The following article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Footnotes. I found it very instructive, so I asked the author, Fred Benlein, for a permission to post it.
Whether You Are Beginner, Veteran, or Champion; Are You Training to Be A Better Runner or Just Running?
By Fred Benlein, CSCS, HFS USATF Level 3 Endurance Coach, Level 2 Sprints/Hurdles Coach, Level 1 School Instructor
It has been a while since I have written an article – the last couple years have been a great time of learning for me and putting those lessons to work helping my athletes succeed. After 28 years of coaching I have learned a great deal, while I have traveled far I find my journey has just began. Over the last few months I started to write a few articles but I wanted something really special. I wanted to write something that would help everyone from beginner to veteran, 800M runner to ultra marathoner, the triathlete, as well as coaches and trainers. I wanted to write an article to get runners to ask the question why?
If you look at how most runners train or at the many popular training programs out there, much of the focus is on miles or maybe minutes of running per day. An example of a typical program is: Monday 4 miles, Tuesday 3 miles, Wednesday 6 miles, Thursday 4 miles, Friday 5 miles, Saturday off and Sunday 12 miles. Imagine now that you decide to take up tennis or golf and meet your instructor they hand you a bucket of balls and piece of paper and then walks away, the paper reads: Monday serve (tennis)/hit (golf) 500 balls, Tuesday 400 balls, Wednesday 600 balls, you get the idea. Even if you add the words easy, medium, hard, specific heart rate or training intensities it is still one repetitive skill over and over.
At USATF Level 1 Schools one entire section focuses specifically on learning the training of the 5 Bio Motor Abilities (skills). The five bio motor abilities are: 1. Endurance, 2. Speed, 3. Strength, 4. Flexibility, and 5. Coordination.
Each are performed by the muscles. Muscles are controlled by the nervous system. Therefore, like all skills, sports and abilities must be viewed as neuromuscular. Each of the five bio motor abilities are affected by the others and cannot be independent of the other abilities. Combine them together and you get an athlete. Not just a runner, but an athlete who excels at distance running. In Scott Christensen’s book “The Complete Track and Field Conditioning for the Endurance Events” he writes “In the endurance events it is impossible to say which one of the five is most important, for a case can be made for the importance of each. Just accept the fact that they are all important and each skill will need to be addressed in the conditioning program”. Let’s take look at each of these skills as they relate to the distance runner.
Endurance is the skill that distance runners love to focus on. Often the first thing that comes to mind is the long run, but endurance as a neuromuscular skill is much more. Endurance is the ability to maintain a specific intensity over a specific time or distance. It is needed in events as short as 100M to the ultra-marathon. Marathon pace runs, aerobic threshold (about 65% of VO2 Max) runs, anaerobic threshold runs, intervals and repetitions are all endurance training. When a runner decides to do 12x 400M with one minute recovery at 5k pace, they are doing an endurance workout not a speed workout. Now the question to be asked here is “Is 5k pace over 400M really developing 5k endurance? I would say no and that velocity really needs to be at least 1k to 2k. 400M intervals at 1 mile pace are far better at developing mile endurance. Now, let’s not get race specific crazy. Every runner should include some running at all race pace intensities from 800M to marathon no matter what specific event they run.
Speed is the most misunderstood skill for distance runners. Speed as a skill is really about moving the limbs rapidly. Maximum speed is possible up to 60M. This is why 30-60M sprints are important for distance runners. I like them at the end of a workout where my athletes do 4-8 as part of their cool down. They can be done early in a workout, but since this speed is used in some distance races in the beginning it is always used in the end of all distance races in a state of complete fatigue. I do like to include some elements of speed in the warm up but not specifically 30-60M sprints. Sprint coaches will use near top speed efforts over slightly longer distances such as speed endurance over 60-150M, special endurance 1 over 150-300M, or special endurance 2 over 300-600m. These efforts are very short and require long recoveries. I always like to finish hard workouts with some very fast sprints; I believe that it trains the athlete to practice a strong finish. Uphill sprints are not speed workouts since the limbs actually slow down due to the resistance. Downhill sprints are speed workouts. Speed can come from drill work or cross training if the limbs are moving faster than when running, especially in joints like the hip. Here is where an elliptical trainer can be useful. Using it with no resistance at a very high stride rate you can train your hips to increase your strides per minute when you run.
