Is running really as simple as we make it out to be. Of course the motion of pulling on your shoes and stepping out a door anywhere makes it appear simple. Once out the door we take one step forward, push strongly, move our other leg forward... and away we go. As we warm up we begin to exert a little more effort and our speed gets faster and faster. Simple! But is it really the case? Research shows that the answer is a loud NO.
As I open my eyes more and more to the world of running I am continually amazed by how complicated the sport is. The actual act of running and how each individual sequence of limb movements come together to carry us smoothly forwards is more attuned to ballet dancing than it is to anything else. Where we place our feet, the landing point, the subtle shifting of our weight and the counterbalances we put in place are all unconscious things that keep us in a state of running harmony. Further to this, the ground isn’t always flat nor the surface we are running on smooth. And what happens if you need to accelerate or decelerate? Go uphill or downhill? Or even crash through the bush with a map in our hand? Imagine that!
In this article I will explore the science behind running propulsion and discuss some amazing research recently released on flat, uphill and downhill running. During the article I will also try to highlight some important running technique tips that might help to make you faster and more efficient.
To run across flat terrain we need to utilize energy to move us forward. There are two types of energy at our disposal: the energy that we hold within our bodies, stored as glycogen or fat (protein can be used but is the least preferred source of fuel); or gravity, our free energy source. When we run on flat surfaces, the energy that we need to put in is directly proportional to the amount of forces opposing us.
Propulsive Force = Braking Force
The greatest opposing force that we have is the breaking forces we generate when our foot hits the ground. There are other opposing forces such as wind resistance and how much lateral movement we get from our running style, but where are foot strikes makes a considerable difference.
Studies have shown that if our foot lands directly under our center of mass, then we have a lower breaking force than if it lands out in front of us. Further to this, if our torso is gently pressing forward and giving us the appearance of a lean then we are more likely to have our feet landing under our center of gravity. In this position we are also tapping into the energy of gravity that will help us to move forward, thus reducing the amount of energy we have to put in.
Interestingly, the metabolic energy we have to put into running on the flat falls into three different categories:
Therefore, to run fast on the flat we want to:
Sadly, the ground isn’t always flat and on almost every run you will encounter a hill. So what happens now?
When we run uphill it becomes much harder to get our feet under our body. We also tend to want to slouch which makes us feel heavy. Despite this and contrary to what we might think, our braking forces actually reduce by approximately 40%. This is due to the fact that our foot strikes the ground with less force than when we run on the flat. In fact, by the time we are running on a nine percent gradient, the impact forces are almost negligible. However, the reason hill running is so tough is that the parallel propulsion we have to apply has to increase so dramatically to overcome gravity. For example, on a nine percent gradient, parallel forces have to increase by almost 75%. That is a lot of energy!
Therefore, to run faster up hill we need to:
We are always grateful when we get to the top of a hill and begin the descent. However, often by the time we are half way down the hill our quads are burning and our knees complaining. Sometimes we can even be surprised by how much energy we feel like we are using up.
When we run downhill our braking forces are dramatically greater than our propulsive forces.
Braking Force > Propulsive Force
In fact, by the time we hurtle down a nine percent gradient, our braking forces have increased by a whopping 108%! Therefore, even though we have gravity and momentum in our favour, our bodies still have to absorb a huge amount of shock from the impact of downhill running and at the same time apply some energy to overcome these forces.
Further to this, in downhill running our muscles are eccentrically contracting to brake us (ie. while under tension the muscles are lengthening) and yet we still have to provide some concentric contraction to create propulsion (ie. the muscles shorten whilst generating a force). This strange mix of muscle contractions to overcome the huge braking forces guarantees that downhill running is actually quite energy intensive. Research also shows that landing on stiff legs when running down hill also causes the braking forces to increase further.
Therefore, to run fast downhill we need to:
• Remain tall and even slightly tilting forward. This helps to ensure that your feet do not land too far out in front of you, creating large braking forces.
