Sunday, July 23, 2017

5 Secrets to Running Quickly Without Pain

While I am a pretty athletic guy, and I'm not afraid to try some seriously difficult strength exercises, I've never been good at quickly running long distances. I usually did well on my 1.5-mile run because I could sprint for 3-4 laps and then just held on until I crossed the finish line. Although this worked, it wasn't fun and I found myself physically drained once the PT test was over with.

So, after doing this a couple of times, I decided to change my running equipment. I switched from regular running trainers to the Nike Free shoes, which helped a little, but didn't do much for my chronic running injuries (mostly shin splints). After a bit more research, I decided to try minimalist shoes (specifically the Vibram Bikila LS). While these shoes allowed me set my fastest run time (11:24), and helped me get rid of my chronic running injuries, it only slightly reduced how tired I felt after I was done running.

As I do with all my difficult problems, I started buying books to research a solution. After reading about the the ChiPose, and Evolution running techniques, as well as some running and endurance physiology theory, (1,2) I managed to assemble five changes to my training that have helped me complete the running portion of my PT test without feeling tired afterwards.

1) Avoid Overstriding
There is a surprising amount of controversy surrounding how you should strike the ground when running. You have three basic ways to make contact with the ground: Heel-, mid-, or fore-foot striking.

Hind-foot (or heel) strikers impact the ground with their heel first; mid-foot strikers place their whole foot on the ground; and fore-foot strikers land on the balls of their feet (and may also lightly make contact with their heel before pushing off).

Of the three foot striking approaches, heel striking is the most popular. (3,4) It is also the approach most associated with injuries (4) and has been found to be lest efficient (5), mostly due to something called overstriding.

Notice how heel striking (top) creates additional impact force that is missing from mid- or fore-foot striking (bottom).  

When you overstride your foot makes contact with the ground ahead of your center of gravity. Why is this bad? If you think about it, you cannot balance yourself very well if your foot is out in front of you. Consequently, to stay upright, you need to break (slow down) with each stride. This is inefficient (causing you to tire out quickly), places a lot of stress on the muscles around your shin bone (possibly leading to shin splints), and drives a lot of force into your hips (possibly causing hip pain). The picture below shows what overstriding looks like.

The left picture is an example of overstriding, which places your foot so far out in front of your center of gravity that you can't help but land hard and break (slow down) with every stride. A faster and more pain-free way to strike the ground is represented by the picture on the right, which naturally happens with a mid- or fore-foot strike.

Looking at the picture above you will notice that the heel-striking example (left) shows the toes pointing upward on ground contact. This is a tell-tale sign that you are overstriding, where the heel lands ahead of your center-of-gravity, forcing you to brake with every stride. Also notice how the mid-foot (and fore-foot) strike example (right) would eliminate braking since you land directly under your center-of-gravity, allowing you to accelerate immediately with each stride. This is more efficient strike pattern and reduces or eliminates the impact forces moving through your legs and hips.

Here is a video showing what I mean:

Personally, I was a very heavy heel striker for most of my life. This wasn't a problem for me when I was younger because I didn't run very much. But, I experienced chronic shin, knee, and hip pains once I started running several days a week when the USAF switched back to running for the PT test from the cycle test. After I transitioned to a forefoot strike (and invested in minimalist running shoes), my injuries largely disappeared, making training for my PT test much more enjoyable.

2) Use Minimalist Shoes
One of the ways that I was able to correct my overstriding was through the use of minimalist shoes. I chose minimalist shoes because nature didn't design the foot with the idea that it would be wrapped in a shoe. The foot was designed to interact directly with the ground so that the toes, feet, and legs could all work together to provide natural and effective shock absorption. (6) This system seemed to work pretty well: The athletes at the first Olympics (776 BC) all competed barefoot.

But we live in a world with very hard surfaces, so runners started to wear shoes around the turn of the 20th Century. And up until the 1970s, runners used simple flat shoes. Then a small company named Nike made the first modern running shoe and running shoe design was radically changed from simple flats to the thick-heeled, over-cushioned, and excessively supported monstrosities we have today. These changes in shoe design were made to reduce running injuries, but it seems to have made things worse by encouraging heel striking and overstriding. (7)

But things have come full circle. In 2005, Vibram introduced the first "toe" shoe, ushering in a return to the minimalist running shoes we had in the early 20th century.
The two left shows are examples of minimalist shoes. Notice that they have little to no heel drop and minimal padding. The shoe on the right is representative of a more traditional running shoe, which has a lot of padding and support for the foot.
A modern minimalist shoe offers three big advantages:
  • They provide more feedback from the ground. The thinner soles typically found on minimalist shoes help transmit more information about what's going on under your feet to your brain.
  • They make improving your running technique easier. Because you're getting more feedback from the ground, your brain can automatically make form corrections.
  • They reduce injuries while protecting your feet from a modern environment. Actually running barefoot today could expose runners to a modern running environment that is filled with hard surfaces and dangerous debris. Minimalist shoes protect delicate feet with as little insulation between you and the ground as possible.
Here is a brief video that looks at different minimalist shoes:

Before I move on, I would like to say that going from regular shoes to minimalist shoes is very hard on your feet and calves at first. This is because your feet will be asked to to do more work than normal. But they will adapt pretty quickly. From my experience, the easiest way to transition to minimalist shoes is to start out running for just .25 miles a day for the first week and add another .25 miles each week once your calves and feet are no longer sore. Check out this site for more information about transitioning to running in minimalist shoes.

