Most runners tend to gasp air like a fish out of water, mouth open, head jutting forward, and breathing laboured. It’s not supposed to be this difficult! Breathing through your mouth limits your cardiovascular ability and adds additional load and stress to your body. The overall effect is much like that of trying to swim upstream. Correct breathing should be both in and out through the nose, except at extreme exertion when you may breath out through the mouth as needed. The breath should begin in your belly (diaphragm) and eventually rise into your chest. You’ll need to practice at a slow or walking pace initially. I’ve seen many runners whose speed, posture and overall technique has improved dramatically from just this one change.
Stand in front of a mirror and close your eyes. Now keep your eyes closed for at leat 2 or 3 minutes, and focus on awareness of your posture and your alignment. Start with your feet – they should be parallel. Next, work on the alignment of your ankles, your knees, your hips, and finally your shoulders. Ensure your arms are hanging loosely, fingers slightly curved. Your head should be ‘on’ perfectly straight. Once you are certain of your position, open your eyes. How close were you? Notice where you’ve gone ‘off track’. When you begin your next run, keep those deviances in mind. You’d probably be shocked if you could see how you really look when running at fatigue. Practising body awareness prior to each run will give you a greater sense of how to hold and correct your body whilst running. Ideal alignment is one of the greatest keys to a fluid and pain free run.
STOP USING YOUR ARMS AND LEGS
Try jogging on the spot for 10 seconds. Immediately afterwards, walk on the spot for 10 seconds. Which is easier – which would expend the least energy if you had to do it for 2 hours? Most people say the walking – and they’d be right. This is because you’ve learnt to run by pumping your legs and arms, and predominantly by flexing your calf muscles to push off the balls of your feet. Your calf muscles are a pretty small set – no wonder you get tired out trying to use them to move your whole body. When you pick up your legs to walk, you’re using your hip flexors. These are one of the largest most powerful muscles of your core, and connect your trunk to your legs. They are designed to move you forward. One of the greatest tricks to effortless running is to learn to run from your core. Your core is made up of the inner and outer muscles of your abdominals, as well as your hip flexor (psoas), and several stabilising muscles of the low back. To gain full core awareness you really do need to understand each of these muscles. Practice drawing your belly button in toward your spine, and using your hip flexors to pick up your legs while running at a slow pace. Think of your core as being your centre – from where all strength, power and stability is born.
We just talked about not using your legs, but didn’t really get into not using your arms. This is where rotation comes in. Rotation is one of the most important components of any sport. Your spine rotates each time you move forward. In fact, a study with a legless man showed him walking across the room using only his core rotational abilities. From the waist up, you would never have known he had no legs. This tells us just how powerful our rotational muscles can become, and it also indicates the importance of rotation in running. The arms and legs are merely assistants to the core and it’s rotational ability. You can improve your rotation with any type of twisting movement, like a cable wood chop, and also with dynamic rotational stretching. Try holding a small ball between both hand, in front of your chest. Practice rotating your core and your hips, without tensing or moving the arms. When you run, try to incorporate core rotation instead of pumping your arms.
FOCUS YOUR MIND – RELAX YOUR BODY
It’s all very well to use running as an opportunity to zone out, or plan the day ahead, but this won’t help your technique. A focussed mind will enable you to be aware of and control your core, your alignment and your breathing. Pay attention not just to your movements, but also your mindset. How do you react when you approach some tough terrain? Do you tense your muscles, and start thinking about the difficult task ahead. Relax. Run through a top to toe alignment check. Remind yourself of the attention you’ve paid to running with good technique. Embrace the hill, adjust your stride accordingly, and simply ‘go with the flow’. Relaxing is a skill almost more difficult than any other, however unnecessary muscle tension not only restricts blood flow (reducing speed) but also increases your chance of muscle fatigue and injury. Perhaps it’s worth your while to become a master of muscle relaxation, and focus your mind on using your core and your breathing to propel you forward.
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE
Finally, don’t try to improve every facet of your running overnight. For one thing, you’ll probably get really fed up and want to give it up. For another, your body simply can’t absorb and utilise that much information all at once. Small adjustments are crucial – why not work on one of the previous steps each week.