I am a marshmallow. After enduring two grueling days of dynamic stretching, strength training, hurdle and sprint drills — all under the exacting eye of Olympic coach John Cook — muscles I didn't know existed ache and the verdict is in: I am a runner without strength. Soft.
The German-born Cook, 69, uses this full-body exercise regimen to transform his professional runners into complete athletes: fast, strong, balanced running machines capable of withstanding the rigors of training without getting hurt. On top of running 75-plus miles a week, his athletes—who include 1500-meter Olympians Leo Manzano and Shannon Rowbury — do daily dynamic flexibility moves to improve range of motion, strength sequences to enhance fitness and balance, and medicine-ball work to build core strength.
Regular stretching is a must, and when done properly can actually rehabilitate injuries.
According to Cook, runners can't rely on lungs alone to excel. "If you're just running, you're developing one thing: breathing," he says. Eventually, speed disappears, and you're destined to shuffle, and shuffling is — like being a marshmallow — a mortal sin in Cook's book. Developing whole-body strength gives you "pop," or speed, and the strength to summon it in the final stretch of a race, says Cook. It also helps shore up your form, which can protect you from injury. It's a point of pride for Cook that his runners are rarely hurt.
Of course, tacking on all those extras can be time consuming. But for midpackers, committing just a few minutes a day to some of the following exercises can enhance your speed and shield you from injury. You don't have to do everything. I cobbled together a routine that fits my hectic life and set a PR by 57 seconds in a recent 5K. I e-mailed Cook to tell him my time. His reply was swift and satisfying: "Big! You got pop!"
1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Lift right knee to waist level at a 45-degree angle.
3. Keeping your knee high, rotate your hip so your knee is straight in front of you.
4. Step your right leg in front of your left.
5. Step to the left with your left foot.
6. Step behind your left leg with your right.
7. Step to the left with your left leg. Repeat the sequence for 20 yards, then change directions.
Full range of motion in the hips is critical for injury prevention — it lessens the force on your feet, lower legs, and knees, says Cook. Do all or part of this flexibility and drill series (plus Carioka, previous pages) before every run.
1. As you walk, bring each knee up to waist level, thigh parallel to the ground.
2. Pump arms. Go 20 yards. If doing before speedwork, turn into a skip.
Frontal Leg Swings
1. Stand next to a wall, left hand on wall.
2. Flexing your left foot, swing your left leg forward and back. Do 10 reps per leg.
3. Switch to side leg swings: With both hands on wall and a slight bend in left knee, flex left foot upward. Swing left leg to the left, then to the right. Do 10 reps per leg.