Triathletes know the winter is the best time of year to lay down their aerobic base miles. The winter months are also a good time to rework and improve your run form.
The treadmill can be a useful tool for developing both fitness and technique. Here are a few key technical areas to target on the treadmill this winter.
Running well, and particularly running well off the bike, requires a mastery of cadence. When the quads and glutes are fatigued, stride length suffers. In addition, you may rely too heavily on a high stride rate and cardio output to generate speed when you are too muscularly fatigued to toe off and stride it out.
Interestingly, proper run cadence mirrors correct cycling cadence. Taller athletes (six-feet-plus) should aim for 80-plus strides per minute (counting foot strikes of one foot only—for example, your right foot), while smaller athletes (under five-foot-five) might shoot for the upper 90s. Those in the middle of these two ranges should aim for a run cadence of 88 to 93 strides per minute.
As you run faster, your cadence should increase, but only slightly. The most efficient runners have a relatively high stride rate (with respect to their height) even at slower speeds. If you do over-stride (run with a long stride and low cadence) you may be tricking yourself into thinking you are running more efficiently than you actually are.
With a loping stride you might feel great pressure on the ground with each toe-off and achieve good reach with every stride, but you are not effectively using your aerobic energy system. You will find you can run longer at a set pace and with a lower average heart rate once you have become comfortable with a quick, smooth gait.
The treadmill is a perfect tool to help you learn how to maintain a steady cadence despite a variable pace. The treadmill permits even pacing, allowing you to practice holding a set cadence across different running speeds.
Try 90 strides per minute at your slow jogging pace, your high-end aerobic pace and then at tempo-running or race pace. Note what your heart rate does. It may be elevated initially, but as you get comfortable with a higher turnover you will note that it levels off. Over time, you can determine your most efficient cadence at different speeds for prolonged durations.
The treadmill is also a great coaching (or self-coaching) tool. Videotape yourself running on a treadmill or watch yourself run in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors at the gym. When reviewing your form, look for inward or outward rotation of the feet and note whether your ankles collapse.
Check that your knees are driving straight and that your hips are level. If one hip or shoulder is higher than the other, it may be causing your lower limbs to move slightly out of equilibrium. Look for excessive side-to-side or rotational movement of the hips or shoulders. Make sure the shoulders aren't too high or too tight.
Check heel lift and knee lift. Are they balanced? One heel lifting higher than the other could indicate several things, including a left-right imbalance in the flexibility of your quadriceps.
Efficient running is the act of controlled falling. You fall between foot strikes, actively catching yourself when your foot makes ground contact and propelling yourself forward into your next step. Examine your form and posture from the side. You should be running tall through the hips and shoulders but with a slight forward lean overall. Keep your chin slightly down and your eyes fixed on the ground about 10 feet in front of you to help keep your center of gravity slightly forward.
Check your foot strike from the side view. It should be directly under your center of gravity. A heavy foot slap is often a sign that your foot is striking too far forward and that you're "reaching" too much for your next step.