Several forms of cross training can help you maintain or improve your cardiovascular fitness while avoiding injury. Other types of cross training can enhance your running performance too, by improving your muscle balance and running technique. Long distance running develops muscular endurance in specific leg and hip muscles and is wonderful for your cardiovascular system, but tends to make some muscles strong and tight while others remain weak. “Proximal stability” training, drills, and flexibility sessions can eliminate these imbalances, not only preventing injuries, but improving your racing times as well.
An early study by Peter Cavanagh, PhD, and Keith Williams, PhD, found that most runners naturally use the most economical stride length for a given speed. This led to the belief that runners should not alter their stride length. That advice is correct for the short term, but over the long term (months and years) you can increase your stride length by improving your coordination, strength endurance and flexibility. The gains per stride will be small, but multiplied over thousands of strides, the benefits can be substantial. In addition, your running performances will improve if you can maintain your stride length throughout a race. Many runners inadvertently shorten their strides as they tire, which is part of the reason why they slow down as the race progresses.
Several studies have found that stride length is only weakly related to biomechanical variables such as height or leg length. In other words, if you compare a number of runners all with the same length legs, their stride lengths at a given speed will vary considerably. What accounts for these differences? Muscular endurance, flexibility, and coordination are the most likely factors. Let’s look at how proximal stability training, drills, and flexibility exercises can improve these areas.
Proximal Stability Training: When you run, your legs work as levers relative to your trunk. If your torso and pelvic muscles are weak or fatigue quickly, then you cannot maintain a correct body position while running. By improving the strength and muscular endurance of your pelvis and torso you provide a more stable base of support for your legs to work from. Your trunk acts as a fixed base and your legs work as levers relative to that base to propel you forward.
Runners often have weak abdominal muscles which allows the pelvis to rotate forward and puts more stretch on the hamstrings. This is a less efficient position for your running and also increases your risk of lower back problems. Proximal stability exercises (proximal means close to the center of the body) strengthen the abdominal muscles and work on other stabilizer muscles of the pelvis and trunk. By improving the position of your pelvis, you create a more stable base. Drills and flexibility exercises can then help you further improve your form and increase your natural stride length.
Drills: You’ve probably seen sprinters doing various combinations of high knee running, butt kicks, skipping, etc. Well, these drills are great for distance runners too. First, they can improve your coordination and running form. Second, they lead to gains in strength endurance that can allow you to maintain your stride length throughout the duration of a race. Drills up a moderate slope provide even greater resistance, and by concentrating on high knee lift, a complete toe-off, good arm drive, relaxed neck and shoulders, etc., you will improve your ability to hold good running form.
The key aspects of drills are to exaggerate various aspects of the running stride, and to concentrate on maintaining your form as you begin to fatigue. You should do drills when you are warmed up but still fresh-there is no use trying to improve your coordination and technique when you are already tired. Allow plenty of rest between each drill, and visualize yourself completing the drill with perfect form.
Flexibility Sessions: Improving your natural range of motion can also improve your running technique and increase your stride length, while reducing your risk of injury. Tight muscles provide resistance that limits your ability to stride out. Your regular stretching routine before and after running maintains your flexibility, but is unlikely to improve it. To achieve gains in flexibility, include one or two training sessions per week of at least 45 minutes devoted to flexibility exercises or yoga.
Two important areas to focus on are your hip flexors and hamstrings. Your hip flexors (primarily iliopsoas and rectus femoris) are the muscles that lift your thigh relative to your hip. These are some of the strongest muscles in the body and they tend to become short and inflexible in runners. Improving the flexibility of your hip flexors increases the ability of your thigh to move back relative to your pelvis which allows your stride length to increase. Strengthening your calf muscles by doing sprint drills will then allow you to take advantage of the increased range of motion resulting in a more complete toe-off.
Tight hamstrings restrict your stride length by preventing your thigh from swinging forward completely. The combination of tight hip flexors and tight hamstrings causes the familiar marathoners’ shuffle. Stretching your hamstrings consistently (a slow, but steady process) will allow your stride to increase to its natural length.
Proximal stability training, running drills, and flexibility exercises will provide refreshing variety to your training and can all be completed in the same session. These 3 types of training make a powerful combination to help you develop the full potential of your running stride. Although these sessions take time, the benefits in terms of faster performances and fewer injuries make them well worth the investment.
This article is a contribution from Peter Dickson Pfitzinger, an American former distance runner, who later became an author and exercise physiologist. He is best known for his accomplishments in the marathon, an event in which he represented the United States in two Summer Olympic Games: the Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics.