By Paul Gunn
For many long distance runners, whether triathletes or otherwise, the technical side of running is not seen as an important part of our training. Basically as long as we do the miles and don't get injured we generally assume our style and gait is fine. Increased efficiency comes from time on roads and trails.
For sprinters, track, and power athletes, drills play a crucial part of their weekly training regime. So why do sprinters do drills and is there anything that triathletes and long distance runners can learn from our speedier friends at the track? In my opinion the answer is definitely yes. I mean wouldn't you like to have a bit of extra speed for that sprint finish or have a more efficient running technique off the bike? Why Drills?
To understand why drills are important lets go back to the crux of why we train so hard, quite simply put, it is to improve our performance i.e. to go faster, to get more speed. And in running there is a very simple formula for speed
Speed = Stride Length x Stride Frequency
Quite simply put, if you want to go faster you either have to increase your stride length and / or stride frequency, preferably both! There are some very simple drills which can help you improve both of these and when combined with your regular training program, can help you to run faster.
In this article there are four drills outlined, two that will primarily help with improving stride frequency and two that will help with your stride length. They will also help you improve your basic technique and maybe your style.
Doing these drills will also make you think about the way you run, making you concentrate on your technique and breaking down some of the key elements of your stride. This in itself is a good thing even if the drills provide no other benefit. The importance of Warming Up and Stretching
Before we get into the good stuff it is important to remember that the drills that we are about to go through need to be done when you are warmed up. Some of the movements may be a little unfamiliar and can be quite explosive so make sure that you have warmed up for a good fifteen minutes with some easy running and have stretched thoroughly. Concentrate on making sure that your calves and hamstrings are nice and supple in particular. If you have any aches and pains or are a bit stiff from a previous workout it will most probably be best to have an easy day and do your drills when you are fresh.
Once you have warmed up find a nice soft and even surface to do your drills on. This could be an artificial surface running track or a nice level piece of grass such as a soccer field for example. The Drills
1.) High Knee Running / Quick Feet Drill
The aim of this drill is to increase leg turnover and improve your knee lift for when you need to pick up the pace a bit.
Start off jogging slowly, when you hit the point where you want to start your drill, increase your stride rate so that you take as many steps as possible over about 20 metres or so with a high knee action. You should be bringing your legs up in front of you and maintaining a nice upright posture. The aim is not to move forward quickly but to maximise the number of steps that you take; remember this one is about leg turnover not stride length.
You should feel this one in the front of you hips and thighs (hip flexors) as they will be working hard to lift your legs up in front of you. Do a few quad stretches after this one to loosen things up.
A good way to figure out how high your legs should be coming up is to do this drill a couple of times with your elbows at your side and your forearms at 90 degrees to your body, palms facing down. Your knees should come up and hit the palm of your hands, this is where you want your knees to come up to whenever you are doing the drill.
2.) Butt Kickers
Butt Kickers have a very similar objective to the high knee running drill, to increase leg turnover. However, as you most probably have guessed from the name the emphasis is on the hamstrings and the recovery stage of your stride. The hamstrings are often overlooked by triathletes who have strong thighs from cycling so this one is good for getting a bit if balance back.
Once again begin by jogging slowly towards the spot where you want to start your drill and increase you stride rate, concentrating on getting you feet moving as quickly as you can and getting your lower leg to swing up behind you. Your heel should literally be hitting your butt. Continue on for about 20 metres.
This one you will feel in your hamstrings so show them some love and jog out of each repetition. Stretch gently if things are feeling a bit tight.
With this one your upper leg should remain reasonably still and you be aiming to bring your leg up to your butt, not the other way around. This is important as otherwise you will sag and not be able to maintain good upright body position.
3.) Pull Throughs
This one is the hardest drill from a coordination point of view, if you can master this one you can feel pretty happy with yourself. What we are aiming to achieve with this drill is to develop the timing and power to get your leg in position to power yourself through your stride, hence increasing your stride length.
