How to Improve your Running Times – Run Less!

Elaine Garvican opens up about how she has spent two years improving her running economy and some of her honest frustrations about not running for the sake of long-term good. A very frank and insightful read with a definite conclusion that you need to believe in the process to seek the long term gains. "Don't stop believing" is not always an easy task and in the day of social media where everyone seems to be putting in killer run sessions, doing hops, and jumps doesn't really seem like you are ever going to succeed. Read on to find out more!

Last year I wrote about some major changes to my running, which came about through some pretty substantial physical optimisation via a lot of focused physiotherapy and stretching. You can read here about how 2016 culminated in a 3:23 marathon at Ironman Weymouth. I was looking forward to a winter of cross country, maybe a couple of quick half marathons in the spring and a long, steady run build up to Kona 2017. How wrong I was!

 
 Elaine on her way to winning her age category at Weymouth IRONMAN

Elaine on her way to winning her age category at Weymouth IRONMAN

 

At the end of 2016, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend an afternoon at The Bosworth Clinic with biomechanist Paul Brice. His analysis was both thorough and eye-opening! The major change 2016 gave me was the physical ability to drive forwards, through opening my hip flexors. Previously the (very!) low heel lift of my Ironman shuffle, with its consequent long pendulum and slow swing through of the recovering leg, meant a lot of work done by my hip flexors/quads in the “recovery” phase. Following all that stretching, I had a much more relaxed leg recovery, which is more efficient at a high cadence, and uses my hamstrings (which haven’t been overused on the bike) to develop a short pendulum and an active heel pick up. A side benefit of this is to also increase knee drive and extend stride length, but unfortunately, that was resulting in my leading leg still being a long way ahead of my centre of gravity by the time it was fully weight bearing. Essentially, with each stride, I was putting on the brakes and having to overcome that loss of forward force – a lot of wasted effort which really builds up. Brice also introduced me to the concept of significantly decreasing ground-contact time, through increased stiffness. The ultimate expression of this is plyometrics, but it starts with much more simple single or double leg jumping as well as walking and running drills.

So the overall aim was pretty simple: To teach me an entirely new way of running, which would be faster and more efficient. Super. Step one? Stop running and focus on the drills for several months. Damn. There goes that winter of running!

 
 A definite change in running form as she sets off on Ali'i Drive, IRONMAN World Championships

A definite change in running form as she sets off on Ali'i Drive, IRONMAN World Championships

 

Bricey’s program was complimented by a lot of strength work in the gym, so the lack of actual miles on the road was not as detrimental as it might seem at first glance – my heart and lungs were working hard in the pool and on the turbo, and my glutes, calves, hamstrings to name a few of my running muscles were getting stronger while I diligently reprogrammed my neural patterns. This type of drill work is best performed little and often – 10 mins a day, once or twice a day, pretty much every day. It’s important to build up slowly, and critical that you have someone to iron out any minor niggles before you start and to keep an eye on your progress and check you aren’t developing any sort of imbalance or bias – doing the drills correctly requires a strong, balanced system to properly fire the forces generated into the ground and achieve the desired recoil. In a nutshell, what we were doing was building my body’s ability to control a bigger force when hitting the ground correctly. In other words, I was aiming to become more efficient.

It wasn’t easy though – either to get the drills right, or to let go of the “received wisdom” that greater gains would be realised by running more, rather than focusing on what many people told me was simply aesthetics, or individual variation. Progress was slow and I did find it frustrating that I wasn’t ready to start running again until April, but once I could put in the miles, speed came significantly easier. Direct comparisons with previous years are slightly tricky as I didn’t repeat many of the same races, but at Ironman 70.3 UK on the very hilly Wimbleball course, I posted the fastest female run split, 8 minutes faster than my previous year, despite a lower overall mileage in the preceding months. In the only standalone half marathon I ran this year, I narrowly missed a PB on a much tougher course, and at the end of a pretty monster (26 hour) training week. Ultimately, I suffered somewhat in the heat of Hawai’i and wasn’t quite able to run the split my training had targeted, but it was still over 20 mins quicker than my previous 2 marathons there – and a Boston marathon qualifying time as an extra bonus!

 Here we see Elaine's Running Data from 2016 and 2017. We can see how her improvements over the longer durations are consistent except for the marathon where heat won!

Here we see Elaine's Running Data from 2016 and 2017. We can see how her improvements over the longer durations are consistent except for the marathon where heat won!

After two consecutive winters off running, I am looking forward to putting in some miles this year in preparation for a twice-deferred Virgin London marathon attempt. With a reduction in training time and intensity in the final months of 2017, I’ll be revisiting the drills and fully expecting further improvement from them. Coupled with what I hope will be a consistent winter season of run training, I’m expecting Philip and I will do some serious damage to my run PBs next year!