A key component to success in CrossFit is cardiovascular endurance. We can build endurance in a number of ways, but when we talk about endurance workouts within CrossFit, we often associate them with rowing, biking or running. If given the choice, however, it seems many athletes gravitate towards the rower or the bike to build endurance instead of running. If you’re like many athletes, you too might cringe when you see a running workout programmed. And while most people recognize running more will make them a better CrossFit athlete, cherry-picking kicks in and fewer people show up for class on running days.
Why is there an aversion to running among so many CrossFit athletes?
While everyone has their own (claimed) reasons for not wanting to run, part of the dislike for running could arise from its simplicity. In CrossFit we like to be challenged in everything we do, from lifting heavier weight to learning to do a muscle-up to walking on our hands or doing more reps in a benchmark workout. We may view running as a simple (skill-less) activity that merely eats up time when we are trying to set a personal record (PR) in a workout. I’ve heard several athletes point out that they view the run portion of the workout as an opportunity to recover between sets.
Nonetheless, like everything else in CrossFit, good running mechanics is a skill we can all work to improve. Not only does this make running more enjoyable, but it also makes us more efficient in workouts and reduces our risk of injury.
Improving Run Mechanics
Though it can take months or even years to perfect run mechanics, there are simple steps the average athlete can take to improve form and efficiency to make running more tolerable during your next WOD. Specifically, here are four simple strategies to implement during your next run that will lead to improved mechanics.
1. Maintain good body position.
As with everything in CrossFit, proper body position is important to success and injury prevention. When it comes to body position in running, there are three things to focus on: (1) keeping your core muscles engaged; (2) having your arms relaxed at your sides with your forearms parallel to the ground; and (3) pushing your hips forward.
Your first task should be to think about holding a hollow body position and keeping your head in a neutral position with your eyes focused forward as you run. Try to avoid excessive bouncing of your head and/or letting your head fold forward as you get tired. By engaging your core and keeping your head in a neutral position, your body will be better prepared to absorb the stresses caused by running, which can lead to injury and premature fatigue.
At the same time, your arms (and shoulders) should be engaged at your sides with a slight swing to help create forward momentum, but they shouldn’t be overly tense. Not only will tense arms waste energy during the run itself, but if you are doing a WOD that requires you to use your shoulders (e.g., burpees, push presses, etc.), keeping your arms relaxed during the run will go a long way to save your strength for other parts of the workout. Finally, keeping your hips forward is important to shifting your center of mass. This in turn allows gravity to pull you forward and creates momentum.
2. Let gravity pull you forward.
Now that your body is in proper position, slowly and just slightly start to lean forward, bending at your ankles. The key here is that as you fall forward at the ankles, avoid letting your hips push back as they would for a deadlift or good morning. Rather, keep them forward and in line with your core and legs. It should ultimately feel like you are going to fall on your face if you don’t pick up your legs to catch yourself.
Now, start picking up your legs (one after another) to “catch” yourself as you allow gravity to pull you forward. After a few “catches,” now you’re running: keep the momentum going.
3. Increase your cadence (or turnover).
As you begin running, think of increasing your number of foot strikes and don’t over-stride. It’s generally a lot better to run with short quick strides than longer ones. Another way to think about this is to limit your ground contact time. Every time your foot touches the ground, try to pull it right back up to initiate the next “catch” phase of your fall.
As a target for efficiency, many people suggest 90 strides per minute per leg. While this is a good goal, it’s also worth noting that I’ve found each person’s comfort level with a maintainable cadence is different and really depends on a number of factors, including for example, a person’s height or the workout you are doing. For instance, while I might run with a 90+ cadence during a typical workout, I realistically can only maintain about an 85 cadence in an ultra-marathon. So play with this and see what works for you. Really, the point is to start increasing the number of strides you are taking by making them shorter and quicker. This will make you both more efficient and reduce your risk of injury.
4. Improve your foot strike.
In addition to increasing you cadence, think about running lightly and quietly with each foot strike. The idea being to first strike with your toe or mid-foot, let your heel kiss the ground, and then immediately pull your foot back up. Many runners pound the ground with their feet as their heel strikes first and their forefoot then slams to the ground. Not only is this inefficient, but each of those pounding foot strikes reverberates up through your body increasing your risk of injury. To increase efficiency and running longevity, try to be light on your feet by landing gently.
While running might seem like a simple task, there is a lot that actually goes into good run mechanics. Next time you want to jump on a rower or air bike for your endurance workout because running is simple (and boring), challenge yourself to reconsider and use the opportunity to work on your running skills. By focusing on these four simple steps, you will begin your journey to improved run mechanics.
Brandon Petelin is the CrossFit Endurance coach at CrossFit Balance in Washington DC and a competitive Ultra-Runner and Multi-day Stage Racer (50 km, 50 miles, 100 miles, 200+ miles). Brandon also just completed a 24 hour challenge (for distance) on a Woodway Curve treadmill for charity. He covered a ridiculous 102.76 miles during the 24 hours.