• Gently soften your knees so that your legs are not so stiff and don’t jar with every step.
• Strengthen your muscles and practice eccentric loading during strength workouts.
• Where possible decrease the amount of excessive weight you are carrying.
As you can see, behind every step that we take when we hit the trails or brave the bush lands is an intricate series of energy ‘ins & outs’. The alterations in surfaces and slopes change the way our muscles need to respond. Sometimes they will be contracting strongly to propel us forward and other times they will be eccentrically contracting to slow us down. Sometimes gravity will be working in our favour, and sometimes completely against us. Therefore, it is important to begin thinking about the way you catch, create and utilize the energy that you have available to you. When you are orienteering, this might be the difference between having enough energy to think clearly to the end of the race, and running out during those last few critical controls.
A recap of the World Orienteering Championships, Scotland
Elite athletes are constantly asked to focus on routines in the lead up to competitions. These include when to arrive, how much to train, when to sleep, what to eat, how to execute your race strategies and what to do for recovery. However, I have come to learn that routines cannot and should not dictate how you approach orienteering races. This year’s World Orienteering Championships once again reiterated that for me.
This was my seventh World Championships and I felt somewhat like Nanny Hanny of the team. Through previous years I had established a routine of approximately a 2-3 week preparation in the relevant terrain. During this phase I would base in the country I would be competing in and switch from physical preparation to striving for a comprehensive understanding of the regions forests and how these are represented on the maps.
Due to the tight schedule of coaching and racing, this year I only had 3 days in Scotland. When the races began rolling around I could feel the doubt creeping in, ‘was this long enough?’
The significance of routines
Given I only visited two Scottish forest maps and one local sprint map in the lead up to this championships, I knew that I could not approach the races in the same way. Normally I have felt relatively confident in the competition’s terrains and try to attack the courses both physically and technically. With understanding of the terrain comes a readiness to take more risks. That is, understanding a terrain can help de-risk the more risky racing decisions. Examples of such decisions are selecting a faster but more difficult route choice or starting the race with more speed.
New routines require new racing strategies
The limited technical preparation for Scotland left me feeling shaky. The few days prior to the races starting rolled around in a frenzy of visiting maps, washing clothes, shopping for food, preparing meals, team meetings and then collapsing into bed at the end of the day. This does sound exhausting doesn’t it? Despite best intentions, there was little time for reviewing old maps and studying potential courses. I did my best but I never felt it was enough.
Then suddenly the races were on me and I found myself standing on the start line of the Sprint Qualification. The race was shaky. Decisions were rushed, an alleyway missed. A few lapses of concentration but I found the finish.
Driving home from the event the lights went off, ‘What had just happened?’… Then they came back on again. In a moment of revelation I realized that my racing routines had to change. I was not as well prepared as I usually am. The focus on physical routines had to switch. I turned off the attack button and hit the caution one instead. My new approach of arriving just in time to race required a new routine for racing.
Sprinting with caution
I stole a glance at the back of my hand. Only minutes earlier I had written two words - cautious underdog. These words symbolized my new strategy and cautiouswas at the foundation of my new routine.
I picked up my map with reservations. How tough would this course be? The qualification and sprint relay had been filled with surprises. New fences and barricades; unexpected spectator passages and hidden fence crossings. The traps had been numerous and I had fallen for quite a few already.
So I started slow. I didn’t race to the start triangle nor attack the first control. I paused frequently to check my directions and ensure that no traps had been set. The atmosphere was amazing and spectators seemed to appreciate the novelty of Australians racing in their hometown. But their cheers were also distractions so I took the next couple of controls equally safe, aiming for the larger features and avoiding the narrow, twisting and more intricate alleyways. I used multiple features as attack points and avoided running at a speed that made reading the map difficult.
