Small Is Bountiful

Small changes, big rewards: 29 simple tips for training smarter and racing better


Posted: 2 April 2004
by Mark Remy

Unhappy with your last 10K?

Convinced you could have finished a little faster?

Unless you’re Haile Gebrselassie, you’re probably right. (If you are Haile Gebrselassie, you can skip this article.) Or perhaps faster race times don’t matter to you at all. Perhaps your training just isn’t where it should be, but you’re not sure what to do about it. The good news is that there’s no need to make any radical changes.

With the right ‘tweaks’, you can nip and tuck your way to better running. The trick is knowing just what to tweak and how to tweak it. This is the challenge we issued to our panel of experts: tell us the little things that will help us train and race smoother, easier and faster. No suggestion is too trivial.

Individually, some of these tips might not amount to much. But taken together, they can shave seconds – even minutes – from your next race, as you’ll see in the racing section. And even if the clock isn’t running, there’s plenty here to make your daily runs easier.

Training

Boost Your Breakfast
If you’re eating a light breakfast and a heavier dinner, your afternoon runs may be suffering. “I call that ‘eating backwards,’” says nutritionist Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “Better to frontload the calories so you eat a larger breakfast and lunch, run with a well-fuelled body and then eat less – and sleep better – at night.”

Start Your Runs One Minute Per Mile Slower
Take a cue from the Kenyans and start every training run super-slow. “Let the run ‘come to you,’” suggests Dr Robert Udewitz, a clinical psychologist. You may even consider walking briskly for a few minutes before easing into a jog.

Play Around With Strides
Finish every training run with ‘strides’ – four or five fast repetitions of, say, 100 metres each. Not only is this a great way to strengthen your fast-twitch muscles, it’ll also fine-tune your form, says exercise physiologist Greg McMillan. “With each repetition, alter how you move your legs or arms or body position,” says McMillan. “See what happens with each alteration. Do you get faster with the same effort? Slower? Play with your technique until you hit upon the form that results in the most speed with the least effort.” Eventually, your body will adopt it as your natural ‘fast-running’ form.

Breathe Easier
You probably don’t think much about your breathing – which is precisely why you should. “Most elite runners use a two-two breathing pattern – breathing in for two steps and out for two steps,” says long-time running coach and exercise physiologist Jack Daniels. “Using a very rapid rhythm (one-one, for example) can be quite inefficient. A rate this rapid leads to more work for the breathing muscles.” Experiment with different breathing patterns during training runs, find one that works best for you, and then practise it until it’s second nature. This will only take a couple of weeks.

Grasp The Basics
A clenched grip relays tension to the rest of your body – and that saps energy. “Hands should be lightly cupped rather than tightly fisted,” says Jim Fischer, a cross-country and track coach. “Imagine holding a rolled up piece of paper during your run to keep the hands relaxed.”

Have A Hot Turnover
Train yourself to rely less on stride length and more on a quick leg turnover. “There’s no doubt that very slow turnover can be costly in terms of the energy demand of running,” says Daniels. “Aim for around 180 footfalls a minute,” which means 60 steps every 20 seconds.

Inflate the Incline
On a treadmill set at zero-per cent incline, a seven-minute mile isn’t really a seven-minute mile. It’s easier. That’s because, unlike running outdoors, a motor is doing some of the work for you. To counteract this effect, increase the incline to one per cent (or more, naturally, if you’re doing hillwork).

Keep Moving Forwards
Lateral motion wastes energy that could be helping you move forward. So swing your arms in a mostly front-to-back motion, rather than side-to-side. “Generally speaking, everything should go forwards or backwards,” says Fischer.

Speed Your Recoveries
During speedwork, lots of runners recover fully between repetitions. For a change of pace, try running your recovery intervals only slightly slower than the pace of the repetition. “This will teach you to recover ‘on the run’ as you would during a race,” says McMillan.

Run Through The Line
Another speedwork tip from Fischer: to squeeze the very most out of your session, run hard – don’t coast – all the way past the line at the end of each repetition.

Strengthen Your Position
Devote one day a week to working on your stomach and back muscles, as well as the hamstrings and quads (front of your thighs), recommends Daniels. “Uphill running can also help, as can bounding and plyometrics,” he says. “All these things, along with some good quality repetition running, will lead to better running economy.”

Eat First, Then Shower
Most gains from training actually occur after your run. To get the most from your recovery, eat immediately after running, says McMillan. “Drink a smoothie or meal-replacement drink within the first 15 minutes after a hard session, race or long run,” he says. “Then eat a well-balanced meal within the next two hours.”

Sleep On It
Rather than fixate on getting a good night’s rest the night before a race, concentrate on the night before the night before. As a rule of thumb, ensuring a quality rest that night will relax and prepare you more than the shut-eye you get on the eve of your race, when you tend to be restless and excited anyway.

Go Barefoot Once A Week
Strong feet and lower legs, plus flexible ankles, equal fewer injuries. One of the best ways to gain this strength and flexibility is by barefoot running, according to McMillan, because you have to work harder at each toe-off and landing. “Try to do a few barefoot strides or some light jogging equal to between one and three laps of a track once or twice each week,” he says. Level grass works the best.