Strength is the ability to apply a force against a resistance. In terms of running, any uphill running is strength work as well as drill work. The longer the uphill effort the less strength involved and more endurance involved. So to get the most strength out of a hill workout, keep the hills short. When we think of strength we often think of the weight room. Yes runners must do weights for their legs. I have tested thousands of runners and I have only met few with good leg strength, most are very weak. Running does not make your legs strong. Leg strength not only improves performance it also prevents injury. In general, all leg work should be done one leg at time. The reason being is that one leg is usually stronger than the other and you never run with two legs on ground. Leg presses are one of the best exercises for runners. They offer good benefits and low risks – unlike squatting which has high risk of injury and in the absence of good instruction, may train you to run incorrectly. While lifting, runners should focus on both muscle strength and endurance. For runners it is important to do some very high repetitions.
Core workouts can be either strength workouts or endurance workouts depending on how they are done. It is important to note that core muscles are not only in the trunk but throughout the body. Any muscle can be a core muscle depending on the activity. During running, two of the most important core muscles utilized are the adductors and abductors since. These muscles stabilize the leg and allow it to generate more force. Crunches are not recommended for core training. They train the core to be unstable and perform in a movement pattern that inhibits proper running form. Taking a core training class is not the best way for a runner to develop their core. Core classes are designed for everyone but no one specific, especially runners. Doing a few quick exercises have greater benefit. Currently, only the elite professional training groups like Mammoth Track Club and some high level college and high school programs are developing and using these programs specifically for runners. This is one advantage that the USATF-LI Long Distance Running Development Program, We Are Athletes! Racing Team and my private clients have is because we do core work designed to maximize the benefits to runners as well as working on all five bio motor abilities. This is where the name We Are Athletes comes from; they are not runners but athletes who run.
Flexibility is the range of motion in your joints, muscles and tendons. Runners rarely exceed in this area but that is OK because a huge range of motion does not help you run faster or longer. Flexibility does prevent injury and improve performance. There are three things that runners can do to improve flexibility specific to running. First – don’t stretch before you run. Contrary to popular belief, this does not provide much benefit. In fact, it may hurt your performance. Many studies have shown that stretching before running will cause you to run slower. Before you run you should do drill work which does increase flexibility. Specifically utilizing the muscles that you use to run – moving them through a greater range of motion while warming up. Second – after the workout, finish with 6-8 30-60m sprints or short steep hills (less than 20 seconds) and then 4-6 skips utilizing a large range of motion. Make sure to walk back slowly. The goal is not to get workout but to increase your range of motion when your muscles are tired and tight. Finally – after your workout, take few minutes to stretch. This is when you stretching will provided the greatest benefit.
Coordination involves the timing and how you move. This is the area where many runners admit to being very weak. It is however, very important – it is the essence of what we do. Running should be a very coordinated event. There are many ways to improve coordination. First is drill work. Drill work improves endurance, speed, strength, flexibility and if done correctly, coordination. The next way to improve coordination is to run at speeds much faster than race pace – there is little to no coordination involved in running just faster than 5K pace. Much faster paces are needed. If a runner develops their coordination at higher speeds they will be able to run at race pace with less effort. The result is that you will be able to cover a greater distance in less time with less effort. This known as efficiency and is the key to distance running. The final way to develop coordination is to develop running specific balance. This is not the stuff you see in the gyms with the exercise balls. Several studies have shown that doing exercises using balance balls fail to show gains in either strength or balance. The only benefit is improvement in doing that specific exercise while actually using the balance ball.
I hope this article helps you run better and start to think about why you do what you do. Are you running to improve and become a better runner or are you just running? If you have any questions please contact me at (516) 728-4754 or email me. I teach runners to develop all five bio motor abilities at the USATF-LI Long Distance Development Program and We Are Athletes! Racing Team practices, I can also be hired to work with individuals or groups privately to meet their specific needs. I wish you all a great year of running in 2011.