So You Want to Run Fast Huh? - Part 1: Fixing Your Broken Undercarrage. 

Left to right: Usain Bolt - current 100m and 200m sprinting world record holder, Yannis Kouros - current holder of every men's outdoor world record from 100 to 1000 miles, and Mo Farah - Current Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion.

There seem to be a lot of runners about these days.

Statistically speaking, participation in marathon type events are booming, gym memberships seem to be on the decline, and Sport England estimate that there are around two million regular runners across the country.

Running and getting outside it seems, has never been more popular.

Despite this popularity however, there seems to be little appreciation about how to prepare the body for running. It's a lot more complicated than you might think. The sedentary lifestyle of most desk dwellers does not lend itself well to running long distances. As a result many people are held back from their full potential as runners for failing to address a few simple areas.

Let me make something clear.

When it comes to a person's running capability in long distance endurance events, it is less likely that they will have insufficient cardiovascular capacity to finish the race, and more likely that the muscle imbalances in the body will conspire to injure them before the race has ended.

These same muscle imbalances will also slow you down drastically in races of every distance and have a huge impact on your finishing time.

So if you want to...

  • Run your first 10K.
  • Achieve a personal best marathon time.
  • Finish an ultra-marathon without permanently injuring your body.

Or transform yourself from the guy on the left, to the guy on the right

Or any combination of the above, then this article should serve as an excellent kicking off point. I've broken this post up into two sections and focused on what I feel are the most common areas that people could easily improve on.

Largely speaking...

  1. Part one: Run safer - looks at what you need to do to prevent injury while running.
  2. Part two: Run faster - looks at how to use selected exercises and stretching techniques to optimise your body for improved running speed.

Though there is obviously considerable overlap between the two, both are important.

Injury in running comes suddenly, seemingly without warning, and can take upwards of 6 months to repair in some cases. Don't be reckless and ensure that your undercarriage is prepared in both respects. There's no glory in having to quit a race early because you hurt yourself.

Lets get stuck in...


Part 1: Run Safer - Introducing the Tensor Fasciae Latae and Piriformis.

The Tensor Fasciae Latae is a nasty, little, almost unpronounceable muscle, that causes all sorts of problems in the knee area, for those who have chosen a job that requires them to sit down all day.

The Tensor Fasciae Latae (Which I'll be abbreviating as TFL from now on, because - seriously, I'm already getting bored double checking that spelling every time I type it) attaches to the knee cap (patella) via the iliotibial band ("IT Band" from here on in - again for the same reason).

The basic function of this muscle is in flexing (AKA bending), medial rotation (turning the foot inwards), and abduction (taking away from the body's midline) of the hip joint.

Long periods of time in the seated position leave this muscle tight, and as a result it pulls on the outside of the knee cap via the IT band. If you then throw running into the mix, it can lead to knee pain that can leave you hobbling around like an old person for weeks or even months after the event.   

 That's the bastard that crippled me on the top right officer.

Almost every person that I come across is tight in this muscle and it is putting them at risk of serious injury. Thankfully, it is fairly easy to prevent an injury in this area with some simple stretching of the relevant muscle.

Trying to find a decent stretch for this muscle is difficult. The one that I have found that seems to do the job reasonably well is referred to as the pigeon pose in Yoga.

As the arrows indicate:

  1. You pin your right leg to the ground, using your left hand.
  2. Extend (arch) your spine fully pushing your chest forward.
  3. Push your left leg out behind you and try to get your pelvis as close to the ground as possible.
  4. Repeat for the opposite side of the body.

When performing this stretch, pay particular attention to how high up you place your bent leg (right leg in the picture). If the foot is positioned too low, you will not feel the stretch in your bum. If it is positioned too high you will not be able to get your pelvis close to the ground. Make sure to strike the right balance.

This stretch itself also takes care of another potentially problematic muscle in the thigh as well. The piriformis - an external rotator of the hip joint (in case you wanted to know).

Highlighted in red here.

Sitting for long periods (as office workers do) often leads to tight hip flexors (more on that later), tight addutors (muscles that bring the leg towards the midline), and weak abductors (muscles that take the leg away from the midline) of the hip joint.

Weak abductors mean the piriformis has to take up some of the slack and behave like abductors themselves, something that they aren't really meant to do excessively. The piriformis then tightens and swells over time and there is research to suggest that this puts pressure on the sciatic nerve. This is referred to as Piriformis syndrome.

