10 best running skills workouts

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The last few months of the year are a good time to work on key running skills, which are often neglected in a target-oriented race-training schedule. But by spending time working on your form, cadence, pace and sense of effort, you’ll be setting down the building blocks for future running success.

Improving your cadence – the number of steps you take per minute – is beneficial, as a quicker stride rate tends to encourage lighter form and reduces the risk of overstriding. ‘As you increase cadence, you tend to bring your landing foot closer to your centre of mass,’ says Peter Larson, an exercise physiologist and author of Tread Lightly.

The ability to sense how hard or fast you are going is an essential racing skill, but even if you run simply for fitness, a reliable pace sense is valuable, as you’ll find it easier to lock in to the intensity needed for different workouts.

Add some of these workouts to help you become a more savvy, efficient and resilient runner.

Improve cadence and form

1/ Cadence counter

Why do it: Establishes your baseline cadence for all your speeds.

How to do it: On a straight stretch of ground, run at each training pace (eg 5K, marathon) for a few minutes. Count your steps for 30 seconds and then double the number to get your cadence. You should see that as your speed increases, so does your cadence. To each of your recorded numbers, add five per cent to get your goal cadence for each pace.

2/ Strides

Why do it: When you speed up, your body adjusts to spring more efficiently: you push off more powerfully, with less up-and-down oscillation. With practice, these habits will become ingrained even at slower paces.

How to do it: Once or twice a week after an easy run, do six 100m strides on a flat surface. Alternate between 90 per cent efforts and accelerations that start a little easier but finish a little harder. Walk back to recover.

3/ Downhill strides

Why do it: Doing strides on a slight downhill that flattens out is a great way to increase your stride rate. Gravity makes accelerating easier and allows your legs to turn over more quickly. Warm up thoroughly and run on a soft surface, such as playing fields.

How to do it: Run down a grass slope for 150-200m, controlling your acceleration. Take short, quick steps so you don’t overstride. Jog back to the top and repeat four times. Do once a week.

4/ Fast-feet drill

Why do it: This drill trains your legs for a faster turnover; helps combat overstriding (which leads to greater braking forces and excessive impact on the body) and encourages good running form.

How to do it: On a flat, straight surface, and using short, quick strides, take as many steps as you can in 10m. Keep the ground contact as brief as possible. Jog for 10m, then repeat five times. Do this session once a week.

5/ 1-2-3-4-5 fartlek

Why do it: By focusing on increasing cadence, this workout increases your appreciation of stride turnover.

How to do it: Instead of picking up the pace, run at a quicker stride rate. Run for a minute at 180 strides per minute, then one minute at a more relaxed turnover. Use the step-count method mentioned in the Cadence Counter workout above. Increase each fartlek section by one minute at a time until you hit five.

Improve effort and pace sense

6/ Silent long run

Why do it: Improves effort perception and strengthens the link between your body and mind.

How to do it: Go for a medium-to-long run without a watch or music player. Give in to the run, rather than trying to control it or force an outcome. Set off with a rough route in mind, but don’t be a slave to it – judge the duration of the run on how you feel. Over time, questions such as ‘Is this comfortable?’ or ‘Can I go faster?’ can be answered more easily.

7/ Pace calibration

Why do it: Improves your inner pacemaker.

How to do it: Twice a week, time a mile during an easy run. Don’t adjust speed – the goal is to gather information. Note the time and an effort rating on a scale of one to 10, along with how your breathing and legs feel. By focusing on such cues, you’ll ingrain the sensations that match different speeds. After a few weeks, do the timed mile at 10K or 5K pace and note how that feels compared with the easy pace.

8/ Limited feedback intervals

Why do it: Instils pace sense and reduces over-reliance on a GPS for feedback.

How to do it: On a running track or a flat, 400m stretch of ground, run 3 x 1600m at 10K pace with a three-minute rest between each. For the first repeat, check your splits after each 400m lap; for the second, check every other lap; for the final repeat, check at the end. Aim to get within 10 secs of your goal time; work up to within five secs.

9/ Freeflow fartlek

Why do it: Teaches you how it feels to run harder without the stress of trying to hit a split time.

How to do it: Once a week, on an undulating route, vary your pace from a short sprint to a jog to a faster stride and back to a jog, using landmarks to guide you. Take it easy or zoom as your body feels. The emphasis is on play; if you don’t have an inner smile on this run, you’re not doing it right. The session should last 30 minutes to an hour.

10/ Out-and-back run

Why do it: Helps develop accurate pace and effort sense.

How to do it: It’s a time-based workout, so simply divide your workout time by two. Run out for half of the total time, note your split, then run back along the same route and take your time again. The goal is to run both halves as evenly as possible or with slightly negative splits (a faster second half). Use the watch only to know when to turn around and to compare times for each half of the run.