Before long it felt like I had survived the first section of buildings and I found myself reading ahead towards some areas of the course that spanned parks and small lakes. I changed gear and lifted my speed by a notch as linear features had become more abundant.
Through this section I was solely focused on taking time to plan my route choices and executing a perfect exit from the controls. Once I was heading in the right direction I lifted the speed, but never to a point where I felt out of control. I was determined not to let my alarm bells ring. But on reentering the buildings I was reminded of the dangers and cut my speed back to cruise mode.
Again I looked for the safe lines. Where there were none, I just trotted my way through the narrow spaces, ensuring that at every intersection I knew what direction I was taking next. I felt safe, calm and like an underdog. I saw spectators but they no longer took any of my concentration.
Leaping over a fence I refolded my map and was surprised to see that the entire remainder of the course was now in flat parkland. It felt somewhat reminiscent of the last part of the 2006 Sprint Final in Denmark. I knew what I had to do. Stay strong and use the excellent visibility to pick straight lines. Exit directions became my focus. I found that once I exited cleanly from the control and looked up, I could almost see the next control in front of me. Here I began to feel like I was finally tapping into some of my fitness and speed.
New routines required
Crossing the line I had absolutely no idea of how I had gone. But in my heart I knew that was the best I could have done and it was the most magical feeling. Only later did I find out that I had achieved a podium finish and fifth position.
Driving home from this event I knew I had found my new routine and one that suited a limited preparation in the terrain. Whilst not ideal to arrive so soon before the competition started, it was suddenly ok to not know everything about the terrain so long as I recognized that my old routines needed to be put aside. My new routine of cautiousness and calmness felt appropriate and with every race I ran with this new understanding.
I am sure this is why the week unfolded in the way it did. The transition from sprint racing to the forest was hard and my first race in the middle distance started shakily. But you learn from mistakes and each day I tried to execute my routines with 5% more perfection. I’d say to myself, ‘just 5% better today Han… just 5%’. On the finish line it often felt like 20%.
Recovery routines change too
The recovery from this World Championships will be new and different too. The immense focus and concentration has taken a different toll on my body. My head feels like someone has blown into my ears and filled it up with air. The body feels lethargic and dragging my suitcase through the airport concourse is enough training for the day.
Over the last 8 days I have completed 6 races. I put more focus into how I raced each of these events than ever before. The new approach of 100% concentration from start to finish resulted in a body that holistically feels exhausted. And given that this is the same amount of races I have done in the past 5 months I shouldn’t be surprised.
Therefore, I am setting no expectations on how long it will take me to recover. If I bounce back in a couple of day’s time then great. But if it takes a week or two then I am content with that. After all, it is critical to recover optimally so that the mind, body and spirit all have a chance to become even stronger for next time… whatever that will be. As always, lessons will be learnt.
The Scottish experience
I have amazing memories of Scotland. I loved the landscape and the beautiful people. Amidst lochs and tales of the Lochness Monster, you can live like a princess. In the eyes of the locals, from orienteering volunteers to the petrol pump man, my name is ‘Love’ (sounded more like Luv). Furthermore, up there in the far north there was an overall sense of tranquility and remoteness. The week was busy and I didn’t get a chance to experience much of the Scottish traditions. I never ventured beyond laughing at the Aussie’s wariness of their deep-fried haggis, driving the small laneways to events, and my first experience of wearing a midgiehead-net.
Despite my advancing age and being the Nana on the Australian Team, this year I feel like I opened new doors. I learnt that flexible routines and recognizing weak links in your preparation could become your greatest strengths. Whilst I am proud of running for Australia and the results I achieved, I am more proud of how I got there. I am now excited to share this revelation with others so they too can enjoy that amazing feeling that comes with the perfect run. After all, as runners and orienteers, isn’t that what we all strive for?
Interview post race with ABC Radio (see link below).
Running training. Two words that put fear in anyone who does run. But for those of us that do, these two words make us deliriously happy. Try to explain this to the non-runner!
