The winter months always make me think of running. When I lived in California, “winters” were spent running through miles and miles of trails, through the lush foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. I’d travel back to Utah during the Holidays where most days I would wear cold weather running gear, throw Yaak Trax on my trail shoes for added traction, and head out in the snow for an hour or two of frosty solitude. Now that I’m in DC, I don’t make it back to UT or CA as much, but I still focus on running during the winter months. As such, I’m a bit more observant of other runners- be it outside or on the treadmills at the gym.
As I engage with other runners, I am reminded of some essential keys that every runner should understand. At the same time, I see the pitfalls that MOST runners commit in the quest to become faster or fitter. Hopefully, you don’t fall into the trap others do. See if you’re guilty of doing any of these 5 Pitfalls Runners Make:
1) Running too far, too fast, too soon. Ever been injured? Most runners - 70% in fact- get hurt every year and more often than not, it’s because they ran either too far or too fast before their body was able to handle the added intensity or duration. To safely improve as a runner (or as an athlete in most disciplines), the body has to adhere to the SAID principle: Systematic Adaptation to Imposed Demands. Basically, it means your body needs time to slowly adapt to greater demands (speeds and/or duration). If runners try to increase the demands without adequate adaptation, injury is usually the result. However, most runners can gradually build speed and distance by simply using the ‘10% rule’, in which runners increase the time of their long run by 10% per week (if running an hour one week, the next week would be running 1:06, etc.)
2) Running the same pace every run. Albert Einstein is credited with coining the phrase, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again but expecting a different result.” I know virtually nothing about astrophysics, but I can tell you from a running perspective, that if you run the same pace over and over and over, you won’t get much faster. And THAT’S insanity to me. To overcome the dreaded plateaus that all runners face, the ‘imposed demands’ (remember that from earlier) have to be varied. For example, novice marathon runners tend to run most of their runs at one pace. They might add a tempo run here, or speed work there, but by and large, there isn’t enough variety in their workouts to challenge their bodies and force adaptation to faster speeds. One simple way to vary runs is by using the ‘sandwich’ principle. If a runner runs 5 days a week, 2 days are significantly slower than goal race pace, 2 days are significantly faster than goal race pace, and one day is at race pace (the “race-pace” day is sandwiched by two faster run days and two slower run days).
3) Running the ‘fast runs’ too slow, and the ‘slow runs’ too fast. I see this all across the board- from the novice runners I coach all the way up to my sub-elite athletes. Most runners don’t have problem pushing the pace, but they DO have a problem with running slow on the recovery days. The discipline to go slow is a critical part of training- as it allows the body to recover fully for the next high intensity (or ‘fast’) workout. With the body fully recovered (having run the ‘slow/recovery’ run at the right pace), the speed workouts (hard tempos, dedicated speed work, or race pace intervals built into long runs) can be run at the proper paces. Over time, the body adjusts to the demands and the runner can go longer and/or faster. However, if the runner fails to fully recover by running slow, residual fatigue builds up and limits the athlete’s potential in hard, long, or even race-day efforts.
4) Improper strength training or avoiding it all together. I get it- by nature, runners would rather be outdoors running than inside a dank, musty, gym competing against body builders for time on the squat rack. However, that time goes a LONG way to preventing injury (Remember that 70% stat from earlier?) Because running is a repetitive, anterior-based exercise, we naturally develop muscle imbalances that if not corrected will lead to watching that next 5k or Marathon from the sidelines. I know far too many runners that head to the weight room, do some bench presses, arm curls, some sit ups, and a few triceps extensions, and call it strength training. Not so. An effective strength routine uses compound lifts involving the posterior-chain (think deadlifts, heavy squats, hang cleans, etc.), engages the core muscles, and focuses on single-leg stability and strength. It also focuses on lifting moderate to heavy weight at different times of the year based on a periodized training schedule. Not only will this lead to injury-free runs, but the leg power acquired from lifting correctly will allow for quicker accelerations up hills, help lessen fatigue later in the race, and enable a faster kick down the finishing chute.
6) Neglecting technique work. Even the most elite runners in the world still practice run technique. In college, I trained alongside several Olympians, and I still remember seeing Frankie Fredericks doing drill after drill every single day. (He won the Silver medal in the 100m and the 200m in BOTH the 1992 and 1996 Olympics) And it’s not just the sprinters that practice run technique - it’s even more important for distance runners, as we’re so much more concerned with running economy, especially as races get in the the later stages. Yet how many of us dedicate time each week to doing specific running drills? Do we practice on improving run cadence, carriage (posture), and footfall? Are we working on the flexibility required to open our hips and allow for quicker trail-leg recoil? If not, we sure should! As I’ve told every runner (and triathlete) I’ve ever coached, it’s almost always a better use of time to do 10 minutes of running drills as a warm up, run a purposeful 40 minutes, then do 10 minutes of stability/mobility/flexibility work, than to simply run straight for 60 minutes.
So, as you run this Winter (and into the Spring season) be sure not to succumb to these 5 pitfalls so many fellow runners do. Avoid them and you'll be well on your way to a successful season. Ease into your training, vary your run intensities, run the slow runs slower, put in your time in the gym, and work on those run mechanics and watch those race times fall.