Going from a walk in a nice upright position extend your leg out in front of you like a hurdler and then bring your leg down and through to contact the ground in a powerful fashion directly under your centre of gravity. As your foot contacts the ground, drive up on your toes and swing your other leg forward and repeat. Do about 12 to 15 steps on each leg like this.
Do a bit of a jog after each repetition concentrating on your form and imagine you are Paul Tergat!
This is a tricky one and it can be hard to visualise what you are meant to do. If in doubt find someone who knows his or her running drills to help you out. The key is to get a nice snap when bringing your leg back into position. I find it also helps to concentrate on my arm swing and imagine I am marching - go figure.
Bounding is the more difficult of the drills but also the most fun and beneficial once you have it wired. Bounding will really help you to develop your leg power and strength, therefore increasing your stride length.
Again beginning from a slow jog bound forward and upwards with a high knee lift. Land on your other leg and repeat the movement. Continue alternating legs. Concentrate on holding good form, keep you head up and drive with you arms, as this will help you keep the whole movement together. Repeat for 8 to 10 steps on each leg. Jog out of each repetition
As this is a very ballistic movement heavier runners and people who have not done this drill before should take things easy and not try to drive too far or too high with each stride. If you find it hard or your form deteriorates you are better to do a smaller number of bounds on each leg, rest, and then repeat.
Try to make sure that you land straight and with your legs in line with your body, this will keep you balanced and ready to power off on your next bound. Once you get really good you can try bounding further with each step or bounding up inclines - now that's a workout.
Overall Technique Pointers
There are some key elements that are the same for all of the drills. These really fall under general running technique but they are worth mentioning here as drills are all about improving your technique. The areas that I am going to mention here your arms and your body position. Being relaxed but in control of your whole body when you run is very important.
Everyone has a slightly different arm action and this is fine as long as your arm action doesn't waste too much energy or affect your style overtly. It is worth remembering however that your leg and arm speed is linked, your legs can only go as fast as your arms will move. Now this doesn't mean that you have to move your arms up and down like a sprinter. What I am saying however is that by tidying up your arm movement and alignment you it can help tidy up your over all efficiency.
Body position is also very important. You should have a slight lean in the direction you are running. If you lean too far forward or too far back you can not drive as effectively with your legs and will tend to understride or overstride. Understriding may mean that you "spin your wheels", striding quickly but not necessarily going forward as quickly as you should. Overstriding can mean that you are placing your foot in front of your centre of gravity and effectively braking your stride and slowing yourself down. Overstriding generally makes you look like you are "sitting in a bucket", try to stay upright with a slight lean forward, not back.
The final pointer is to stay relaxed. Tensing up wastes energy that can be used elsewhere, save it for dragging off your mates in the last 200 metres. Working Drills Into Your Running Schedule
How often should you do drills and when should you do them? Well generally speaking once a week is great and will help your running if you are have not done any before. As mentioned earlier in the article it is best to do drills when you a fresh and not too tired as they require concentration and some strength to do them correctly.
If you do a speed work session this is generally a good time to do them. The reason why I recommend this is that speed sessions are usually done at a stage in your weekly training cycle where you are reasonably fresh, or should be fresh. If you are thinking about doing drills and you don't do a speed work session then I suggest you talk to your Coach because you really should have some quality speed training somewhere in your schedule, no matter what you are training for.
Generally speaking you should do your drills at the beginning of your session just after you have warmed up and are feeling nice and limber. The drills should not be so hard that you are tired for the rest of the workout, in fact if you do them right they should help you to make you feel nice an zippy for your speed work. Start off doing two repeats of each drill per session and work your way up to doing four repeats of each drill over a slightly longer distance. Remember that if you feel your form is going, shorten the repeat and jog back, recover and start again with good form. You only want to practice good technique. Summary
Personally I love drills and speed work, they provide variety and entertainment in a training schedule as well as giving you a different type of focus for part of a session. Try and get some friends together do them as a group along with your favourite interval session and have some fun.
References and Recommended Further Reading:
Sports Speed 1# Program for Athletes (Second Edition) by George Dintiman / Bob Ward / Tom Tellez
Dave Scott's Triathlon Training by Dave Scott.