Running, training, Jornet. Three words that put fear in any runner. Killian Jornet was born in a small hut, 2000m high on the slopes of a mountain in Spain. Growing up in the mountains, their entertainment was running and playing in the mountains. Now, at just 23 years of age, Kilian Jornet has broken almost every trail and mountain running record. He also goes in search of his own – record crossing of Mount Blanc and fastest ascent of Mt Kilimanjaro are just to name a couple. In Europe, his name sits on the table next to the salt and pepper. This year, his status became even more legendary after he won the Trail du Mont Blanc. For Jornet, running and training is happiness,
‘Breaking a record doesn’t motivate me. I want to go fast in the mountains, without assistance, without help. Just me and the mountain, to explore my capacities, the “animal” capacities, not technologic or equipment capacities.’
Jornet sparked my quest to write about running training. As a performance consultant and runner, I look for inspiration and new ideas all around me. I read, watch, listen and try to learn how experts, such as Jornet, find that extra 0.01%. I recently typed into Google three words – Running, training and Jornet.
Linking the mind & body
‘When I am at home I enjoy spending time in the bush. I leave in the morning between 3 and 5am then again in the afternoon around 1pm. I train three to four hours in the morning and one to two hours in the afternoon. Always on a mountain, a technician, to climb a peak, traverse a valley. The intensity depends on how I feel. If I’m tired, I slow down. Gassss if I feel good. My motto, if your mind is OK, your body will be OK.’
If your mind is OK, your body will be OK. This sounds simple. Is it too simple?
I recently wrote a large research piece on stress and its effects on injury and illness. What I discovered astounded me. All the research indicates that elevated stress levels lead to an increase in unwarranted musculoskeletal pain, weaker muscles and bones, and elevated illness risks. From our Western point of view, Jornet’s training schedule should surely lead to disaster. Even with his motor engine of a VO2 max of 92, ultra racing threshold of 190 beats per minute (bpm), and resting heart rate of 34bpm, Jornet must eventually break? Perhaps his protection is not his physical attributes but rather his mind and just how pure his enjoyment of running is?
‘I think the most important thing about running is not to think too much about training. It’s not about times or splits. When you start worrying too much about your training, that’s bad. Just enjoy running and being in the mountains.’
Jornet’s training program reflects his running values. For him, running is not training but rather a way of exploring his place in his world. Explore a new valley. Climb a new mountain. Do repetitions up a new trail. Seek perfection whilst having perfect fun.
This raises two questions. Can we imitate Jornet’s style of training in our normal routines that often involve cities, pavements, roads and cars? Should we imitate his freer mountain lifestyle with our dark mornings, full-time work, children…? I believe the answer is yes if we are to continue to run without illness and injury.
The purpose of training programs
We need training programs. They form a foundation that allows us to structure our running sessions, monitor our progression and substitute in new learning when we can. However, too often I see runners ‘broken’, heavily fatigued or just disenchanted with running. Either they have been haphazardly training with no structure at all and pushing past their natural limitations, ignoring the cautioning signals, or they have a training program set so heavily in concrete that the whole process of running has lost its art form. For the latter runners, the sport has become a chore.
It is important to understand the science of structured training. I view the training planner as your brake, not your accelerator. It is always easy to tell yourself to go harder, longer, higher. It is much harder to know when to stop. Your training planner can become your personalized reference and help to answer the difficult questions - when should I go long? When can I go hard? How often can I peak for a race? How much do I need to rest and recover? But when is enough, enough?
Body systems and Jornet’s principle of individuality
‘Each person is unique. Not only morphological and physiological characteristics are different, the man is something more than the sum of these parts. It is a mistake to expect identical reactions between two individuals performing the same job. This principle is crucial because it indicates that it is not to copy what others do.’ – Jornet, 2012
When you start out as a runner, both the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems take equal charge of your abilities: heavy breathing, racing heart and legs yelling STOP!But as we get fitter and our cardiovascular system becomes stronger, the body’s limits become fuzzier. You begin to relax as you run, control your breathing and don’t pull up too sore. So how do we know when to stop?
