Over the last 10 years, distance running has changed. Elite races on the whole have started to become slower, with more athletes having the goal of winning rather than running fast times; and to win, you need to be able to sprint and have great last lap strength.
Sprinting is a whole different game to continuously running mile after mile. You biomechanics change, you start working anaerobically and your fast twitch muscle fibres come into play more.
Last lap strength is crucial
Having the ability to wind up the pace and effectively sprint over the last lap brings many factors together. You need to have a good level of strength and speed endurance. With strength endurance, your muscles can work at a higher intensity over a longer period of time, therefore your biomechanics and running form remains good, improving efficiency and subsequently speed.
As stated here by Alberto Salazar, you need to be able to run a 52-53 second last 400m to be competitive on an international level in distance running. This is something I certainly agree with, seeing Mo Farah having to run 1:48 last 800m of the World Championship 5000m.
Olympic Sliver Medalist, Galen Rupp, does a weight session to prepare for the final 400 meters of the 10K and 5K. Rupp’s Coach, Alberto Salazar, explains that last lap speed is the only way to win a medal. Rupp showed his last lap speed in the 10K at the Olympics, but now does Galen have enough left to repeat that performance in the 5K.
This is something which you don’t want to suddenly change, but having good biomechanics is key to running faster. By changing the way in which you run too quickly, you shock muscles which weren’t previously being used to the same intensity into overloading and this may result in injuries. The change should be gradual and incorporated with the strength work which will later be talked about.
Every runner is also different. Take Mo Farah and Kenenisa Bekele for example. Farah, has a very long, loping stride with a relatively slow cadence in comparison to the likes on Bekele. Bekele – albeit is a smaller athlete – has a very fast turnover and high cadence which can be put to good use for sudden accelerations. This means that you may have a longer and slower stride, but it doesn’t mean it cannot be effectively used for faster work.
Despite saying this, you can often lose power with longer strides. Therefore, by working on having a slightly shorter, sharper and stronger stride, you can gain more power.
Alberto Salazar seems to come across as almost a pioneer in the field of last lap distance running, training his runners to alter their biomechanics over the last lap of a race to be more like that of a sprinters to improve their speed.
A midfoot to forefoot planting of the foot occurs for most elite athletes, with most tending towards a midfoot form for the majority of races. However, when entering the final stages, it is almost instinctive to transition to your forefoot (going up on our toes), helping to run faster.
You have to be careful when forefoot running however, trying not to point your toes when planting the foot. Rather than pointing your toes (plantar flexion) bringing your toes up, towards your shin (dorsiflexion) will help you come down on the ball of your foot, directly under the hips which will reduce the force going through your leg on impact.
Too great of an exaggerated forefoot form can often lead to shin problems from high levels of impact.
A really interesting article which further highlights the importance of biomechanics in distance running is here. This explains the way in which Oregon Project athletes (Mo Farah and Galen Rupp) take a scientific approach to training.
Going out with the intention of changing your biomechanics to a more sprint specific form over the last lap is easier said than done. Strength is a key component to sprinting and must be worked on continuously all year round to ensure consistent form.
For me, glute strength is certainly one of the most important muscles to ensure speed can be fully utilised. This muscles works in unison with the hamstrings which generate most of your power when running. A range of exercises can be used, both upper and lower body all aiding to improve running efficiency and strength to maintain good biomechanics.
This is shown by 800m specialist Nick Symmonds who, despite racing over shorter distances and being more heavily focussed upon strength, gives a great insight into how to train outside of running on a track.
I also believe that there should be a strong focus on core strength. Your core is key – along with your glutes – to giving stability when running. With a stronger core, there will be less lateral movement side to side, resulting in more forward movement, a less energy wasted. This is a prime example where better strength will directly improve biomechanics as a result.
The same is to be seen with your glutes. By training them to be stronger, you hips won;t collapse and will remain high and stable for each stride meaning more power will be generated by each stride.
For improving the power of an athlete, heavier weights should be used with lower number of reps. This will help improve maximum power output, but may see higher muscle mass coming as a result; this means heavy weights must be treated with caution and not to be done too often as might cause injury.
Many runners use a range of dynamic exercises, using nothing more than own body weight. These can help improve muscle stability and inner strength of muscles which aren’t usually targeted. Here is an example of a few exercises which can be easily implemented into any strength routine. They have been set out y the strength and conditioning coach, Dave McHenry who specifically works with the Oregon Project.
This strength endurance can also be found from running, not only specific gym work. A way of implementing this structure into training would be to reduce the recovery on intervals. Here, you will be working at the same intensity, yet having a shorter time to recovery. This trains your muscles to replicate the stress loads which will be experienced in a race, getting them used to enduring higher work loads, therefore improving strength endurance.
Changing the way in which you run is not always the way forward. You can become more efficient and stringer by doing strength training outside of running allowing you to improve your muscle endurance to keep performing at higher intensities for longer. With the correct amount of strength work and focus on efficiency and stability, biomechanics will improve as a result.