The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body, and in just under 20% of the population, it passes straight through the piriformis. If the piriformis gets inflamed from being over used, it will compress the sciatic nerve leading to a pain in the arse (literally), which then radiates to your lower back, hamstrings, and calf muscles. All of these will feel tight and quite painful, more so if you try to push the pace while running.

As you can imagine, getting this in the weeks leading up to your race can mean the end of chasing your personal best or even participating in the race at all. Both of these injuries come on suddenly and seemingly without warning. Don't be caught out by them.

So in summary? The pigeon pose... do it after you've finished your run. Like, after EVERY run.


Part 2: Run Faster - Introducing the The Gluteus, Rectus Femoris and Iliopsoas muscle groups. 

The Iliopsoas is a group of muscles are basically made up of the psoas major and illiacus. They are separate muscles that perform almost exactly the same action as one another. The action that they perform is anything that involves flexing the hip joint (I.e. bringing the thigh forward). Try to picture kicking straight ahead, moving a leg forward while walking or the same action in running, and you'll have some idea of what this muscle group does.

The muscle group is also given extra punch by the powerful rectus femoris, which performs a similar function.

Here they are highlighted in red.

Now as I said, the muscles of the iliopsoas along with the rectus femoris, are responsible for bringing the upper leg forward in a stride (they are said to "flex the hip joint"). The muscles that are used to bring a leg backwards ("extending the hip joint") are principally the Gluteus muscle group and the hamstrings.

Everyone's favorite muscle group :-)

The hamstrings (back of your thigh) also perform this action but they are not supposed to be the main agonists (movers) of the kick back in a run - that's the job of the glutes. I say "not supposed to be", because they often are. 

I mention these two muscle groups together because they work in opposite directions to one another. One group flex the hip (bring the leg forward) and the other group extend the hip (bring the leg backwards). 

If a person is sat down all day in this position

Or goes to sleep in this position

Or even both, then they will likely be tight in the Iliopsoas group and the rectus femoris, and loose in the Gluteaus group.

The result of this is shortened stride length.

The tight iliopsoas prevents the runner from drawing their leg back fully. This means the already loose Gluteus group, home to the body's biggest muscle, the Gluteus Maximus (Try and say that and not think of the film Gladiator) cant be fully used in the action of running. The far weaker hamstrings are therefore required to take up the slack leading to a greater potential for injury to the hamstring, and sub optimal power output from each stride in the run.

So in order to get you running faster we want to loosen up the iliopsoas and teach the gluteaus muscles to fire forcefully and quickly.


Stretching the iliopsoas and rectus femoris.

Here are some simple and effective stretches on the two muscles. Firstly lets do the iliopsoas.

In the image below you can see me preforming a stretch on said muslce.   

In this example I have used a BOSU Ball to raise my leg slightly, but in it's place, anything may be used from a stack of pillows, to a bed, to a sofa. The higher the platform the easier it is to find the muscle. I would suggest trying this on a sofa at home first, as you should find the muscle easiest that way.

As for what this should feel like, you should feel a pull on the upper part of your thigh near your pelvis that will feel like a finger width protrusion underneath the skin - this is the iliopsoas. If you cant feel it, this is because you aren't doing the stretch correctly. Refer back to the image and instructions and try again or come and speak to me directly.

Now lets look at stretching the rectus femoris. 

The trick is to push the held foot as far back away from your bum as possible. This should feel drastically different to the previous stretch. This time, instead of the tension being at the top of the thigh only, it should extend all along the midline of the thigh from near the top (though not as close to the top as the iliopsoas stretch) to near the knee.

Teaching the glutes to fire properly.

Presenting the hip bridge - an excellent exercise for men and women who want to have the perfect posterior and also run fast.

 If the world suddenly changes to a slightly yellow colour, then you're doing it right ;-)  

Keep your legs close to your bum and then press your hips towards the sky and hold that position for 10-30 seconds depending on your fitness level. Be extra careful to get maximum height out of your hip thrust as you want to train the glutes and hamstrings to fire fully.

Repeat as many times as you can until you can no longer reach the aformentioned height due to muscular fatigue.


Annnnd.... concluding

So there you have it, you now know more about running than 99% of the population. Do the suggestions we've outlined here rather than just trying to simply run more (though running more will also help), and you should see a dramatic improvement in your race times.

Train hard but don't forget to train smart too.

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