Brian Metzler–If you want to improve as a runner, you’ve got to do more than just run. You’ve got to make time to do the extra stuff, too. Taking 20 minutes to do a handful of drills, such as those demonstrated here by 2012 Australian Olympic marathoner Benita Willis, can dramatically improve your running form and economy (or the ability to run fast efficiently) and increase your stride cadence and racing speed.
Each of the drills highlights one or more aspects of good running form and accentuates them through repetitive motion, which trains the body to become comfortable with that movement so it can be inserted into your typical running mechanics. These drills can serve as a dynamic warmup routine after a 10-minute easy jog before your regularly scheduled run or workout, or they can be completed after a run to reinstate the notion of running with good form while fatigued.
Try to do these drills three to four times per week on an ongoing basis, focusing on the precise movements outlined below. There are numerous other drills you can incorporate into your routine, including acceleration strides, but the most important factor is doing them consistently.
Why: Butt kicks engage the hamstrings, accentuate the recovery portion of the running gait and improve leg turnover cadence.
How: Run in place with your thighs more or less locked in a neutral position and try to kick yourself in the glute with your heel on each stride. Focus on keeping the rest of your body still and simply flicking your lower leg backward. If you’re not making contact, you need to improve your dynamic range of motion. Do two or four reps of 15 kicks with each leg.
Why: The high knees drill accentuates knee lift and glutes and hamstring power, which are keys to running fast and efficiently, as well as powerful and efficient leg drive.
How: Taking short steps with a very quick cadence, alternate thrusting knees upward until your thigh breaks a plane parallel to the ground. Focus on soft, flat footstrikes near the ball of your foot while using your core to lower your leg down slowly instead of letting it crash to the ground. Do two to four reps of 15 lifts on each knee.
Why: Bounding increases foot, calf and hamstring muscle power and develops single-leg stance stability necessary to maintain fluid running form while fatigued.
How: On a flat or very slightly downhill slope, alternate thrusting into the air off one leg in an exaggerated skipping motion. The focus should be on a powerful leap into the air and a quick (but not super-fast) cadence. Your arm motion should be synced to the opposite leg’s action, holding steady for the brief moment while you’re off the ground. Do three to four reps of 10 leaps on each leg.
Why: This drill loosens hip flexors and glutes and increases hip and leg and gluteal mobility while also using lateral strength required to run with good form.
How: Standing upright with your head and torso facing forward, move laterally in one direction by placing your trailing leg in front of the lead leg. Then move the lead leg in that same lateral direction and place the trailing leg in front of the lead leg. Maintain a fluid motion with your arms rotating in the opposite direction from the legs. Do two to four 50-meter reps to the left and right, facing the same direction for each lateral movement.
Why: This drill helps develop calf and foot strength needed during the toe-off phase of the gait cycle while also stimulating neuromuscular timing for running with high cadence. It also accentuates the high-knee action of the lifted leg during a running stride.
How: Skip with a moderate leap off of one foot and return to the ground and immediately leap off the other foot, maintaining a compact arm swing as if you were running. This slow-action skipping drill should have a staccato rhythm. Do two or four 50-meter reps.
Why: This drill develops lateral strength and agility necessary to stabilize the body and maintain single-leg balance during forward running motion. Specifically, this drill works the glutes, hip flexors, tensors, abductors and psoas muscles in ways that are otherwise neglected in forward running.
How: With an upright torso and level head, move laterally in one direction by alternately bounding with your legs spread and your legs together. You’ll probably need to swing your arms overhead in an opposite pattern to maintain balance. Do two to four 50-meter reps to the left and right, facing the same direction for each lateral movement.
Why: This drill increases mobility of the hamstring and gluteal muscle groups and enhances forward hip extension necessary for running fast with efficient form.
How: With an upright posture and straight legs, alternately flick one leg forward while reaching with the opposite hand to lightly tap the extended foot. Focus on form, not speed, as this will wind up being a variation of a slow-moving skipping drill. Do two to four reps of 10 extensions on each leg.
Why: Also known as low-rise bounding or paw backs, this drill helps stimulate neuromuscular timing for quick- cadence running, while also reinforcing a flat or midfoot footstrike. Combined, those stride components can greatly shorten ground contact time and eliminate the counterproductive braking associated with a heel-striking gait.
How: With an upright torso, straight legs, dorsiflexed ankles and toes pointed upward, start bounding forward with low-rising forward leg lunges and a quick cadence. Avoid leaning backward by acting as if you’re aggressively pulling the foot backwards as soon as it touches the ground. Do two to four 50-meter reps.
Running backwards helps strengthen the glutes and upper hamstrings, as well as various core muscles in the abs and lower back.
Although it will seem awkward at first, try to replicate your forward running motion while moving backward. You’ll still be pushing off of your forefoot and swinging you arms, but you’ll be lunging backward with your hamstrings and using core muscles to stabilize differently than you’re used to while moving forward. Focus on form, not on speed. Do two or four reps of 50 to 100 meters.