For beginners, running—or rather, training to run—means one thing. For skilled runners, it means another. Running 101 is not the same as 102.
In a previous article, I discussed why it was important for beginner runners to consider that the key to begin running safely (and successfully) isn’t just to “wing it,” but rather to understand what running implies in physiological terms, and to adapt the body to interact with those specific stresses.
The problem is that in a supermajority of cases, running is treated in the very same way for the very beginners as it is for the well-versed: everybody just goes out and runs, does the same types of exercises, and periodizes their training in very similar way. Granted, the intensity levels involved are quite different between the beginners and the advanced, but that’s basically where the differences end.
But those differences shouldn’t end there. It is not the same to train a runner whose run since childhood, whose bone, tendon, and muscle are well-adapted to the stresses of the run (and whose form provides the geometry necessary to utilize the forces involved in the most efficient and least injurious way), than to train someone whose body has no more idea of how to move under their own power, at speed, over variable terrain, for an extended period of time (in other words, of how to run), than of how to fly a spaceship.
Roughly speaking, the difference between the beginner and the advanced runner is that the beginner is in a process of explicit development of function and infrastructure. The advanced runner can focus on developing the larger (macro) structures: muscles and organs, because the infrastructure is already in place.
This second process is a process of expansion, where the further development of infrastructure is contingent on the expansion of larger structures, and not the other way around. In other words, the order of development flips: training for beginners develops infrastructure, and developing macro structures is a result of that. Training for advanced runners develops macro structures, and more infrastructure is put in place as a result of that.
In essence, form must be found first. The body must adapt to the stresses of the run, and develop the power to sustain a baseline cadence that is typically (but not necessarily) between 170 and 190 strides per minute.
That cadence allows us to shorten the time we spend in the air accelerating towards the ground by the force of gravity. Once we develop the baseline power necessary to achieve this, and we know that we have our interactions with gravity dialed in, should we begin to do more “traditional” training.
Only then is it prudent to begin developing speed, power and endurance in the earnest. In a nutshell, this constitutes the much-overlooked divide between the beginner and the advanced.
The first and most important component of form is to achieve consistent triple flexion and triple extension during the running stride. “Triple flexion” and “triple extension” refer to concerted flexion and extension of the hip, knee, and ankle joints during the running stride. Achieving this necessitates that the upper body retain a certain geometry (read: form) during the stride cycle: an arched, proud back, a slight forward lean, and arms bent loosely at the sides.
By achieving this, we can ensure that at all times during the run, the body’s geometry is ideally positioned to interact with the force of gravity, and to conduct the generated mechanical energy fluidly throughout the body (rather than having that energy abruptly stop at all the typical places: the ankle, the knee, or the hip).
That, my friends, is what we call “injury.”
So, what are the components involved in training appropriately?
1. As readers of this blog are probably tired of hearing by now, my favorite way to begin this process is by jumping rope the right way.
But jumping rope does more than develop flexion and extension: it imitates the shocks of running in a much smaller proportion. It provides an excellent way to let the tissues begin adapting to the stresses, to develop a comprehensive mental schematic of how best to absorb shock and return energy, and to develop the power necessary to begin transferring those rehearsed actions to a much more demanding arena: the run.
However, I like using a few other exercises to lubricate this transition:
2. Squats with minimal weight and high repetitions.
3. Box Jumps (both single and double-legged).
4. Various hip mobility/core exercises; (when correctly defined, these are pretty much one and the same).
The box jump is a particularly cool exercise, since it forces us to triple-extend and then to triple-flex in mid-flight, to land on the higher surface. It provides us a great way to neurologically program triple flexion and extension at higher percentages of maximum voluntary muscle contractions (MVC).
(The mechanics of box jumps and their implications to the running stride deserve another post unto themselves).
All of this said, there is another training strategy that I like to use in parallel with these basic components:
5. The Slow Progression:
The slow progression is exactly what it sounds like: progressing in the time spent running such that gains in performance occur below our threshold of perception. In other words, we want to be increasing so slowly that we barely realize we are exercising.
The most important reason for the sheer slowness is to account for time. Everyone wants to be a runner TODAY. People want those performance gains now, and those fat losses now, and they want those changes to be sustainable. Well, they can’t have their cake and eat it too—not in the long run (pun very much intended). It takes time to develop extensive capillary networks into the muscles. It takes time to adapt the bone and fasciae to withstand the repetitive shocks of running. It takes time to increase density of tendon tissue to a point in which they are strong enough to take the body’s weight during landing (and returning it to the next stride) without worrying that they’re going to tear a couple thousand steps later.
Remember: when human children run since the day they can stand, their entire young life serves as a slow progression—one that lasts a decade.
What I propose is one that lasts one year: fifty-two weeks.
For the first two weeks you run two minutes, and you keep adding two minutes to your run, every two weeks. (The third week you run four minutes; the fifth week you run six). Although this may not seem like a lot to you—remember: that’s the point—know that at the end of that year you’ll have the potential to be running fifty-two minutes a day, every day.
Contingencies aside, after that year you should be ready to move from Running 101 to Running 102.