Marathon training week 4: Running efficiently

I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!

As children, we run without thinking about form, posture, technique or being efficient. And unless there's a major imbalance in the body, we tend to run with pretty good form. As we get older, injured, less flexible and perhaps having spent many years at a desk job, our bodies get out of the habit of running as we once used to. So it's no wonder that we're no longer the perfect running machine.

Whether you're running 100 metres or 100 miles, how efficiently you run can have a big impact on your time. The techniques employed by sprinters and ultrarunners are very different in some regards but there are some basic points which are common to all running, no matter the distance.


Keep your head up

Perhaps it's a function of spending a lot of time on the trails and keeping an eye on my footing, but I'm frequently guilty of looking down at the few feet in front of me when I run. While this is useful for avoiding dog poo on the streets and parks of London, it's rarely all that necessary. And besides, you can look down with dropping your head. So why should you keep your head up?

Firstly, it's a heavy part of the body and having it too far over the centre of gravity can create tension in the neck and shoulders. Secondly, if your head is facing down, your airway is partly closed - and breathing is quite an important part of running. Looking into the mid-distance will balance you better and ensure you're getting in as much oxygen as possible.

TIP: Imagine a helium balloon is attached to the top of your head, keeping your posture upright.


Arms go back

As we run, our arms move. It's a natural effect of moving and not something many people will even think about. Arm swing is not just a by-product of running though; it is also a method of propulsion. As your arm goes back, you go forward. But if your arm goes sideways instead of back and forward, you're losing some of that propulsion. To be most efficient, your arms should be moving alongside your body, and not coming across the body. It might feel a little awkward and even unnatural to change but it all helps, especially on the uphills.

TIP: Imagine there is a basketball in front of your stomach and your hands must go either side of it.


Don't spill a drop

Sitting a desk all day is just about the worst thing we can do to our bodies if we want to be efficient runners. And yet for many of us, that's exactly what we do. One result of being in this position is tight hip flexors - and these prevent the sort of full extension of the legs you see when elite athletes are running.

Edna Kiplagat on her way to 2nd place at the 2013 London Marathon

Edna Kiplagat on her way to 2nd place at the 2013 London Marathon

Because of this muscular restriction, our body position when running often isn't ideal. Either the pelvis is leaning back or forwards when it should be in line with the torso and legs. One reason for this, particularly as you tire, is a weak core. Running for any great distance requires strength through the middle of your body and exercising this regularly will help. (There will be more on this in a future post.)

A common suggestion for keeping the pelvis correctly aligned is to imagine your pelvis is a bucket full of water. Don't let the water tip out the front or the back and keep your pelvis level. Now, personally I find it quite difficult to feel exactly what angle my pelvis is at whether I'm standing still or running, but you may have better body awareness than me.

TIP: Work on core strength, engage it while running and if you can, try not to spill that water from your pelvis bucket. Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write.


Land your foot beneath your knee

There's a lot made of footstrike and particularly how heel striking is bad running form. Somewhat confusingly this is both true and untrue. Current marathon world record holder Dennis Kimetto appears to be heel striking in the video below but because his foot lands beneath his knee, it's not a problem.

The problems occur when your heel lands ahead of your knee. This results in every landing slowing you down, reducing forward motion and putting extra stress on your legs.

Heelstriking can be caused by overstriding, so consider consciously taking shorter strides so that your foot lands closer to your body. This will increase your cadence (frequency of footstrike) and reduce the braking action.

Another sign of being inefficient is noisy running. If you're hitting the ground first with your heel and then the rest of the foot comes down it will be louder than if you land with the foot flat. Granted, this isn't so easy to tell if you're running on grass but on tarmac you should be able to hear what your footfalls sound like. And even if you don't heelstrike, you can still be a noisy runner. Being light on your feet will generally promote an efficient running style.

TIP: Reduce your stride length and run like a ninja.


Take your time

If you do want to change how you run, it's a good idea to do a couple of things. Firstly, get someone to film you, in slow motion if you can, and from various angles. This way you can see how you're running and whether you need to change anything. Secondly, only try one of the techniques at once, and only for a short time. For example, on your next easy 5-miler, for one of the miles, focus solely on keeping your head in position. For the rest of the run don't think about it. With practice, it should become second nature.

As long as you don't expect overnight results, or do too much too soon, change is possible. And even if you only make a small amount of progress in one of these areas, the chances are you will benefit when running 26.2 miles.

Read all of my posts on marathon training