At a triathlon seminar last week led by sports physiotherapist and ironman triathlete Campbell Hansen of Square One Physio in Sydney, I learnt about free speed. That is, how to run faster without having to train harder.
Hansen says you can optimise your speed potential in two ways: through injury prevention and through performance enhancement.
You will get faster if you do not lose precious training time being injured. Recent research out of the Australian Institute of Sport track and field unit shows that training consistency is the key to speed improvement.
Maintaining a moderately high chronic training load is effective – swinging wildly in volume and intensity from one week to the next is not.
And if you do get injured, the research found that for every week of training lost, your chance of achieving your race goal drops by 26 per cent. Sickness is another performance killer.
"As an age-grouper it's pretty hard to overtrain, but it's easy to under-recover," says Hansen. "You get sick more easily and that means more time off."
To be able to train consistently and avoid injury, it's worth taking preventative action during the off-season. Hansen says that's a good time to identify your biomechanical weaknesses where they relate to running, correct them and implement a maintenance program.
Also, it's an ideal time to work on improving your flexibility and strength to achieve the most efficient running technique.
"Runners can achieve free speed by improving the strength in specific muscles they use to run," says Hansen. "That is, by building muscular endurance and control around the hips, pelvis and core."
Just as a swimmer needs to be mindful of good boat shape in the water to reduce drag, and a cyclist should reduce their frontal area on the bike for aerodynamic gain, a runner should strengthen and stabilise the pelvic area, which is pivotal to good running technique, not to mention a more comfortable running experience.
One of the most common traits of a fatigued runner or one with poor proximal/core control is a posteriorly rotated pelvis, excessive hip drop and excessive lateral movement.
"If the athlete doesn't have the strength and is running with poor control – that is, excessive lateral hip sway – then this will increase their chance of getting injuries such as gluteal, hamstring and peroneal tendinopathies," says Hansen. "Basically, excessive load is being transferred to areas that can't accommodate it."
A runner with good technique has good triple extension. That is, the hip extending (which requires good glute strength and range), the knee extending (straightening) and the ankle plantar-flexing at push-off. This all needs to be accomplished over a stable pelvis for efficient force transfer.
A stable pelvis can be achieved through strengthening your abdominal muscles – your internal and external obliques, and rectus abdominis core – plus your gluteal strength and endurance.
The efficiency test
Inefficient running – apart from the increased risk it brings of incurring injury – can negate any chance of gaining free speed. Hansen refers to it as leaking wattage sideways.
"It means that if your technique is bad, the power you produce to run isn't all being used to send you forward."
However, he has a word of warning for anyone planning to head to the gym and throw weights around ad hoc.
Athletes need to be aware of their power to weight ratio, he says. "Power to weight ratio, or watts per kilogram of body weight, is the biggest determinant of a cyclist's performance potential. Power meters, popular now among cyclists for measuring efficiency, will soon be available for runners.
"Any strength work that runners or triathletes do in the gym needs to be very specific to their individual weaknesses or areas that need addressing.
"Doing non-specific strength work that doesn't address the individual's weaknesses may result in a muscle mass gain that actually makes their power to weight ratio worse and slows them down."
So free speed is there for the taking, you just have to be smart about how you go get it.
Do you have any tips for running faster? Let us know in the comment section.
Pip Coates is a running tragic who knows the euphoria of training for and completing a major race, but also the heartbreak of injury and every bend in the long road back. In between runs she is also the deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review Magazine.