Getting your running technique right can help muscle activation and efficiency, helping you run faster for longer
As amateur triathlon teams go, Team Felt Triathlon Plus is well equipped. We’ve got our Zone3 wetsuits to help us through the swim. We’ve got our Felt bikes to flatter our fitness over the ride. For the final stage of Ironman Austria in June, though, it’ll just be the four team members versus the 42.2km course.
Time to call in expert help. Step in founder of The Running School, Mike Antoniades, who pointed out the perils of racing long when Tom, Shonsel and Liz visited his HQ in Chiswick. “In Ironman, you’re overusing the hip flexors on the bike, so it’s a great example of lack of activation of the posterior chain [muscles at the back of the body such as the glutes and hamstrings]. It takes 20 minutes before the glutes and hamstrings kick in on the run,” he says.
Mike says that changing running technique is about performance as well as avoiding injury. “If someone is perfectly happy going out doing runs, de-stressing – why change? But if they’re trying to get faster, or having any niggles, then running technique is something they should look at. You cannot improve speed if you don’t change your technique, because speed is about efficiency of force per action. If you don’t move efficiently you’re never going to be able to produce the force for a long period of time.”
“speed is about efficiency of force per action. If you don’t move efficiently you’re never going to be able to produce the force for a long period of time”
First, the team members were filmed running on a treadmill. “The treadmill is a great training tool,” says Mike. “There’s this myth that it does all the work for you, but it’s beneficial because you can run looking in a mirror and if you have a coach there, they can correct you. [The athlete] can get the feeling of making the changes; you can do the same thing outside, but it takes longer.”
The team members were captured at their wonky worst on the treadmill before moving on to a movement analysis off it. Performing seemingly simple movements such as bending to one side holding a stick and doing single-leg half-squats helped highlight each person’s idiosyncracies. “We usually take people through eight movements in this analysis,” says Mike. “First of all this tells us if there are any activation issues, so are certain muscle groups activating before others. It tells us the firing sequence of the neural pathways and the movement pattern; if we’ve been injured or running in a certain way, our nervous system fires in a certain way. If that’s not efficient we can see it highlighted at high load and low load during the analysis.”
Finally it was time for the team to face facts, as Mike reviewed the footage of each person, pointing out imbalances and areas that need work. Needless to say, the Castelli tri kit was the only thing to come out looking good: Shonsel’s right leg was working too hard and her arms weren’t producing drive; Liz’s hips were dropping and her torso was twisting; while Tom’s upper torso was too stiff and feet were landing too close to the midline – or, as Mike put it, he “runs like a girl”…
Despite different running techniques, poor glute activation was a common theme. Mike was keen to point out that poor activation didn’t necessarily indicate weakness. “When you’re injured, you might go to a physio and they’ll say ‘you’ve got a weak glute’. It’s not necessarily a weakness, it’s a delay in the activation of the muscle. If we spend 10 hours a day sitting down the glute gets what I call ‘glute amnesia’ and the hamstring activates before the glute. That changes the sequence of the muscles firing, then we start to overuse the quads and hip flexors, and the muscle memory forgets the big muscles at the back.”
Changing running technique is no mean feat though, and Mike likens it to swimming, in which athletes have to constantly drill small changes. With so much to think about, and long-forgotten muscles to engage, the team were worried that a new running style might take up too much of their much-needed energy. “If you’re used to using certain muscle groups then in the beginning, it is more tiring,” says Mike. “You have to think about each movement to get it correct. Your heart-rate goes up. But then the body adjusts; the nervous system becomes used to working this way and you become more efficient.”
Mike suggests the team come back to re-learn how to run. “We train Ironman athletes what it feels like to activate the glutes and hamstrings, so they know when it’s switched off, but more importantly we give them pre-activation exercises to do in transition. That’s the time to do them, when you’re off the bike, during transition, to get everything going straight away.”
And with 42.2km to cover, that’s exactly what the team will need to do in June.