3) Try Lighter Shoes
Another reason to try minimalist shoes is that they usually weigh a lot less than typical running shoes. The less your shoes weigh, the less work your legs have to expend moving your feet with each stride, which can give you more energy to run faster during your PT test. This is a simple and easy way to drop your run times without doing any additional training.

In general, the most efficient shoes are no shoes at all (a.k.a., your bare feet). Once you put on a pair of shoes you will lose about 1% efficiency for each additional 3.5 ounces you put on your feet. (8) Consequently, the heavier your running shoes, the more work your legs have to do to move your feet with each stride, ultimately resulting in slower run times.

So, lets say that you run with heavily cushioned and motion-controlled shoes that weight about 15 ounces (for both shoes total). Compared to your bare feet, you would lose about 4.29% efficiency (15/3.5 = 4.285). However, if you ran in minimalist racing shoes that weigh about 8.5 ounces total, your running efficiency loss would only be about 2.43% when compared to barefoot running. Compared to running in the heavier shoes, the lighter shoes in this example could increase your efficiency by about 1.86%.

How does this translate to your run times?

In the above example, a 1.86% increase in efficiency would likely decrease each 400-meter lap time by just a few seconds. This doesn't sound like much, but if your 1.5-mile time is slow enough, lighter shoes could mean the difference between barely failing or barely passing. They can also make your feet feel much lighter, at least making your runs a much less miserable and exhausting experience (which for me was a big win).

4) Optimize your Body Weight
How fast you can cover a given distance is largely a function of your overall level of aerobic fitness (generally described as your VO2 Max) and your body weight. So, to run faster, you can improve your aerobic fitness (see #5 below) or you can reduce the amount of weight that your body has to move.

Generally, each pound you lose will decrease your run times by about 2-3 seconds per mile (or 3-4.5 seconds per 1.5 miles). Potentially, a 10 pound drop in weight could decrease your 1.5-mile run time by as much as 30-45 seconds! (Combine that with lighter shoes and you may be able to drop a full minute off your run time without additional training.)

This begs the question: What is an optimal running weight?

This is a tricky question to answer. Ultimately, no matter how much you weigh, a large amount of muscle mass (as opposed to fat mass) should help you produce fast run times (especially if this muscle mass is found in your legs). Along these lines, you want to make sure that your weight loss is all fat, because if you start losing precious muscle, then your run times will start to get slower, not faster.

So, assuming that your body fat percentage is within a healthy range (between 14% - 24% for women and 6% - 17% for men), I would argue that being in the middle of the normal BMI range (22-23) will likely give you the fastest run time (use this BMI chart as a reference).

As an example, a BMI between 22 and 23 for a 5' 10" male would translate to an optimal running weight of between 146-153 pounds (or between 126-132 pounds for a 5' 5" female).

5) Give Yourself Time to Train
One of the strategies I use in the Rapid PT Program is to train to max out your strength and waist components so that you don't have to run very fast to earn a 90% on your PT test. In my experience, this is the fastest way to achieve a Excellent rating within 42 days. I use this approach because to develop the aerobic fitness necessary to max out the run takes A LOT longer than 42 days.

The reason why is beyond the scope of this blog post, but essentially, you have to allow your muscles enough time to reprogram themselves to primarily burn fat and glucose with oxygen, which will improve how long they can accelerate you without becoming fatigued. (9,10) This reprogramming requires a lot of training over a very long period of time (how much training is determined by both your training and genetics). However, whether you are genetically gifted or not, you will need to largely run every day for months (or years) to get close to your fastest run times.

So, if you are seriously determined to max out your 1.5-mile run score, you should plan to train for at least 6-12 months of training using one of the many programs available online or in books. This initial base training should give you a good idea of how long it will take you to develop the aerobic capacity necessary to max out the running component. Then it's just a matter of giving your body enough time to reach that max aerobic capacity (which, again, could take years of dedicated training to achieve).

I know this sounds like a lot of work, but the upside of all this training is that once you develop your speed endurance, it takes next to no effort to maintain that speed for the duration of your time in the Air Force (or for life, if you want to maintain the health benefits), guaranteeing that you will never again stress about your annual PT test. For me, that was always the best part of maintaining my fitness while I was still active.

Have any more secrets for fast pain-free running? Let me know below in the comments!


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