Racing

The following time-saving tips are estimates, but they reflect the advantages we believe average runners can reasonably expect to gain when using each tip in a 10K race.

Rehearse The Race
“Visualisation before your race will prime your body for action and make it more likely that you’ll perform like you did in your mental imagery,” says Udewitz. Picture yourself at different stages of a race: getting through a difficult mile, passing runners comfortably, finishing smooth and strong.
Time savings: 10-20 seconds

Change Your Shoes
It may be obvious advice, but it is worth repeating. Buy a pair of racing flats or performance trainers for races. The advantage goes beyond the few grams you’ll save in weight, says Fischer. “Even if the physical advantages are minimal, the psychological gain could be a real plus.”
Time savings: 10-15 seconds

Add Two Minutes To Your Warm-up
“Many runners don’t warm up hard enough,” says Daniels. “They do a good deal of easy running and then some quick strides, but they haven’t really worked hard.” Try adding a final two or three-minute run at a demanding pace, 10 to 15 minutes before the start of your race, Daniels suggests. “This will not only get you ready, but will often cause you to hold back a little at the start, as opposed to going out too fast.”
Time savings: 10-15 seconds

Stay Away From The Start Line
When you head to the start area after your warm-up, find a spot anywhere but the front. Unless you’re truly a frontrunner, starting at the front of the pack is counterproductive: you’ll get in people’s way, and you could be swept into an opening mile that’s much too fast for your own good.
Time savings: 10-20 seconds

Run The Course
Do your pre-race warm-up on the course itself, suggests Udewitz, or jog the course a day or two before the race, if possible. Note the location of turns, hills and water stations. “The familiarity will help you feel confident.”
Time savings: 5-10 seconds

Stick To The Side
If practical, try to run on one side or another of the course, where there is less congestion. In the middle of a dense pack, you’re subject to the whims – and pace – of those around you. “Don’t let others dictate your pace or your race plan,” says Daniels.
Time savings: 5-10 seconds

Reverse Your Strategy
We’ve said it a million times: start slowly, finish fast. But just once, turn that around and see if it works for you. In shorter races such as 5Ks and 10Ks, it just might. “When I’ve tried to run easily early on, I tend to run easily for the entire race,” says dietician Lisa Dorfman, author of The Running Nutritionist. “When I hang on to a fast start, I usually end up with a fast finish. If not, at least I feel as if I’ve given it my best effort.”
Time savings: 10-15 seconds

Cut Corners
Race courses are generally measured along the most efficient line through turns. When you stray from those lines, you’re actually adding to the distance of the race. Carve your way through the course, ‘cutting the tangent’ of each turn – start wide, aim for the inside corner, then wide again. The only exception to this rule is if you’re in or just behind a large group of runners. In that case, trying to cut the tangent may get you boxed in, jostled, or worse. “In a group, go wide around a turn free of traffic,” Fischer says. “You’ll travel a greater distance, but you’ll keep moving and won’t get hemmed in.”
Time savings: 8-10 seconds

Look up
When following another runner, look at his shoulders and not his feet, says Fischer. “It will be easier to maintain position, as the point of reference will not move.” Run behind the runner and just off his shoulder to avoid any potential tangles of feet and legs.
Time savings 3-5 seconds

Wipe That Grimace Off Your Face
Maintaining a cool, relaxed expression doesn’t just ‘psych out’ fellow competitors, it also signals to the rest of your body that things are going smoothly. The result? Things will go smoothly. “Relaxing key parts of your body – particularly your facial muscles – is important when you’re digging deep,” says Udewitz. “The energy spent on tensing those muscles will take energy from crucial (running) muscle groups.”
Time savings: 5-10 seconds

Shorten Your Stretches
Over the last couple of years, I’ve tweaked my pre-race stretching routine after a physiotherapist friend suggested I’d get plenty of benefit from only holding my stretches for a short time,” says McMillan. “Since then, I’ve been holding stretches for five seconds and repeating them four to five times. I find that my body stays revved up, and I can get into race mode more easily.”
Time savings: 5-10 seconds

Bypass The Water Logjam
Head straight for the last table at water stations. You’ll avoid the crush of first-timers who inevitably head for the first table and clog things up.
Time savings: 5 seconds per water station

Grab ‘N’ Go
If there are cups rather than bottles at the drink stations, once you have your cup, pinch the top together to form a spout. You’ll be able to sip, spill-free, without slowing or stopping.
Time savings: 3 seconds per water station

Call Hills ‘Friends’ Not ‘Foe’
It’s natural to dread hills. But try seeing them as a positive thing – for example, by repeating silently to yourself, “This hill is a welcome relief” – and you might just get to the top faster and in better form. “I always like the idea of acceptance,” says Udewitz. “As in, accepting that something is difficult, but embracing the notion that you’re able to put yourself through discomfort and still maintain your pace.”
Time savings: 2-4 seconds per hill

Run Through The Line – Again
Remember how you’ve been pushing hard past the line during all those speed sessions? Here’s why.
Time savings 1-2 seconds

Total time savings 1 minute, 30 seconds to 2 minutes, 30 seconds (not bad for a 10K race)


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racing misc, raceday psychology, improvement, raceday tactics, speedwork, nutrition general, raceday misc
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