Three Steps to Put a Spring in Your Step
So, what can you do to become a stiffer, springier runner? Besides following a well-structured running program, there are three things you can do:
1. Improve Your Running Technique
The most common energy-wasting stride error in runners is overstriding--that is, landing heel-first with the foot far ahead of the body's center of gravity. To correct this error, practice tilting your entire body very slightly forward as you run, which will encourage you to land more flat-footed with your foot underneath your body. Don't lean forward from the waist--tilt forward at the ankles.
Another helpful technique change is to begin retracting your lead leg the instant before your foot lands as top runners do instead of waiting until your foot is firmly planted on the ground to begin generating backward thrust, as most of us do.
2. Do Plyometric Exercises
Recent studies have shown that runners who supplement their running with jumping drills (i.e. plyometrics) are able to increase their muscle stiffness during running and thereby improve their running economy and lower their race times. One example of an effective plyometric exercise for runners is single-leg box jumps: stand on one leg and leap up onto a 12-18" box repeatedly.
3. Change Your Shoes
Most running shoes reduce running stiffness in two ways: Their cushioning material absorbs and dissipates energy before our muscles and tendons can capture it, and they encourage us to overstride. To minimize the adverse effects of running shoes, I recommend that you use the lightest and least-cushioned running shoes you can use comfortably.
My favorite running shoe of all-time is the Nike Free, which has very little cushioning, so it wastes little energy and discourages heel-first landing. While Nike promotes this shoe as a foot-strengthening tool to be used no more than 20 minutes a week, I run 50 miles a week in mine, and many other runners use them as everyday training shoes. The Nike Free isn't for everyone, but you'll definitely run springier in the most minimal running shoe you can get away with wearing.
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books for triathletes and runners, including Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2006). His online training plans for runners are available at www.trainingpeaks.com/cuttingedge.