Time and time again I will have athletes ask me about what running workouts they need to become a better, more successful runner. While I agree how you train from a running perspective is very important to your success, there are a few other factors that should be seen as important (or arguably more so) to your success.
First of all, let’s be clear. Running is not just running. Somehow, somewhere, along the way someone got the idea in their head that running is a simple sport because “all you need is shoes” and then spread that as the truth. #fakenews! What they neglected to acknowledge is that your body is literally your equipment when you run. Just like any other sport, if you don’t invest in good equipment or maintenance of that equipment, your performance is going suffer and eventually that equipment may completely fail you leaving you broken and disappointed. Sure, some people have more natural ability, but without cultivating that talent and a strong body to support it, loads of potential is going to be missed.
Building a sustainably successful runner
The average runner takes 160-170 steps per minute. For a 10 minute mile, that is about 1650 steps. Each step is essentially a tiny single leg hop forward in which a single leg takes the load of the entire body with a force of 3-5 times your bodyweight. Do that math for a second. Take your bodyweight and multiply that by 3 and then by 5. That is the force that just one of your legs needs to stabilize in an instant, while in motion. (And the faster you run, the more rapidly your body needs to respond to stabilize and propel you forward.) Shoes can help with the impact, but if your body isn’t properly conditioned and efficient you are going to end up with not just some performance leakage, but some pretty angry body parts from being banged up, as well. Your body needs to be strong enough to stabilize with good posture and propel you forward and you also need to have enough flexibility and joint mobility for your body to go through a full range of motion. It is a complex chain of events that happen structurally and responsively when you run.
So to be a sustainably successful runner, you need to be considering more than your running workouts. Here are the top things that you should consider and be working on:
- Range of Motion (Flexibility and Mobility)
- Muscle activation
The first two are going to have an influence on the bottom two and vice versa. If you do not have proper form or range of motion throughout your stride, you are not going to get proper muscle activation and the strength that comes from those muscles. If your muscles aren’t strong enough or are not activating, you are not going to be able to maintain proper form or propel through the range of motion needed for an efficient stride and to protect your body from injury. To add insult to injury, every time you go out for a run your body is looking for shortcuts which could reinforce muscle weakness and activation issues. Long duration aerobic/cardio also increases the stress hormone “cortisol” which causes the body to break down of muscle of fuel as well as increases fat accumulation leading to less strong, “skinny fat” runners. (Not a fan of the term “skinny fat” but it is appropriate in this case.) A runner needs to in many ways counteract the damage they are potentially doing with their running to help support their running. It’s an important cycle that shouldn’t be ignored.
Making the investment
I hear it over and again…
“I haven’t had time to focus on my strength work.”
“I haven’t had time for stretching or rolling.”
“I don’t understand mobility work so I’m not doing it.”
“Things have been crazy so I could only get my runs in this week.”
First of all, if you aren’t getting in all this “other” critical work, you are not training properly. Period. If all you are doing is running, you are figuratively–and quite possibly literally if you have glute activation issues–half a**ing it. Let me say that another way. IF YOU ARE ONLY RUNNING AND SKIPPING THE REST OF THE WORK, YOU ARE NOT TRAINING PROPERLY. #toughlove If you want to be a successful runner with a sustainable “career”–recreational or otherwise–you must put in ALL of the work.
Now I know some are probably thinking “I don’t want to gain weight with strength training” or “I don’t want to add to my recovery time with strength training” or some other nonsensical excuse. As long as you are not training and/or eating like a bodybuilder, you are not going to bulk up. (Just think about all the effort that they put into that!) The importance of diet during training is a topic for another day, but adding muscle is actually going to help you be more lean by boosting your metabolism and helping to burn more fat. As for the recovery time, well, that is why periodization is important and you should definitely take into consideration how you approach strength training based on your training cycles. During base and off-season you should be focusing more on strength and as you get into peak training your strength training should be less of a focus and less intense, but also not completely ignored. During non-peak training you are looking to increase strength and build that engine stronger. During peak training you are looking to maintain strength and remain injury free. Mobility and muscle activation work will not have significant recovery time and should be a focus year round.
Successful runners are self-disciplined
We all know those runners who never miss a workout. Those dedicated and disciplined runners who get up before dawn to run in inclimate conditions. I define discipline as doing things you don’t want to do with as much consistency and drive as you put into the things you want to do. It doesn’t take any discipline to do something you want to do every day. It takes discipline to make the decision and follow through on all that stuff you like to de-prioritize then pass off as a victim of a busy schedule or compromise for/at a social event. For example, it takes discipline to get your run in when the weather isn’t ideal or your schedule is cramped or you are just so dang tired from all the work you have put in. It also takes discipline to get off the couch after a long day or avoid it after a long run so you can get in some mobility work or roll. It takes discipline to get your butt to the gym and do all that stuff that hurts and you hate. It takes discipline to skip that other more enjoyable activity for the time you need to dedicate to the work that you don’t enjoy as much.
At the end of the day, you have to be disciplined in all aspects of your training, not just your running workouts. And trust me, no one can motivate you day after day for any length of time without your commitment and drive–your own discipline. In my opinion, YOU have to be the one to driving your success 98-99% of the time. Your coach and support network can be there to help motivate you that 1-2% of the time that you are unable to do it for yourself. This type of self-discipline can be a very good indicator of mental strength. If you can’t push yourself to do 10 minutes of mobility work a day, how do you expect to push through a tough run when you are actually physically in pain? Learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable is so valuable as a runner and just in life in general.
DO. Or do not. There is no try.
In the grand scheme of things, the things you need to be focusing on outside of your running shouldn’t add much time to your calendar if you integrate wisely with respect to your periodization. In my opinion these things do not get de-prioritized because of lack of time. Excuses are made because you don’t have the discipline or don’t think it is as valuable as whatever else you are spending your time doing. #toughlove
For muscle activation, mobility, flexibility, and self care like massage and foam rolling, you don’t need much to see benefit–you really just need a consistent practice. For strength/conditioning work, sure, a couple of hours a week would be ideal, but if you are doing absolutely nothing now 10-20 minutes a day or even every other day of bodyweight exercises could have benefit as a start. Some of this stuff is stuff you can do on the floor in front of your TV, on a break by your desk, or you can incorporate it into pre and post workout routines. The key is spending your time on things that will benefit you most. If you aren’t sure what that is most runners could use work on their glute and hip strength and associated mobility. The core is also super important and a no regrets place to focus on. Ankles, feet, and calves can also be a good place to start. Create a simple routine (or find one online) and be consistent with it for 3 weeks before changing it up. This gives your body enough time to adapt and build strength.
I think the most important and challenging aspect of being a runner is learning, accepting, and embracing the need to stop solely looking to your running workouts on the track, your long run, or your weekly mileage for success. Whether you want to be a sustainably successful runner or just want to PR that next race, you are selling yourself short if you are trying to get there by only running. To train smart, train STRONG.