How to Improve Running Efficiency and Performance
Running is often described as controlled falling, and this is for a good reason since the body uses almost half of its energy to prevent you from falling. With each step there are forces acting from different directions, forcing your body to collapse. To prevent that, the body relies on specific muscles that stabilize your joints and allows prime mover and antagonist muscles to do their work.
When thinking about balance training, often the first thing that comes to mind is doing squats on BOSU balls and other unstable surfaces like a stability ball, balance pad, and inflated disks. Unless you have an injury that you are trying to rehabilitate, research has repeatedly shown that this is not a good way to improve your running-specific balance and running performance. Even worse, this kind of training has been shown to decrease performance and lead to injuries.
The problem with training on unstable surfaces stems from the fact that this kind of training ignores one of the most important principles in strength and conditioning- specificity. The principle of specificity states that; to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that skill. So, if your goal is to get better at balancing on unstable surfaces, then you need to perform exercises on unstable surfaces. However, if your goal is to get better on stable surfaces, get better at running and moving on stable ground, then you are better off performing exercise on stable ground like a track, asphalt, concrete, etc.
Aside from just running, doing a progressive strength training program that focuses on stabilizers and major muscle groups is the best way to improve balance and increase your running efficiency. One of the most important stabilizers muscles are the ankle stabilizers (e.g. peroneus longus and brevis, tibialis anterior) and the hip stabilizers (gluteus medius). When these muscles are weak or not working properly, they contribute to inefficient movement patterns (e.g. pelvis drop, excessive inward ankle rotation) and overuse injuries. Focusing more on single-leg exercise will increase activation of these stabilizers and improve balance, while at the same time increasing the strength of your prime movers. However, in order to switch to single-leg exercises, you need to adequately prepare your body to handle the increase in intensity.
We have seen major improvements in how our clients move and run when we have properly screened and addressed these deficiencies. If you are not sure how and when to strength train, check out our last article on “How and When to Strength Train”.