Coach George Towle, University of Southern Maine's women's cross-country and track coach, spoke at Peak Performance Multisport last evening about "running economy." It's all in the striders, he says.
Simply stated, striders are when a runner picks up speed for a period of time such as 20 - 30 seconds, and then jogs for a minute to recover. An example of a workout might be doing this six times, with a warm-up before and a cool-down after. This picked-up pace is the runner's mile race pace.
This concept is very simple and any level of runner can gain speed and efficiency by doing striders a few times a week. That is, of course, assuming the runner has been running for a while and has a mileage base. Running without injury is a result of a slow and progressive build-up, not doing too much too soon.
Coach Towle also talked about running economy, which he defined as "the amount of oxygen consumed relative to the runner's body weight and speed which he or she is running." Doing striders or repetitions (usually a little longer than striders but at the same pace) will improve running economy because the runner will focus on proper running form - no unnecessary leg or arm motions - and an increased comfort level at faster speeds. Basically, this is how I define training: Practicing something over and over so that it becomes familiar, and works like a stepping stone on the path to improvement.
Proper running form can be practiced by thinking about CHP - chest, hips, and press. Towle's student athletes recall the acronym by calling it California Highway Patrol. Catchy, I think. 1) To achieve proper chest position, standing tall and relaxed, take a deep breath and hold it. Your chest will expand, shoulders go back, chin down. Now release your breath but maintain the chest position. This is the proper chest position. 2) Touch your hips with your thumbs, finding the hip joint. Now tilt your pelvic bowl up, which flattens your lower back a bit. This is proper hip position, again, while keeping everything else relaxed. 3) The press is the push off from the ground while running. The last thing on the ground should be your big toe. Think about pressing that big toe on your take-off.
Once you have the form down, you can practice improving your stride rate, that is how many strides you take for a set amount of time. Ideally, a runner should take 175 - 200 strides per minute. The higher the number, the more efficient (and likely faster) the runner is. You can practice this by timing yourself for a minute and counting how many times your right foot lands. Double this number and you've got it. If it's low, practice a quicker turn-over or cadence, again with a focus on good form. You will begin to see improvement, and, it won't hurt!
Good luck with it. The racing season is upon us - time to make some strides!