Running drills: your new best friend?

Drills sound like a punishment, but promote good running form.
Drills sound like a punishment, but promote good running form. Photo: iStock

I love a checklist. Partly because I can't trust myself to remember things, and partly because I like the feeling of striking items out once completed. Makes me feel accomplished, as opposed to just forgetful and haphazard. Checklists are all about efficiency. And I like to think of drills as checklists for sport. 

So what are drills? They don't sound very enticing - an unhappy meeting of dentistry and parade ground discipline for athletes. In fact, they can be fun.

Sydney-based sprint coach Rod Clarke describes them as exercises used to develop correct neuromuscular movement patterns, to stimulate the neural system, strengthen muscles and tendons, and to be done as part of a warm-up to bring the body up to temperature prior to running. 

"Drills can be used for both sprinters and distance runners, with some drills having a great benefit for either discipline," Clarke says.

Not just for runners

Before you ask why, as an amateur runner, drills should matter to you, take note: in sport, whether it's tennis, swimming, football, cycling or running, drills are important for amateurs and professionals alike.

You don't stop doing them once you've learned the skill of running, or whatever sport you're doing. This is because the skill might be in your muscle memory, but it still needs refreshing. Muscle memory gets clogged up with other misfiled memories and we can so easily lose our touch. Drills reinforce technique through a range of different exaggerated exercises.

But drills only work when done well, says Clarke. "There's no use in doing a drill that is supposed to help your running if you are doing it poorly, so I'd recommend finding someone who can teach them correctly."

Sometimes drills can work as a training session in their own right. Clarke likes to use drills on de-load days or when an athlete is tired or over-trained. "We will also do drills only on some days as part of our taper."

It's not punishment

Personal trainer and 2013 masters 800m national champion Michael Lynch says drills should not be viewed as punishment (though admittedly the name makes that a hard sell). 

"Drills are an integral part of all athletes' preparation and training," Lynch says. "They are an important part of patterning and correcting technique that continues throughout an athlete's career."

But they're good for something else, too. 

"In the preparation immediately prior to racing, they are a 'safe place' to go to when your nerves are on edge," says Lynch. "They are a familiar process to repeat during a stressful time, and help in settling the athlete.

"Drills are also a shared experience between athletes that bonds them together. All athletes use a similar set of drills for a given sport so there is a camaraderie when performing them – and, within a training group like ours, they are the best chance to sledge your mates."

Here are Rod Clarke's top six drills for runners:

(Be sure to do a light run and some dynamic stretching beforehand. Do drills for about 20 metres. Gradually pick up the pace.)

1. Butt kicks - used to strengthen the hamstrings, warm up the joints and muscles and encourage tall running posture.

How to do it: get your feet moving as quickly as you can and swing your lower leg up behind you. Your heel should be hitting your behind. 

2. High knees - strengthens the hip flexors and the core and encourages running tall. 

How to do it: Take as many steps as possible but with an exaggeratedly high knee action. Bringing your legs up in front of you and maintaining a nice upright posture. 

3. Fast feet – fires up the neural system. 

How to do it: Rapid-fire running on the spot with feet barely lifting off the ground. You'll be on the balls of your feet.

4. Cycle drills or A and B skips - Reinforces good running technique. Staying up tall and stepping over the knee encourages good running posture. 

How to do it: going from a walk in an upright position, extend one leg out in front of you like a hurdler, then bring your leg down and through to touch the ground powerfully, directly under your centre of gravity. As your foot contacts the ground, drive up on your toes and swing your other leg forward and repeat a few times.

5. Bounds or skipping - Fires up the neural system, strengthens the tendons and muscles, especially the lower legs.

How to do it: start from a slow jog – bounding forward and upwards with a high knee lift. Land on your other leg and repeat the movement. Continue alternating legs. Concentrate on holding good form, keep your head up and drive with your arms.

6. Accelerations: Brings all the drills together before you start your session or event. 

How to do it: Run for about 60 to 80 metres, gradually upping the pace but always so the running action feels easy and not strained.

How's your form?

I like to think about drills during races because they are the basis of good running form. While I don't advise bursting into a series of bounds or high knees during a race, you can think of the purpose of a knee lift, for example, during moments when you might be flagging and your legs feel like lead. 

To anyone who says I can already run, I don't need to drills, I say this: you do need to do them if you care about running in a manner that might reduce the risk of a sidelining injury. Besides, drills can be fun. Take skipping, for example. Other than perhaps along the route of the Mardi Gras, when was the last time you skipped? Year 4? Now there's a legitimate reason to do it daily. Plus, it makes you smile. And you can sledge your mates.

Do you have any secrets to training drills?

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