Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Born to Run? - Part 1

Hello folks!

Racing has been keeping me busy for the last few months. 
Notable sessions have included….
The last event in the Dark and White Trail Quest series, where I achieved my highest placing to date, finishing 7th in the senior male category in some very cold and challenging conditions. 
I returned to the Peak for a 5 hour running epic, with my good mate Dan Shrimpton - himself an awesome Ultra runner. The main purpose was to reccy the route for an up-coming fell race (the Edale Skyline). We endured 25 of the toughest running miles the Dark Peak had to offer, including wind, rain, hail, snow, dense fog and knee deep peat bogs. It became one of those character building sessions that train mental as well as physical toughness! We loved every minute of it!

Dan in the Peaks as the blizzard hits

It obviously served Dan well as I heard today that he has just won the “Hardmoors”. Part of the Vasque Ultra series, the Hardmoors is a 55 mile race over some of Yorkshires toughest fells. Amazing effort Dan!

Bakewell next for the "Open 5" adventure race. A 5 hour MTB / Fell Running navigation event. I felt super strong on the 3 hour bike section and managed to clear all the controls points (first time I've achieved 100%). Some navigational errors cost me dearly on the run but I still managed to clear all but one control. This was my best performance in an adventure race to date. As a self confessed "amateur" with map and compass, I was dead chuffed to be mixing it with some of the region's best adventure racers, including athletes from team Accelerate and Berghaus. 

I ran the Ashby 20 with my good buddy Hasseb who I am "guiding" for the London Marathon. We used the race to trial our pacing and feeding strategy for the marathon. Things went pretty well and we held our target 3hr marathon pace for the duration. Haseeb had to dig deep and navigate a treacherous last mile, but he really showed his mettle. 2hr 17mins was a pb for Hasseb so job done.

Haseeb and I finishing at the Ashby 20

I was also very proud to gain a County vest following a reasonable performance in the Leicestershire County Cross-Country Championships. My call-up to represent Team Leicestershire in the Inter-County Cross Country Champs came slightly out of the blue. The event was also a World Cross qualifier event so lets just say the quality of the field was a little higher than I am used to!  

Myself looking a little pensive before the start of the Inter-Counties

Needless to say, the event was a real eye opener. 
Watching "real runners" float effortlessly over the ground got me to thinking. Why do triathletes make it look so hard! 
Ok, fair enough - the top guys look pretty impressive, but the vast majority of age-groupers (myself included) tend to lack that effortless grace that we see in elite runners.    
I have been aware of this in my own running for some time now and it’s been something I've been actively trying to correct - and, I'm glad to say, with some success.  
And this brings me neatly onto the subject of my latest blog post...
Running form - can we make changes to the way we run to increase speed and efficiency without requiring extra effort or energy?
Read on to find out.....
So why do we run the way we do? It's an interesting question. 
Few of us are actually taught how to run - it's the most natural thing in the world. Nobody really feels they need to be told how to do it correctly.  
But the reality is few of us do run as well as we could and some very simple changes to our running form could see us all running more efficiently and, ultimately, faster. 
As kids we spend a great deal of our time running around - just for fun. In fact, if you want to see an example of great running form - look no further than kids running around a park in bare feet! 
Now there's a term you've all probably heard a great deal in relation to running - "bare feet". Right now, it seems to be the new running revolution. People around the world are ditching the super squishy trainers in favour of a bizarre array of "bare foot" running shoes.
I’m actually going to devote more time to the mechanics of the running gait and foot strike in Part 2, so watch this space!

