In honor of National Running Day 2012, the following article was contributed by Zeel Expert Christian Cruz, a exercise physiologist, running coach and former division I cross country and track athlete.
What separates us from animals is our ability to stand upright and run for long distances. When most people decide to start running, however, they do not quite run-they jog, or worse, they plod.
Runners are more silent, fluid, efficient and graceful, like gazelles, in their running form. Runners are faster and tire less quickly. Plodders, on the other hand, bounce up and down more so than glide forward. When plodders land, they make a loud thud announcing their activity. But more importantly, plodders are more likely to get injured, advance more slowly, tire faster and be more overweight.
How can you progress from plodder to runner? Here are five tips for improving your stride.
1. Focus on form. Proper form consists of slightly leaning forward, chest out, back straight, arms and fists relaxed at less than a 90-degree angle; about 180 to 186 steps per minute; and landing softly in the middle of your foot (neither heel striking nor landing on the balls of your feet).
2. Strength train. We have the ability to move in three planes of motion: sagittal, frontal and transverse planes. Running occurs primarily in the sagittal (aka, your midline), so the more you run, the more you develop the muscles responsible for moving in that plane. Ultimately, this may create an imbalance of your muscles.
Strength training in all three planes will help keep you balanced, improve your posture, and make you stronger and more efficient. It will also render you less likely to get injuries such as runner's knee, IT band syndrome, sprains, strains, back pain and sciatica.
3. Fuel properly. Most people who start running either decide that they need to consume more calories or are sucked in by ads that tell them they must refuel with sports drinks, bars, gels, powders, etc. This tends to lead to over-fueling and weight gain.
If you are overweight and are running 45 minutes or less, you do not need to take in any special sports fuel. Real food, such as a meat source and veggies or a salad, is a better choice. Skip the marketed stuff, and go for what the farmers grow.
4. Stretch. Flexibility is important for maintaining fluidity of movement, preventing pain and facilitating recovery. While there are mixed studies regarding stretching before or after a run, in the end, it really depends on your body needs.
If you tend to be tight, a warm-up followed by a stretch may help you to achieve a more fluid stride, therefore saving energy. If you are doing a speed run or race, on the other hand, stretching right before may make you too loose, and you may lack the turnover speed you need.
Try both approaches to determine what's right for you, stretching before and after your runs to see which is best for your body. One thing everyone agrees with is that you should stretch at some point, and if not all your body's muscles, at least the ones that are tight.
5. Foam roll. The purpose of foam rolling is to release the fascia from the muscle, increasing fluidity of movement and range of motion. Sometimes, tight fascia is mistaken for tight muscles. I recommend starting each workout session with foam rolling. If you have any areas that are particularly tight, then spend more time on those. Over time, you will release and be able to run more fluidly.
Applying these key points to your running program will help you go from plodder to runner. If these points seem a bit foreign to you, seeking the help of a professional would be a smart investment toward becoming an injury-free, faster and healthier runner.