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The Secret to Running Faster and Longer: Don’t Contract Unnecessary Muscles

Posted by on Sep 1, 2012 | 10 Comments

So you want to run faster for long distances, huh?

There’s a lot of theories that will help you reach that goal… but here’s an exceedingly simple tip that anyone can implement immediately and see results.

The secret?

Don’t waste energy.

Yup. That’s it.

Running involves muscle contractions to initiate and sustain movement. Muscles primarily use glucose and oxygen. Your body has a limited supply of glucose and a limited ability to supply oxygen. since we’re discussing long-distance running, we won’t be surpassing our body’s oxygen delivery capabilities. Furthermore, muscles get fatigued with repeated use. Both glucose-delivery and fatigue are limiting factors when running long distances. The less glucose we use and the less muscle contractions we initiate, the longer we can run at a faster speed.

So how do we conserve glucose and reduce fatigue?

We eliminate unnecessary muscle contractions.

Over the years, I’ve had conversations with physical therapist and biomechanics researcher Dr. Scott Hadley. Scott investigates the idea that running gait is controlled by a series of reflexes that initiate a pattern of muscle contractions and relaxations around the body that allows us to run. This concept made a lot of sense.

It made even more sense after reading this description of running form by Steve Magness:

http://www.scienceofrunning.com/2010/08/how-to-run-running-with-proper.html

Magness talks extensively about active and passive movements throughout the gait cycle. This is the crux of learning to run with more efficiency- too many people try to activate muscles that should be relaxed throughout the gait cycle. For example, it’s common for people to do the following:

  • Try to lift the foot off the ground by activating the quadriceps by “lifting the knee.”
  • Try to lift the foot toward the butt by contracting the hamstring.
  • Contract the quads to create a braking effect when running downhill.
  • Contract the quads too much as the primary means of running uphill.
  • Contracting the soleus by “running on their toes”

All of these are completely unnecessary when doing anything other than sprinting. I’ll leave sprinting to the people that actually sprint. :-)

There are a few other common unnecessary muscle contractions people use, but the point is the same. To run faster over longer distances, don’t contract muscles that are not necessary to initiate and sustain movement. You’ll save glucose and prevent premature muscle fatigue.

I use these lessons when running 100 milers. Even after 100 miles, my muscles are still relatively fresh. It’s not a surprise as I use them as little as possible. I’m lazy that way. ;-)

Another example- after we finished the TransRockies six day stage race, my friend Vanessa commented that her legs still felt fresh after 120+ miles. It’s no coincidence that she has great running form with little wasted motion. Speed over distance is all about conservation.

This is a stark contrast to other runners I observe. I’ll occasionally see a runner on a trail running at at 12:00/mile pace and kicking their butt with each step. It’s no surprise to see them complaining of hamstring cramps ten miles into the race. Or I’ll see the runner that’s prancing on their toes and not allowing their heel to touch the ground complaining about calf soreness before the halfway point of a race. I can’t count the times I’ve heard runners complain of “trashed quads.”

What do you think? Do you contract muscles unnecessarily? Is it holding you back? Try relaxing the muscles involved in the passive phases of the gait cycle; you’ll be surprised at the results.

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10 Comments

  1. ratwoman
    September 10, 2012

    hm…

    I’m not sure about that. I realize one thing while running: when I contract my hamstrings, my calfes can relax – so, when some muscles hurt, I trie to give them time to relax by using other muscles – that works really well, when I kick my butt for half a mile, my calfes relax and get new energy. No need to do that all the time, but it may help avoiding cramps/fatigue – I can run longer when I use more muscles and thinking about it sounds logical – the more muscles work the less work for one muscle – teamwork baby ;-)
    I forgot where I read that but somebody had the theory of changings shoes during a race to change running form and using fresh muscles – the same idea?

  2. Minimalist Running Shoes Reviews
    September 6, 2012

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  3. StephenB
    September 5, 2012

    Much agreement (at least, it makes a lot of sense) on the idea of not engaging active systems unnecessarily. It does present challenges when running at slower paces (like 10 min/mi). I’d welcome any thoughts you’d have on how to apply this to uphill running.

  4. Barefoot Running University » Should We Teach Running Form?
    September 4, 2012

    [...] brings us back to Richard’s questions. A few days ago, I wrote about becoming a more efficient runner. My hypothesis is too many runners listen to “better running form” advice that calls [...]

  5. Bare Lee
    September 4, 2012

    This is why it’s so annoying to read all the folk notions floating about in BFR circles. A basic level of understanding of what really goes on during the gait cycle will dispel all the silliness about driving your knees forward, not pushing off, or consciously manipulating your cadence. One can’t expect us layman/recreational runners to know this stuff, but anyone professing some sort of expertise or professional competence damn well better.

  6. Zweifler
    September 2, 2012

    Oh come on. You’ve really seen somebody running 12:00/mile pace kicking their butt with each step? Rubbish.

  7. Ben W
    September 1, 2012

    As a newbie, I get how this will allow me to run longer. But, how will it enable me to run faster?
    Over the summer, I have slowly made my way to being able to run 6+ miles barefoot without problems. But, my speed has stayed pretty constant at “really slow,” around 15 min. miles on avg.
    What can I do to increase my speed?

    • Rob Y
      September 4, 2012

      Speed work.

      • Ben W
        September 4, 2012

        Check!

  8. Scott
    September 1, 2012

    Another thing I find in my own running is that going *too* slow reduces economy. Leaving my foot on the ground too long negates the spring action of my achilles (and everything else up the chain). I run faster, longer, and easier with a quicker stride with more “pop” (sorry, not sure how to describe it any other way). I’ve been working on this for a long time now. Yesterday I chopped 30 minutes off an 18 mile route I ran last year in nearly identical conditions and fitness. As with everything about running, it’s a work in progress. ;-)