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.
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:
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.