Anyone in the sport of distance running is constantly looking for ways to improve running performance. But what is the best way to improve performance? We have known physiological factors that are determinants of running performance: Maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), lactate threshold, and running economy.1,2,3,4 Of these factors, you’ll hear most coaches talk about the first two when writing and describing workouts to their athletes. Coaches usually prescribe workouts to increase the VO2max of their athlete. VO2max refers to the maximum amount, or volume, of oxygen an individual can consume per minute. With distance running being primarily an aerobic event, one’s ability to maximally utilize oxygen consumption is crucial in improving performance. Another factor mentioned above that is important for distance running is an athlete’s ability to work off “lactic acid” while running hard (which relates to the lactate threshold). I put “lactic acid” in parenthesis because coaches often use different language to describe the same phenomenon and from a physiological standpoint, to put it lightly, there are more proper ways to describe this phenomenon. Regardless, “lactic acid” is what you will frequently hear coaches say when prescribing lactate threshold or “tempo” workouts to their athletes. Lactate threshold refers to the intensity at which lactate levels begin to rise because an athlete is not able to “clear” lactate from muscles at the same rate by which it is being produced. As the body produces lactate, that it is unable to “clear”, muscles will have a hard time functioning properly. All of this is to say that increasing an athlete’s lactate threshold, or for an athlete to have a higher threshold, speaks well to the ability of the athlete to perform at a higher level. The third determinant mentioned above should not be overlooked, as running economy (RE) is actually a better predictor of performance than VO2max.5 Runners with a better RE use less energy running at submaximal velocities than those with worse RE.
There are both physiological and biomechanical factors that are known to influence running economy. As coaches and athletes look to improve running performance, it is important to explore all potential avenues that could lead to an improvement in the determinants of running performance mentioned above. Specifically, in this blog, I want to delve into the ways coaches and athletes can work together to improve a runner’s RE in an effective and simplistic manor. Increasing the quantity of mileage run and the quality of workouts over time are emphasized in any good training program and this is one proposed method for improving RE. Most programs also place an emphasis on strength & conditioning, running drills, and plyometric work which can all improves RE.6 Even though running at a high level is reliant on skillful movement in which each kinematic factor has a specific purpose and function, truly breaking down a runner’s biomechanics and working towards a more skillful movement pattern is often neglected in distance running programs.7
From a coaching perspective, having an athlete improve running performance at a faster rate without having to increase work (i.e., more miles or greater intensity during workouts) would be very beneficial to the athlete. A coach and athlete are always working together to find the line between “putting in too much work” and “not putting in as much work as we could be.” So we should assume that all the things a runner can be doing to improve their RE, from a physiological standpoint (mileage, intensity, strength work, diet, sleep, etc.), are already being explored. If this is true, then in order to improve RE at a more substantial rate a runner will need to explore other options. Paying attention to running mechanics may be an important place to start when trying to improve RE. Changing the biomechanics of an athlete can be an incredibly effective way to improve the athlete’s running performance without putting any more physical stress on their body. In many cases, it may actually put less physical stress on a runner to improve certain kinematic variables. By this point, the question, “Why change a runner’s form?” should be coming to light. Determining what, how and when to alter a certain movement is the next step in a biomechanical approach to coaching distance runners. Researchers have investigated which biomechanical factors affect running economy, quite thoroughly.5,8
Applied biomechanist, and assistant professor in the kinesiology department at California State University, Chico, Dr. Melissa Mache, works with students on establishing the answers to 3 fundamental questions in the world of biomechanics: 1. How do people move? 2. How do better people move? And finally, 3. How do people move better? How better people move, and specifically, how elite runners run, should be the ground work for a coach in establishing what a coach and athlete would like to change. Knowing how and when to bridge the gap between where a runner’s movement patterns are and where they want to be may require a coach to have some background knowledge and/or conduct research into good running mechanics. Once a coach and an athlete have established exactly what they want to fix, putting into action the best way to change the movement can be the most difficult part. What an athlete thinks they are doing and what they are actually doing, more often than not, are two very different things. At present the development of specific interventions to change a runner’s technique have not been extensively investigated or well documented within the literature. However, there have been interventions that improve certain kinematic variables such as increased stride rate and reduction in vertical oscillation of the center of mass (CoM) through Pose® running method.9,10,11 Other interventions in the literature have addressed running mechanics among young or novice athletes.12,13 Some of this research suggests that a visual and verbal feedback intervention can be an effective means of eliciting modifications in running technique. At present it seems there is ample information, both evidence-based from relevant literature and anecdotal from coaches and athletes, to attempt to develop and implement a system for improving running mechanics.
