How to boost performance by running less

How to boost performance by running less

Getting out of the habit of more training, and getting into the habit of smart training, is easier said than done, especially when it comes to running..

The beauty of running as a form of exercise is its simplicity. Most of us have done it to a certain degree before (flashback to secondary school P.E. lessons), so the barriers to entry are fairly low compared to other forms of exercise. But ironically, its the simplicity in running that can potentially hold us back from progress, according to running coach and founder of Cardio Collective, Courtnay Osborne-Walker. ‘Placing one foot in front of the other repeatedly seems so simple, when in reality running is a multi-faceted activity,’ Courtnay explains. ‘Running requires stability, strength, speed and power.’

While increasing distance might seem like an obvious way to progress, racking up the miles isn’t necessarily the smartest way to progress, Courtnay says. ‘I believe that focusing solely on distance is deep-rooted in competitive and comparative cultural norms,’ she adds.

If you look to running for its meditative or mental health benefits, and the extended time on the pavement is paramount in helping you reach your end goal, then by all means carry on. But when it comes to improving your efficiency as a runner, you might be pleased to know that doing less – in terms of distance – could actually give you more in return.

‘I participated in competitive running my entire young adult life, only ever running above 3K if it was for cross-country running at school. This doesn’t make me any less of a runner,’ Courtnay points out. ‘It’s all about what we’re running for, where we are on our journey and what we’re physiologically suited to. I always ask my athletes, if you’re not running to compete in long distance running, why do you need to run for a long distance?’

‘Fundamentally, every runner needs to understand their “why.” If you’re not competing in long distance events, lengthy runs need not occupy the majority of your training week,’ Courtnay advises. ‘Having a balanced and purposeful approach to your running routine, which encompasses strength, speed, power and mobility work will result in becoming a well-rounded runner.’

The run/walk approach
Too often, it is assumed that the ways to progress as a new runner are limited to running a 5K, moving on to a 10K, then to half marathon and finally, a full marathon. But there is so much in between that not only can be more effective, but also more enjoyable. For new runners looking for a smart, structured and achievable way to reach the next level, Courtnay recommends adopting the run/walk approach.

‘At Cardio Collective, we have run programmes that include intervals of running and walking to allow beginners to build running resilience,’ she explains. ‘The run/walk protocol safely exposes new runners to the physiological demands of running.’

There are many ways that a run/walk protocol can be undertaken, but Courtnay advises absolute beginners to start with a 1:1 ratio – with the run being at a comfortable pace – for the physiological benefits as well as the mental benefits. ‘I suggest utilising the aerobic energy system on beginner run/walk programmes (around a three out of five in terms of intensity) until the confidence, form and competency is there to introduce a pace that requires the anaerobic energy system.’

Running in pyramids and ladders
For more experienced runners who might be looking to vary their runs without drastically increasing their mileage, pyramids and descending ladders could be an interesting addition, especially if you’re after a competitive element. ‘Pyramids and descending ladders require you to increase your intensity throughout the workout while also resting between intervals of running to reduce mileage,’ Courtnay explains. ‘An example that I’m thoroughly enjoying in my current programme is 12 minutes, eight minutes, six minutes, four minutes and two minutes of running, all with two-minute recoveries in between.’

In terms of effort level for each run interval, Courtnay recommends starting at a three out of five for intensity on the first interval, upping it a level for the next two intervals before finally finishing with the highest intensity. ‘This kind of structure exposes experienced athletes to a range of intensities, pace and energy systems, while limiting the time on your feet.’

‘Experienced runners still need to establish their running purpose as this will be the guiding principle in their training. Running long distances does not prepare us for running short distances, so being intentional with our running sessions is key.’

Train to run
One of the smartest ways to improve your running ability while running less, is to take up a style of training that doesn’t involve running at all. Functional training is one of the most efficient ways to complement your running, and is particularly important to those who might suffer joint problems from high-impact activities like running.

‘Ideally, anyone who runs should be participating in functional training of some kind. That is, training that improves sporting performance and reduces injury risk,’ says Courtnay. ‘As a running coach, I encourage my runners to train mobility, stability and strength.’

While we might not necessarily view running as a sport that requires a huge range of motion through the joints, Courtnay believes that mobility of the ankles and hips are vital for running. ‘Exercises such as leg swings and split squats can work on this. Stability in the knee also helps reduce injury risk and power output, which can be developed through strength training. Also, runners can benefit from working on balance through controlled instability exercises and unilateral work such as single-leg deadlifts.’

When embarking on a functional training routine to complement your running, Courtnay recommends focusing on basic human movement patterns such as squatting, lunging, pushing and forward bending. ‘Competency in these movements will better equip us to manage the forces of running,’ she adds. ‘Additionally, sport-specific drills such as bounding and skipping will develop power and speed, both of which are essential for improving running performance.’

It’s striking the perfect balance between a range of methods that work for your goals that’s going to give you the best results, rather than continuously pushing your distance without much thought as to why. ‘Ultimately, runners can develop their skill by combining interval training with functional strength training and mobility work to add intensity, variety and purpose to their running training without racking up too many miles.’

For more advice on improving your running, check out Cardio Collective (@cardiocollective), a newly-launched inclusive online running collective led by Courtnay Osborne-Walker.
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