How to be a better runner

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Prior to my foray into the gym and beginning my weight-lifting regimen back in 2012, I was a runner.

I started in middle school when I joined the track team, and went all-in with running in high school when I discovered cross country. Distance running sank its teeth into me, and I was pretty darn good at it.

I was the only freshman on our varsity team my first year in cross country, and was an all-league selection all four years of high school on some pretty fantastic teams. I owe a ton of credit to the fact that I had two coaches — Jim Soper and Bill Downing — that were two of the very finest running tacticians and men that I could have hoped to learn from.

It also helped that running came very natural to me. I had the body type and the physiological makeup to excel at distance running.

Not everyone enjoys this type of genetic disposition, though. But I understand that when most people think about getting fit and starting a more active lifestyle, running almost invariably plays a part in their game plan. For some, they think cardio in the form of running will help them lose weight (which is a different topic itself), while others have goals around finishing a race of some sort (5K, marathon, triathlon, etc.)

Many people struggle with running for a variety of reasons, but I believe it comes down to three core factors — your stride, your pace, and your distance. No matter your level of fitness, body type, or experience with running, you can become a better runner if you work to improve in these three ways.

Create a more efficient stride

At its core, running is about getting from one place to another as quickly and efficiently as possible. If this is true, then everything about how your body moves while you run should be about intentional movement in the direction you're going.

Ever seen someone with a stride that is too bouncy? Or with too much side-to-side movement? Or too stiff? When I drive past a runner on the street, I can dissect a their stride and any potential flaws in about 5 seconds of watching them run.

Far too many people simply start running without paying attention to how their body moves when they run.

Your stride is more than just the distance you cover every time you place your foot on the ground. Your entire body affects the efficiency of your stride.

Here are some questions to ask about key areas of your body and how they affect your stride:  

  • Are your toes pointed forward, or do they turn in or out?
  • How does your foot strike the ground? Does your sole invert or evert as it hits the ground? This matters a lot, whereas there's a lot of debate about whether or not heel strike, midfoot strike, or forefoot strike makes a difference.
  • Do your knees track in line with your feet, or do they bow in or out?
  • Do your arms remain in a relatively front-to-back line as you run, or do they cross your body and cause you to torque?
  • Do you have slightly rigid hands (not fists, and not limp), or are you exerting energy through your hands?
  • Do you overstride or understride?
  • Is your spine in a neutral position, or are you flexed or extended?
  • Does your head remain in a neutral position, or does it bob, sway, or tilt?

Paying attention to the entirety of your body's movements as you run, and understanding that they all work interdependently off one another, it critical to becoming a better runner.

pace yourself

If you want to be faster for a longer distance, then you need to actually experience what it means to be "faster."

How? Pace work.

Repeatedly running at a desired pace for a shorter period of time — known as tempo or pace work — can make a huge difference in helping you run faster.

These types of runs, where you push your body at an intensity that matches your desired pace for short spurts for multiple reps, not only helps your body feel what its like to run at that pace, it also increases your lactate-threshold, which is the point where your body reaches fatigue.

For example: When I was training for the 1,600-meter race early on in high school track, one of my goals was to get my time under 5 minutes. If I wanted to run 1,600 meters in less than 300 seconds, I had to run each lap (4) in 75 seconds or less.

To train my body to be able to handle that pace, I regularly did tempo runs on the track. A typical workout would consist of a longer run — let's say 5 miles — followed by 10 laps on the track at a 75-second or less pace, with a minute rest in between laps.

Go the distance

Much like nutrition and weight loss, which essentially comes down to calories in and calories out, running better for longer distances comes down to miles put in.

Building up your distance threshold can really only be accomplished one way: you simply have to run longer.

The more miles you put in, the more your body adapts to the stress, which means come race day, you are more equipped to handle the distance you've trained for.

This method is different for different types of races. For example, to train for a 5K (3.1 miles), I might regularly do 12-15-mile training runs; whereas if I'm training for a marathon (26.2 miles), the most I might run in a single training session is 18-20 miles, but my total mileage over the course of a week might be in the 50-70-mile range.

Train the right way for your goals and you'll be successful.