That being said, I am currently a master’s student in Kinesiology at California State University, Chico. My course of study has allowed me to place an emphasis on learning in the sub-disciplines of Biomechanics and Strength & Conditioning. I am also in my third year as an assistant coach for the cross country team here at Chico which provides the opportunity to work with athletes on their running biomechanics on a weekly basis. Chico State’s cross country team has established themselves over the past couple of decades as one of the best teams in the NCAA Division II. Throughout the past 13 years, the Chico men and women cross country teams have won 10 Championship trophies (top 4 teams in the nation earn these) and have only been outside of the top 10 teams in the nation 3 times between both genders in the last 17 years (once on the men’s side and twice on the women’s side). The standards at which we are able to allow people on the team subsequently require all incoming athletes to have fairly elite talent at the high school level as well. Thus, I am blessed to work with very elite Division II cross country runners who compete at a national level every year. Throughout the Fall 2016 cross country season I have been and will continue to use a structured verbal and visual feedback system in order to elicit better running technique and hopefully improve RE among our runners. The system I have been implementing is heavily based in some of the evidence from both physiological and biomechanical literature that I previously cited.
In coming blogs I will shed light on the specific feedback I have provided (and continue to use) to help our athletes at Chico State. Furthermore, I will also offer explanation of how that feedback was provided. It is my hope that this blog will be useful to coaches at all levels of competition and runners of all abilities. I am excited to talk about the intricacies of this intervention as well as monitor its effectiveness in eliciting changes. It is likely that this blog will result in the discussion of many successes and even a few failures. It is my hope that both my successes and failures will prove valuable to those who wish to improve their own running or the running of others.
- Conley, D. L., & Krahenbuhl, G. S. (1980). Running economy and distance running performance of highly trained athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 12(5), 357-360.
- Ferri, A., Adamo, S., La Torre, A., Marzorati, M., Bishop, D. J., & Miserocchi, G. (2012). Determinants of performance in 1,500-m runners. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 112(8), 3033-3043.
- Foster, C. (1983). VO2 max and training indices as determinants of competitive running performance. Journal of Sports Science, 1(1), 13-22.
- Morgan D. W., Baldini, F. D., Martin, P. E., & Kohrt. W. M. (1989). Ten kilometer performance and predicted velocity at VO2max among well-trained male runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 21(1), 78-83
- Saunders, P. U., Pyne, D. B., Telford, R. D., & Hawley, J A. (2004). Factors affecting running economy in trained distance runners. Sports Medicine, 34(7), 465-485.
- Millet, G. P., Jaouen, B., Borrani, F., & Candau, R. (2002). Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and .VO(2) kinetics. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(8), 1351-1359.
- Anderson, T. (1996). Biomechanics and running economy. Sports Medicine, 22(2), 76-89.
- Kyrolainen, H., Belli, A., & Komi, P. V. (2001). Biomechanical factors affecting running economy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33(8), 1330-1337.
- Arendse, R. E., Noakes, T. D., Azevedo, L. B., Romanov, N., Schwellnus, M. P., & Fletcher, G. J. (2004). Reduced eccentric loading of the knee with the Pose Running Method, Medicine Science in Sport and Exercise, 36(2), 272-277.
- Dallam, G. M., Wilber, R. L., Jadelis, K., Fetcher, G. J., & Romanov, N. (2005). Effect of a global alteration of running technique on kinematics and economy. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23(7), 757-764.
- Fetcher, G., Romanov, N., & Bartlett, R. (2008). Pose® method technique improves running performance without economy changes. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 3(3), 365-380.
- Messier, S. P., & Cirillo, K. J. (1989). Effects of a verbal and visual feedback system on running technique, perceived exertion and running economy in female novice runners. Journal of Sports Sciences, 7(2), 113-126.
- Petray, C. K., & Krahenbuhl, G. S. (1985). Running training, instruction on running technique, and running economy in 10-year old males. Research Quarterly in Exercise and Sports, 56(3), 251-255.