So how important is technique to distance runners? Are there features of the running gait that exemplify optimal form? It does help if one understands the biomechanics of running, so once again the requirement for coaching is essential for junior runners. Achieving optimal race pace relies to a large extent on the runnerís ability to run economically. Which simply means that the basic objective in distance running is to run at the fastest speed possible without running out of energy. Although that may sound simple enough, it requires considerable motor skill. There are hundreds of muscles utilised in the running action, and most of the joints in the body. The interaction between them all, in switching on and off, and relaxing, all in the right order, at the right instant, requires practise - certainly with juniors who are still on a learning curve with their motor skills. So without going much deeper into the technicalities, we will move on to the practicalities!
In fact the best way to begin is to mention some of the faults in running styles that are common in juniors, and how they can change them. When youngsters are growing, there running style can change dramatically over a number of years through nothing other than initially losing, and later gaining, muscle strength. The old saying that they have outgrown their strength is quite true - as youngsters shoot up in height with their growth spurts the muscles lag behind in growth rate, giving the youngsters an ungainly style, usually over striding, and with a great deal of instability. If during this period of rapid height gain attention is given to maintaining a programme of conditioning that maximises muscle growth - that is commensurate with this increase in height - then that alone can help tremendously.
It is an interesting test to use a stopwatch when watching international athletics on television and count the number of strides per minute for the various athletes. A cadence count is calculated on the number of times the same foot strikes the ground in a minute - or parts of multiplied. Women internationals at the highest level usually have a 95 / 100 cadence a minute, and even quicker on the final lap. (Gabriela Szabo was running a 115 cadence over the last 200 at Crystal Palace in the Grand Prix). There are pacer watches and small cadence counters (electronic metronomes) that can be used to help a runner develop this important aspect of their running action.
Having a good running style is not only good for economy and performance but is also highly beneficial in keeping injuries at bay. Every footstrike creates large impact forces that have to be absorbed by the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the lower limbs. Any misalignment or imbalance in the running gait can by this repetitive action create a whole host of minor, and sometimes major problems. Certainly the extra jarring of over striding does nothing for the knee joints of a junior in a growth spurt. Many common running injuries are caused by a combination of structural abnormalities and poor technique. Which brings me nicely to the next major contributor of injuries and poor running performance, over pronation.
One of the simple tests in establishing this problem is to put both running shoes down on a flat surface and view the shoes from the rear. If they lean in at the top towards each other through excessive wear on the inside of the sole, then it would be useful to have some one check you out. The misalignment that over pronation causes in the leg can lead to a whole host of injuries away from the ankle higher up the limb in the knee or hip joint. Excessive supination (outward rolling of the foot) is not as common, but can have a similar debilitating effect over a period of time. Lack of any pronation means that the foot loses an excellent method of absorbing those impact forces, and as such the resultant jarring effect can give problems down the lateral (outside) of the leg. These two problems can be addressed, and with correctly fitted orthotics the running style can be improved tremendously.
There are many other aspects of a correct running style that I have not covered, but I hope this introduction will help you to analyse your own action and for you to be more aware of the value of not only feeling good, but looking good.
The development of the international fell and mountain athlete has certainly made great strides in the last few years. It no longer requires the ability to win the British or English Championship, but what is clearly emerging is the requirement to run fast. International fell and mountain runners are well aware that to compete at the very highest level in our sport, the element of speed is a very necessary requisite. Examples are there to see, Adam Crossland's performance in Reunion is one. To compete at the very top -and win medals - now requires a runner with real pace, and Adam certainly has that. Matt Whitfield's emergence in 98 as one of our leading senior internationals - after a junior international career - shows that the transition can be achieved from junior to senior international if you have pace - Matthew recently went sub 30 for 1Ok at the Abbey Dash. John Parker surprised many by his performance at the junior trial race at Thieveley, and to prove it wasn't a fluke, went on to win at Tweedsmuir and become the British U/16 Champion. You may be forgiven for saying who's John Parker, certainly he hasn't got a Fell pedigree, but he has got that essential element, a speed pedigree, and I am sure that we will be seeing a lot more of John in the near future. Other senior athletes the like's of Andrew Pearson, Martin Cox, Richard Findlow and John Brown have all shown that with limited fell experience they too have made international selection by their pace.
So when assessing the qualities required to be a international fell runner, the element of speed comes very much to the fore. Most juniors when starting their fell careers would probably lay the emphasis on either climbing strength or descending technique, which is not a bad idea. But, when you are young and running short distances, if the element of speed can be emphasised first, then as you mature into longer runs and tougher races your endurance base will automatically be developed, with the consequence of stronger legs for ascending and valuable experience gained in descending. As I mentioned in the last training article some runners are blessed with the innate ability to run fast, whether you are one of those lucky ones or someone who has good speed but requires more training, then a priority must be given to developing your pace with regular speed sessions and drill work.
Running fast and learning to live with up pace running is the very essence of developing into an elite athlete, plus there is the likelihood of running cross country for school and club, possibly at county level, and the consideration that at some stage you may prefer to move from the fells to track or road in later years.
So what can you as a junior be doing now in order to develop your speed. Your first consideration is to develop the correct frame of mind that accepts the need for such training, unless you are committed to having a speed element in your weekly schedule then the effort will be short lived. If you are lucky enough to have the facility of a running track nearby then you are half way there. Because of the discipline that speed training requires it is certainly to your advantage to find a group or a coach who will help you with your training. Most sprint and middle distance coaches will welcome you into their weekly sessions - at the track - if you are prepared to attend regularly, so make enquiries, either through your club or through the track officials. If you start early enough in your running career you may find that you have not yet developed any bad habits in your running technique and that with a minimum of drill work you are ready to undertake some repetition work. The distance, duration, intensity and recovery periods will have to be tailored for you depending on your age and ability.
There are a variance of sessions that can be used to develop your speed with most repetition distances kept below 400m. Each coach will have their own method on how best to improve your pace - depending on your age and ability.
One of the problems with continuous training on the fells is that your stride length can be effectively shortened, which is great for climbing and rough terrain but can lose you pace on the level. Speed training on a track - or any flat surface can help to restore it to an optimum length, when you require it.
So if you want that extra capacity - in order to make the difference - then start now with your speed training, you will never regret it.
England Junior Coach