But what about muscles? - Ever stop to think about the muscles responsible for running? 
Ask anybody which are the muscles responsible for powering you down the road most would focus on the leg that's in contact with the ground. Quads? Hamstrings? Glutes maybe? These are all big muscle groups and you could be forgiven for thinking that these are the muscles largely responsible for forward motion.
The reality is somewhat different.
For sure, the previously mentioned muscles are certainly essential for the action of running but they are largely useless unless we are able to provide a stable working platform (a strong core) and a "force" to counteract the driving action from the prime movers.
Think about pushing a car. You lean against the rear window and push with your muscles including your quads, calves, glutes and lumbar muscles. The mass of the car offers a resistive force that allows these muscles to fire. Slowly but surely the car inches forward…
Now imagine the car disappears….pooof! It’s gone!
What happens to all those muscles that were flexed and generating huge amounts of power? These muscles no longer have a force to work against – they relax and you fall over.
It would be the same when we run, if we were not able to provide a counteracting force.
However, when we run, we don’t have a car to push against (although it can feel like it sometimes!), so where does this opposing force come from?
Well this is where our “swing phase leg” and gravity comes in..
The swing phase leg, or the non weight bearing leg, as it moves dynamically through the air generates a pull on your body’s centre of gravity. This advancing centre of gravity, and the fact that the weight bearing leg is anchored to the ground, allows a rearward thrust to be generated, et voila, forward velocity!

Also don't neglect your arms. Don't just let them dangle around by your side. Try it in fact. Have a go at running fast with your arms in your pockets. Note how your body twists and your shoulders roll? This is your body trying desparately to balance out the forces from your legs.

So now try again, but this time with elbows flexed at right angles (or there abouts) swinging forward from the shoulder in line with your direction of travel (not side to side, across your chest or round in circles!). Imagine punching a cushion with each alternating fist. The arm swing should be forcefull and yet controlled and actively "stopped" ahead of the body. This stopping action should be timed to coincide with the end of the opposing leg's swing phase. These two actions then combine to provide an effective opposing force to the powerful weight bearing leg. 
So, back to the legs. The important question is… Which muscles control your swing phase? Well, as a group they are referred to as your hip flexors.
The “Hip Flexor” is not a single muscle as some might believe, but a generic term referring to a group of muscles who’s job it is to flex the femur (pull the knee up).
The Psoas Major, Psoas Minor, Iliacus, Rectus Femoris (one of your quads), Sartorius, Tensor Fasciae Latae (or “ TFL”, which is a glute muscle), Pectineus, Adductor Longus, Adductor Brevis and Gracilis are all hip flexors. So next time somebody complains about their hip flexors – you can ask “which one of the 10!”. Then go on to really impress them, by naming them all!
However, of these, the Psoas (Major and Minor) the Iliacus and the muscles of the inner thigh are the most important of your hip flexors for generating an explosive, powerful swing phase leg motion.  Unless specifically trained, they can fatigue quickly, your quads and claves, while still full of beans, have nothing to work against and your dynamic, effortless stride becomes an inefficient shuffle.
We’ve all no doubt experienced this toward the end of races – particularly triathlons where hip flexors are also put through the mill on the bike. The resultant shuffle is a direct result of your hip flexors packing up and leaving the party!
Unfortunately, the hip flexors are one of the harder muscles to train and one of the first to loose condition when you de-train.
They can be strengthened most simply by practicing running fast. Simple really - to run fast, you gotta train fast! Hours of long, slow distance training will improve your aerobic condition but it will not provide the sufficient stress or force required to recruit these "fast running" muscles. You may feel fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog off a winter of Long Steady Distance, but come race day, your hip flexors won’t know what’s hit them!
So lesson one, if you want to run fast in the spring, don’t neglect fast training sessions during the winter!
Tempo runs, intervals and fartlek training can (and should) all be included in the off season.
Other terrific ways to train your hip flexors include running in snow, mud or thick scrub (so you have to lift your feet higher off the ground), hill repeats, climbing stairs and "Roman Chair" exercises in the gym.

There is a great way to conveniently combine many of these training methods and its called  "Cross-country racing"!  The gains in strength and speed can be huge and it should come as no surprise that most dedicated track and road runners, looking for strength and speed in the spring, run cross-country in the winter! They know the importance of strong, fatigue resistant, hip flexors!
So lets all get our hip flexors in shape, start using our arms and we’ll be ready for Part 2 where I will be looking at cadence, stride length and foot plant.

This weekend I’ll be returning to take on the Peaks again in the Edale Skyline fell race.  I just hope my hip flexors are ready to party!