Build these running technique drills into your warm-ups and you can improve your gait, lower your chance of injuries and help yourself to better running performances.
TEAM TALK: STARTING OUT
“Elite athletes often incorporate triathlon technique drills like this into their warm-ups, and young athletes are encouraged to get into the habit from an early age to help them avoid biomechanical problems. As with any technical drill, it’s best to find a coach to demonstrate the movements for you and check your technique – your friendly local triathlon or running club can help.” Liz Hufton, Triathlon Plus Editor.
1. SPEED LADDERS
This drill is designed to improve your foot speed and lower ground contact time, helping reduce braking forces as you run that can add to your injury risk. Ideally you’ll use a special speed ladder (buy them online for £10-15), but rolled up newspaper placed a couple of feet apart will work. Run through the ladder as quickly as you can, stepping both feet into each square. Don’t let your heels touch the ground, keep your back straight and shoulders relaxed, and drive your arms in time with the running motion. Aim to speed up over time.
2. HIGH KNEE WALKS
To begin with, perform this drill at walking speed; form is everything. With your back straight and a strong, upright stance, step forward slowly and deliberately, driving your lead knee as high as you can (as if you’re trying to clear a hurdle). Make sure your pelvis is stable, your back stays straight and your foot is flexed throughout. Keep your shoulders relaxed, elbows bent and drive your arms. Progress to doing this at a slow run, making sure your form isn’t lost; if you feel it slipping, go back to the slow version until you feel confident you’ve got it.
3. HIGH KNEE SKIPS
Starting with the high knee walk (number 2), use the same action but add a skip with each step, bouncing on the balls of your feet (you may have seen professional footballers doing something like this at the start of matches). You’re looking to keep that form in your solid core, straight back and pelvis and high knee drive, but adding an element of ‘quick feet’ to it which you’ll aim to carry through to your running.
4. LONG SPRINT BOUNDS
This exercise is best done on soft ground, ideally flat grass or a track, as it’s quite high impact. The idea is to improve stride length and, again, to boost your knee drive and hip flexibility. Bound along for four or five steps at a time to begin with, leaping as far as you can with good form: keep your core tight, shoulders down, and back as straight as you can. Look to drive your lead knee as high and far forward as you can, and land as lightly as you can on the midfoot or forefoot before driving straight up to the next step. You’ll naturally want to use your arms to aid this action – try to keep them active.
5. HEEL FLICKS
Otherwise known as ‘butt kicks’, depending on whether or not you’re in polite company. This exercise helps to engage the muscles in the back of your legs, encouraging a good cycling action as you run. Run with an exaggerated leg return – kicking your heel up towards your bum as you come through the stride. With each step, raise your lead knee so you’re trying to keep your foot underneath you, rather than keeping your knee down and kicking up backwards. Don’t let your heel fully drop on landing. The steps should be short and bouncy.
6. MINI HURDLE RUNS
This is a progression of the speed ladder exercise (number one): by introducing the mini hurdles, you’re looking to keep the quick feet action but introduce a higher knee lift. Again, you can buy special mini hurdles for the purpose of these drills, and they’re available at different heights (look to pay £3 to £5 per hurdle). Alternatively, blocks around six to nine inches high will work. Run over the hurdles with the best form you can muster, aiming to stay on the balls of your feet, and bring both feet over the hurdle before moving on to the next one.
7. ANKLE WALKING
This exercise should encourage flexibility in the ankles and help to improve ground contact time and running on the midfoot as you progress. Start slow – it’s surprisingly difficult to get this right. Walk through the exercise, taking baby steps, putting the ball of the foot down first then bringing the rest of the foot down, as you inch forwards. Speed up the drill once you’re happy with the motion but keep it to a fast walk rather than a full run.
8. BULL AT THE GATE DRILL
This exercise helps you learn a good cycling action for running. Hold on to a post or wall to one side and cycle each leg through the running action, pawing your foot at the ground (your heel shouldn’t touch the ground). Make sure your foot lands directly underneath you, and keep your hips and lower back still and stable. Just try a minute at a time at first – the action will feel odd so you’ll need time to learn it.