complete three sets.
To successfully complete these one-legged exercises you will have to engage your core, as well as stabilizer muscles throughout your back, hips, legs and feet. None of these exercises should be hard in the sense that they create much fatigue or you fail to get through the last few reps of the exercise, but they should be challenging.
Most of the adaptation from these exercises comes from neuromuscular coordination, rather than training the ability to produce more force (strength) or increase muscle size (hypertrophy). Feel free to do any of these exercises barefoot. As you complete this routine three times a week for four weeks these muscles will get better at coordinating together, which will prepare you for the outdoor drills in the next phase.