The science of running – how to run faster and further

Put one leg in front of the other. Now lift up your other leg and swing it in front of the first. Keep moving forward and do it faster. Congratulations, you’re running.

It’s so incredibly simple that it’s surprising that “how to run” is one of Google’s autocomplete suggestions when you type ‘how to r’ into its search box.

Yet I completely sympathise with this. Three years ago, I lost three stone in three months. Part of this was through a daily morning running routine. I still run to this day, at some point making the crossover from “I’m doing this because I have to” to “I’m doing this because I want to”. I take part in Parkrun – a free 5k that takes place in parks across the UK every week.

At my peak, my best time was 25:05, but I’ve since stalled and can’t beat that 25 minute mark. Then it occurred to me: I write about science and technology every day. Could mastering the science of running shave minutes off my 5k time?

So I spoke to a sports psychologist, sports scientists and a running nutritionist to see how they’d mould me into a running machine.

Science of Running: Psychology

Before even thinking about the mechanics of running, I thought it was worth getting my head in gear. “Our mind is obviously very powerful and what we do, say, think and feel has enormous potential to influence our performance in a number of ways,” sports psychologist Julie Blackwood tells me.

In other words, while most would consider visiting a psychologist a way of fixing an issue, sports psychologists can actively improve things in the same way training would.running_of_science_5k_medal

It very quickly becomes apparent, though, that sports psychology does not offer fix-all solutions, and is most effective when tailored to the individual. “One runner might benefit from feeling nervous before a race so that he is ready to perform, while another might experience that same anxiety, yet find it so uncomfortable and debilitating that they can’t keep their food down or make it to the start line,” she explains. I can’t say I’ve ever felt that nervous about a run: maybe I should embrace the power of panic.

“Some runners need to disassociate to distract the mind, while others prefer to associate and concentrate fully on the run in question.”

That said, there is one thing about running in particular that should apply to anyone: “Developing a number of positive self-talk statements to encourage yourself and some strategies to control unwanted thoughts could be useful tools for any runner to acquire, as running is a sport where you spend a lot of time ‘in your own head’ as it were,” Blackwood says.

But, after that brief period of one-size-fits-all, it quickly splits again: some runners need to disassociate to distract the mind, while others prefer to associate and concentrate fully on the run in question. One study she cites generally links the former to endurance and the latter to speed.

As someone who used to run in the mornings, half-asleep, I choose the former. “Strategies such as listening to music, counting and alphabet games may be helpful if you are looking to get the miles in.” Check. I’ve counted backwards from 500 before – a strategy endorsed by none other than Paula Radcliffe – and it seemed to help. An alphabet game will be a nice break from my sweaty Count von Count routine.

“A is for aching limbs… B is for breathing difficulties… C is for cramps…” No, wait – positive thoughts!

Science of Running: Physiology5k_science_of_running

Given my inherent dislike of the discomfort of running, perhaps it’s time to address the physiology.  With that in mind, I approached Matthew Green, senior sports scientist at West Bromwich Albion Football Club. Working on the fitness of Premier League footballers, it was extremely gracious of him to lower himself to my level briefly.  As expected, for 5k running, it’s all about speed and stamina.

“HIIT involves running at a faster pace than I would on race day, and then taking a short break.”

“The training method that will give you the biggest ‘bang for your buck’ in the development of these components of fitness is high intensity interval training,” he explains. “High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a time efficient way to improve cardiovascular fitness.” HIIT involves running at a faster pace than I would on race day, and then taking a short break – at my pace of roughly 5 minutes per kilometre, I should try and run 4mins 30secs per kilometre, and then enjoy a two minute rest before tackling the next one.

“The premise behind HIIT is that the physiological systems responsible for endurance performance are stressed to a greater extent than during usual continuous exercise prescriptions. This increased stress will result in the physiological systems of the individual adapting to the training regime positively, in turn improving future performance,” Green explains.

I’ll be honest: with my next 5k Parkrun scheduled for 20 hours from now, at the time of writing, I was hoping for a quicker fix, but that’s not happening. “I would suggest it will take up to around six weeks to really see the benefit with a clear change in performance,” warns Green. Real improvement requires “commitment and stickability”, which perhaps explains why I’ve stalled, as neither are qualities I’m overly blessed with.

Science of Running: Formalan_martin_park_run_1

One area I thought would be something that could offer this kind of instant gratification was running form. A study from just last year suggested that arm swinging could conserve energy for runners, but when I ask Green about form advice, he’s less enthusiastic.