The cardiovascular system becomes quiet as soon as you stop running. The musculoskeletal system only tells you to stop when the muscle fibers tear too far, a bone becomes unhappy or you really hit the wall. Therefore, forming a training planner and monitoring these systems over time will allow you to understand where your limits are and then guide you with less risk of injury or illness. This process is science, it needs to be learnt and it needs to be individualized.
Focus, goal setting and Jornet’s principle of overloads
When I work with my clients, I begin by asking them, ‘why do you run and exercise?’ Their response to this question forms the focus of everything that they do with their sport.For example, ‘I run because it helps me remain less stressed at work’. This is not a goal but instead a value that keeps everything they do with their running in perspective. For Jornet, this is his love of running fast in the mountains.
Goals should not be pass or fail items but rather all the events and missions that make you fidgety with excitement. Big, small, fast, long… they should all go into the training planner. There is usually one or two big races a year that grab your focus from the start and to which your training can be tailored. Excitement, spontaneity and the body’s state of repair closer to the day should be used to determine whether you enter and run in any of the others.
The purpose of training is to damage muscle fibers so that when there is adequate time to rest, they repair with more strength and agility. Racing is even harder on the body and needs to be adequately compensated for. Month-to-month, week-to-week, day-to-day, the flow of training and racing needs to be built towards a pinnacle of intensity or volume, and then a planned time of rest can follow to allow the body to recover. My clients are asked to plan these things – the hard months and the easy weeks; the hard days and the easy days. Jornet calls this the principle of overloads.
‘A workout is a burden, a job, and a break is needed in order to benefit from it. The loads can build up but then require a rest period to recover, so as not to encounter overtraining.’
Planning and Jornet’s principles of flexibility & continuity
We should use our training program to know when it is sensible to apply ‘gassss’ or when we need to recover. We can use it to guide us on when to train for volume or speed. Without contradicting myself, having this structure then allows us to be flexibility… because life is a flexible thing. As Jornet states, ‘If I’m tired, I slow down. Gassss if I feel good.’
When you see a mountain, run up it. When you find a trail, follow it. When you wonder what lies down the road, find out. Just ensure there is continuity and specificity, all within the limits of your training planner. Jornet explains,
‘Training has to be play and mimic the most similar features found in the competition. Racing across a mountain means we must train in the mountains and on technical trails. Continuity is essential to maintain a good fitness level.’
Rejajado and Jornet’s principle of recoveryRecovery must be structured into the program. It looks after both your body and your mind. If there is no time set aside to rest, the muscles and their protective connective tissue continue to be pushed and stretched, pulled and micro-torn. The damage builds and every system in the body will be sent messages from the brain that we are under stress triggering the body to begin the flight-or-fight response. The release of additional hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as the damage in the muscles and connective tissue puts the body at significant risk of injury or illness. One to three rest or recovery days can help to prevent this harmful reaction and ensure that you get the most out of the harder days of training.
In order to achieve what he does, Jornet must be King of Recovery. As he explains,
‘It is perhaps more important than even the active phase. Recovery is not training but rather rejajado… relaxation… stretching, drinking … When your mind is OK, your body is OK.’
Explore within a structureIn summary, if we follow a training structure but be adaptive and sensible we give ourselves the opportunity to experience running as the art-form of exploration. We can set ourselves challenges, explore the backwaters of our local suburb, be spontaneous with friends, and all within the bounds of our training planner. We can trial things, practice, fail and then ultimately seek to perfect the winning concepts. In my own words, if it feels good, it is good, then keep running till you believe you are good. After all, if you get the hard runs completed, and you work consistently to recover… who knows how many more Jornet’s are hidden in Australia?
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!