You know the drill

For most people who take up running, the appeal of the sport is its simplicity. It is one of the easiest recreational activities to get started with. Just throw on a pair of shorts and shoes and head out for a run whenever you find free time in your busy life. It is amazing how even a short run during or at the end of a busy workday clears your head and provides a sense of freedom.

Some people will find that they are rather good and can be competitive about running. They sign up for events and, in some cases, end up getting into running with a semi-serious focus. They may even join a club such as Wellington Scottish where they can run and compete with some pretty good runners.

Those who can manage ‘doing the work’, as most runners put it, will reap the benefits by becoming stronger, faster and more efficient, which are key aspects to be successful in distance running. This holds true whether you started running at a young age or discovered running as an adult.

In distance running there are many schools of thought when it comes to what ‘proper’ running form is. Some think that it is a waste of time to adhere to regimented drills to ‘correct’ one’s form, while others will incorporate drills into key training segments based on what they are aiming to achieve.

There is no argument that if you want to be great at running you have to run, that means running a lot of miles with varying intensities and distances. But are running drills similarly important?

Running is a skill that can be learned

As a coach of athletes, I am often tasked to help novice runners to get started in running. There are many strategies that I use to help runners in my group to achieve their goals in a structured, pragmatic way.

My goal for the group of runners with varying abilities is to help them enjoy their sport. This means setting them on a path of progression and avoiding the most common running injuries.

One of the most effective ways to teach the skills beginner runners need to run efficiently is to introduce them to a variety of strength and conditioning exercises that mimic running. These exercises help runners become stronger whilst improving their running skills, all without suddenly increasing the volume of running which could lead to injury.

If we break down the motion of running, there is a support phase and a flight phase followed by a support phase. The support phase is where initial contact happens with the surface you land on and the flight phase is where both feet are in ‘flight’ and back to the support phase.

In order to go faster, you have to condition your feet to get off the ground faster so you’re spending less time on the ground. Sustaining a faster pace over a long distance depends upon your brain communicating efficiently with the muscles involved. This communication is key for your legs which need to be told to turn over quicker by the brain.

Every movement our body makes requires communication between the brain and the muscles. To improve communication between brain and muscle, you need to challenge your body in a way that demands such communication. The neuromuscular system includes all the muscles in the body and the nerves serving them. In order to get quicker other than by running you need to train this system to be reactive. Developing a runner’s neuromuscular reaction time involves working on their reactivity. An effective method is to include running drills to work on the reactivity.

The drills developed in the 1950s by the late Polish coach Gerard Mach (1926-2015) were first taken up by sprinters to great effect. To this day sprinters and middle-distance runners use these drills as part of their training regimen.

When learned properly, running drills are simple to perform and can be adopted as part of a training program. Essentially, the drills, commonly referred to as the ABC of running, isolate the phases of the gait cycle: knee lift, upper leg motion, and push off. The key point is that drills should not replace running, but rather be an aid for becoming stronger. They should result in more efficient running mechanics, which lead to faster running.

By isolating each phase and slowing the movement, the drills aid the runner’s sense of movement. They promote neuromuscular response, and strengthen stabilizing muscle groups that are key for running.

Phases of running - Support > Flight > Support

Drills are effective for all runners because they provide an overall stimulus. For example, beginner runners need to become stronger and more resilient as they take on more running. Drills are an effective method to help any runner become stronger where they are more susceptible to injury or where they have plateaued at a certain level of performance. Studies indicate that drills are a useful method to employ for new and experienced runners.

The value in performing drills is that these get the athlete practicing quick feet, explosiveness and maintaining good posture. They are also a great way to warm up for a speed workout after a light jog. Along with strides, drills prepare the body for quick movement and increase the dynamic range of motion in preparation for the rhythm of a speed session.

The ABC – what about the rest of it to XYZ?

“If it wasn’t for form, I don’t think I would have won. I think about my feet, where they’re going to land. My hips, knees, legs, arms, neck. Where my head should be positioned. Where my chin should be going uphill, downhill.”

– Meb Keflezighi – Olympian and Boston Marathon Winner.

A key part of my coaching is to provide cues to athletes in my care after first observing how they run: 

  • how their feet move when observed from the rear, side and front, and
  • whether the foot contacts the ground naturally and the leg is not rigid or is not overextended or jarring at this point.

Following visual observation, the next step is to help them:

  • run naturally and lightly,
  • co-ordinate and relax the actions of their arms and legs,
  • find their rhythm through all phases, and
  • adapt to the running surface accordingly.

Once I have the facts it becomes easier to apply what would work individually for each athlete. For the most part, it takes a bit of time to learn and apply coordinated movement patterns to be effective over a period.

It is about the whole body as opposed to parts of the body; what will make everything work in unison to propel you forward efficiently, with the net result of you becoming a better runner.

Will drills make me a faster runner?

I have yet to meet a runner, regardless of running ability, who have said to me they do not want to improve their time over a certain distance in a race. However, trying to improve speed can often increase the risk of injury. From a coaching perspective, the right stimulus for a given athlete depends on their level of running. My view is that as a beginner runner once you are comfortable running consistently over a 4-6 week period, you will become stronger and more efficient. And therefore, you will by default get quicker and cover a longer distance in the same time. 

Drills provide an extra dimension in getting runners stronger, which, in turn results in increased efficiency and speed. You can incorporate two or three drills before and even after your run and see for yourself the improvements you will have over time.

If you are not inclined to follow serious drills – then here is something that may be more palatable from Monty Python.

References for running form and drills