Updated: Jan 3, 2022
Before we start talking training programmes, gait analysis, heart rate monitors and the latest GPS watches, let's start by what we mean by improving your running, and to what degree improvement is a good thing.
Improving running is something I can imagine the person in the street classifying as getting faster, or at a stretch, running further. Whilst both are metrics in which you may have an interest and both are legitimately good goals - to a point! Here's where we need to make a distinction. There are competitive runners; those who want to be elite, professional, the best in the world. For them, they need to prioritise running to the possible detriment of their overall health and fitness. For the other 99.9%, both speed and distance have tipping points beyond which pursuit of faster and further is not a good target. So what do we actually want to improve, and how would we do it?
A good programme will make you faster, or build your distance to where you need it to be, or often both. A really good programme will do it at a sensible rate, and with a lower risk of injury. So to begin with, maybe that will suit your needs. If that's the case, I have a 5km option, and a 10km one too. Beyond that though, I think there are three things that deserve a closer look.
The simple acts of inhaling and exhaling are taken for granted by the majority of us. We all understand that we get breathless when we run, but very few understand why, or how to get less breathless. There's a lot hidden in that simple biological process that can gradually make us more efficient runners, and make it a more comfortable activity too. The first thing we should be looking at is the diaphragm. A lot of us belly breathe, and then when we start gasping for air, we pull air desperately into our chests. Neither of these are efficient, and don't allow oxygen to be taken up and distributed optimally. If we combine diaphragmatic breathing with nasal breathing, we start to get even more benefits. Firstly, the nose is designed to filter incoming air, and warm it. Additionally, incoming air picks up nitric oxide on its way, which acts as a vasodilator. All of this means we draw air deeper into the lungs, and are able to use a greater percentage of the air taken in. More efficient oxygen exchange ultimately means we need to take in less air to achieve the same results. A further benefit to be had from nasal breathing, is it naturally limits intensity. It may seem comfortable at half pace on the flat, but try putting your foot down, or going up a steep hill. There are still times, such as the higher intensity sections, or when pushing to break a record, where mouth breathing will triumph through sheer volume, but for general training, nasal breathing is king.
This is a bit of a rabbit hole, and its full depths are beyond the scope of this article, but if we are running for health and fitness, the last thing we want is to be running in a manner that is doing us harm. It's easy to say that heel striking is bad, knee valgus, externally rotated feet, and a tense upper body isn't great running form, but fixing it can be much more complicated than just trying to. Often, the error originates either up or downstream of the symptom, and could result from poor posture, muscular weakness or imbalance, a lack of flexibility, congenital defect, or a combination of several factors. Weak gluteus maximus in one person and poor ankle mobility in another, may manifest in exactly the same way, but both have very different approaches when looking to correct them. So with that in mind, there are three key things every runner can focus on in an attempt to lock in better form; try to land with your weight over your foot, pull your heel to your backside, don't shuffle, and keep your chest and arms free from tension. This won't make you glide like Mo Farah, but it's a great place to start.
Okay, this one is a little bit of a programming point, but I think it can be applied in principle by those outside of a programme too. Whilst recovery includes recovering from one session to the next, for this point I'd like to focus on recovery between intervals, or just during a run. If we're past the point of trying to get any faster with our running, or just have other priorities, one thing still worth focusing on is how we recover during a session. How fast we can return our heart rate to normal, or at least reduce it considerably either after a session, between certain parts of a session, or even on slower paced sections of a continuous run, is a tool that translates easily to all aspects of fitness. If we think of endurance as the ability to keep moving at a constant pace, we can consider stamina to be the ability to repeat and effort to a similar standard after a period of recovery. Therefore, I would recommend aiming to reduce your recovery time, challenge your recovery with movement, or stop or slow down to recover slightly less often, before actually trying to get faster or run further. You'll notice this principle at work in my programmes, but also those of many elite runners and recreational runners across the globe.
Improvement in running comes in many forms, if you can measure and track it, you can improve it, but there is a limit to how much it is possible, or even healthy, to improve your speed, or increase your distance. Make a habit of noting how your breathing felt, recording your time to recover back to 100bpm, or maybe even just recording whether or not you felt light on your feet, and you'll find you can improve your running in more ways than you had maybe considered.