I would advise you to not invest too much time trying to overanalyse your form or running style. Technical modifications to this can take years of mastery and may not always see major benefit.” So much for a magic bullet: six weeks was quite delayed gratification, let alone a few years.

“There’s academic evidence to suggest that runners self-optimise their stride length to their mathematical optimum.”

In fact, there’s academic evidence to suggest that runners self-optimise their stride length to their mathematical optimum. While novice runners take a while to adapt, the evidence suggests that it takes around 10 weeks to hit this point. I’ve been running for a lot longer than 10 weeks, so it looks like Green is right and any form gains would be minimal, time consuming and far from guaranteed. It’s not that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, just that it’s probably not worth your while.

Instead, Green advises working on lower limb muscles. “It has been found that, when runners complete regular strength training, it can have a beneficial effect upon their running economy,” he explains. That is to say, by working on your legs, they become more efficient and require less energy to work.

This shouldn’t look like a bodybuilding programme – no risk of that from me – but should be focussed on running: squats, lunges, step-ups and so on. He’d even recommend introducing this to warming up and cooling down. 

Science of Running: Technologyfitbit_surge

A friend of mine once commented that with my phone on my arm, a smartwatch on one wrist and a Fitbit on the other, I must “look like RoboCop” when I’m out running, suggesting either he or I have never seen the film. Is this technology helping or hindering me?

“Is this technology helping or hindering me?”

“The one piece of technology I would recommend to any runner is a heart rate monitor and GPS watch,” says Green.  “The combination of these technologies allow every runner to monitor their session with precision. The real-time feedback you get while running allows you to gather information on your heart rate, distance covered, pace and time. These factors allow you to prescribe training targets and monitor your improvements carefully.”

“Technology and equipment can certainly be used to help your training programme. It must be used as a training aide, however, that is used to support your current training regime and not a ‘magic bullet’ that replaces your training.”

Finally, quality running shoes are “a must” and “imperative to get the best out of your performance.” No mention of running shoe technology here, just overall quality and comfort. Looks like I’m going shopping.

Science of Running: Nutrition

I was, of course, beating round the bush by pursuing psychological, technical and physiological answers. Without wanting to be too uncharitable to my physique, I’m the figurative elephant in the room here. I currently have a BMI of 25.9 – just in the overweight range. Is this the biggest barrier to success?

“Without wanting to be too uncharitable to my physique, I’m the figurative elephant in the room here.”

Very possibly. While I’ve seen people far larger than me run 10ks and even marathons, it stands to reason that the lighter I am, the less effort I’d need to make to move my body. Green agrees: “The holy grail is for individuals to strive to be lean while maintaining muscle mass.”

“This would enable runners to be as strong as previously but lighter, which would therefore ensure they can run at the same speed for a lower energy cost or quicker at the same energy cost.” science_of_running_nutrition

That makes sense, but how much is the ideal? There’s no perfect answer to that, according to Matt Fitzgerald, nutritionist, marathon runner and author of Racing Weight: How to get Lean for Peak Performance.

“Every athlete has an optimal racing weight. For sprinters, it is higher than it is for endurance runners because, while both types of athlete need to be lean, sprinters need more muscle.”

There are nutritional tips that will help. He recommends a carbohydrate-rich meal three hours before racetime – which will be interesting given my races start at 9am – but also says some runners may find that coffee reduces the perception of effort, and that beetroot juice can enhance performance by boosting blood flow.

“Losing one and a half stone would shave over two minutes off my 5k time, or 17 and a half minutes off my entirely theoretical marathon time.”

But that’s nothing compared to racing weight, and there’s good and bad news for me here. The good news is Fitzgerald has no truck with BMI. “An individual athlete’s optimal racing weight is determined by his lowest realistically attainable healthy body fat percentage. BMI says nothing about body fat percentage.”

The bad news is body fat is something I don’t score too brilliantly on either. I need to drop around six percent. Fitzgerald has developed a simple free webtool for estimating ideal racing weight, taking into account weight, age and body fat so you can figure out a target for yourself. For me, it involves losing one and a half stone. Yikes. Still, Runner’s World estimates that losing that kind of weight would shave over two minutes off my 5k time, or 17 and a half minutes off my entirely theoretical marathon time.

Disappointing as it is, this advice isn’t going to change my performance overnight. I shall come back and update this with results when I’ve put all this advice into practice.

Images: redjar, Jessica Spengler and Billie Ward used under Creative Commons. Wimbledon Park Run Photography used with permission.

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