One of the questions I’m most often asked about as a sports coach is on how to become a better runner – fast and injury-free. Fact is, there is no perfect recipe to becoming super human and avoiding the shortcomings in this truly brutal sport, especially when it comes to running longer distance races.
So we hear from top athletes and coaches about various micro tweaks and small gear adjustments that can add up to give you that super human advantage. This post is my own contribution to this topic, but it’s slightly more personal.
This is a list of what truly worked for me and so it might fit some lifestyles and bodies better than others. That said however, I am dead certain that you’ll find at least one useful piece of advice which may just be the one thing that keeps you away from ever greater success.
Without further ado, here goes in no particular order:
The 9 must-haves which transformed how I run:
1. Slant and Wobble Boards
This is leg strengthening at its best.
I first heard about these wonderful tools in ‘Born to Run’ and ‘The Cool Impossible‘ – the quintessential reads for any runner. The authors of both books are well-known advocates of minimal and natural running. Ever tried to transition to minimal running? It’s tough! Especially when you’ve spent years or decades twisting your body mechanics around and into cushioned wear.
To achieve this natural running style, a runner needs to first strengthen their legs, preparing them for a different kind of impact and different shock absorption. This is what slant and wobble boards do best – they help to activate the right muscle groups you’ll need to strengthen for effortless minimal running.
How I use them
Before every run and with the help of two nordic walking sticks, I spend at least 10 minutes statically holding my feet in normal, uphill and downhill conditions. Because of the way the slant board is shaped, you only need one small board to replicate all three of those conditions.
The difference it makes out on the trails is simply amazing! It took only a week to feel a difference in my legs – they felt stronger and I felt ready to tackle the wicked terrain in my zero drop running shoes.
Even if you’re not interested in switching to minimal shoes, don’t write this piece of gear off. These tools can undeniably help you strengthen your legs regardless of your running style. Using these boards is an exercise in itself. It wakes up your glutes and strengthens every other fiber of your leg muscles which is involved in running.
In summary: I feel like flying when I run after using these boards.
2. A Heart Rate Monitor
Do you want to get serious about running? Involve math. Thanks to formulas available online*, it won’t take you more than minutes to figure out the exact zones of heart rate that you should be training in to prepare for a specific race distance.
When I didn’t factor heart rate into my training, I would cash out in the first couple of miles of a sprint and then finish the race struggling with zero gas in the tank. Sound familiar?
What about those times when you don’t push yourself to your real limits because you don’t really know your limits and how intense you should go in order to progress?
Reading your heart rate can answer all of these questions. Before I used miles to define my runs, now they’re all about heart rate. Such a game changer!
*Stay tuned as in the next few weeks we’ll publish an easy-to-follow guide to help you introduce heart rate into your own training. We’ll explain how to calculate your max heart rate and how to use the different heart rate zones in order to simulate the heartbeat rates you’ll have in the different Spartan races: Sprint, Super and Beast. Make sure you’re signed up to our weekly newsletter to hear when this guide is out.
3. A GPS Watch
An absolute must-have for any intermediate to advanced runner.
A good GPS quantifies your performance thus motivating you to improve and helping you dos o. You can’t improve what you can’t measure, right?
We’re not affiliated with this brand, but I currently sport Garmin Fenix 2. It makes me feel like a rockstar out on the trails, because this bad boy has more than enough horsepower (battery life) and accuracy (GPS catch and updates) to satisfy any serious runner. Battery life and accuracy are key qualities to look out for in a GPS watch.
4. Minimal, Low to Zero Drop Shoes
Focusing on and improving your form and biomechanics is a crucial requirement to progress with your running. Especially if you wish to do so injury-free. One of the ways to improve your form is to use low drop or zero drop, minimal shoes. They were the norm before the rise of advertising and people’s aspirations to a comfortable lifestyle.
The use of cushioned shoes is a vicious cycle because they weaken your natural arch support – as cushioned parts replace it’s role, the arch almost atrophies and gets weaker. This is why it’s so tough to wean off cushioned and get back to the flat shoes our toddler feet were used to. Aside from the physical pain, there’s a psychological burden too as you’d need to miss training sessions.
It took me a good few months to strengthen my feet and Achilles. It was like starting to run after a good quarter of a century spent on a couch, where I had to teach myself to engage glutes and leg muscles by almost skipping mile after mile after mile. This is the natural running style that’s opposite to the all-to-common heel-striker style, created by cushioned shoes which tends to bash the crap out of your knees.
If you often suffer knee pain and IT band issues, your running form is most likely bad. Lots of sitting and highly cushioned, high-drop shoes will do that to you.
Since transitioning to minimal running, I run faster than ever. I’ve taken 2 mins off what was my 3-mile PR before zero drop shoes.
5. A Foam Roller and/or Car Polisher aka Buffer
If you’re not already getting up close and personal with a foam roller, you should start doing, especially if you want to recover quickly. Muscle knots and painful tightness just doesn’t stand a chance against these tools promoting myofascial release. You can think of a foam roller as a portable sports massage tool that’s accessible to anyone at a fraction of the price of sports massage.
We’ve already published a post where we compare the use of a foam roller and a buffer, going into depth on all their best qualities. To summarise my routine here – I usually buffer first then foam roll, at least a couple of times a week before sleep or yoga. Before running, I also tend to buffer especially the top of the muscle groups involved in running. This serves as a great warm-up to get the blood flowing.
Trust me, as weird as it sounds, using a buffer before running will change how run, especially if you aren’t too keen on a proper warm-up routine.
6. Electrolyte Tabs
We’ve written lots about fueling up for longer distance races, and electrolyte tabs were always top of the list. These not only replenish the electrolytes lost during and immediately after a run, but they work great when taken before a run too. Just like one of the well-known OCR hydration supplements, Oral IV (no affiliation with us), electrolyte tabs allow you to run for longer without feeling thirsty. Another big advantage of using these is the lack of unexpected and unwanted cramps.
My personal go-to electrolyte tabs are usually Nuun or Zero (again no affiliation). Since they dissolve in just a minute, I drink usually half of a bottle right before I go for a run and drink the rest once I’m back.
Hydrating with these tabs helped me increase my usual long distance runs by almost a third. There is no thirst to suffer through, and thanks to their clean ingredients no sudden energy crash or impaired motor skills. This seems to be a fool-proof supplement for runners.
7. Compression Gear
“Welcome to the circus”, as I like to exclaim every time I pull on the spandex-like compression tights like an acrobat.
Fashion sense aside, good compression gear helps not only to improve your run but it also aids recovery. Enhanced blood and fluid circulation and pressure allows for better swelling control.
Personally, compression gear is a go-to item for me especially for races run in the colder months of the year. Depending on the type and quality of compression gear, it will tend to dry quickly and won’t cause discomfort. Running in compression gear that fits well just feels so satisfying.
8. A Runner’s Fanny Pack/Belt
My partner in crime and other Gritcamp editor Helena likes to make fun of almost all of the gear on this list – especially the runner’s belt. Back in the day I too thought that compression gear and fanny packs weren’t macho enough. This all changed recently.
In one of the OCR communities on Facebook, I bumped into a very specific type of runners belt. It’s a belt that doesn’t move or bounce while you run, and it’s very stretchy so it fits around whatever you want to put in it. It’s obvious how it can help your running performance – no more annoyance over the slipping armband for your iPod or pockets full of shingly keys.
There are multiple brands for these kind of belts, and we are not affiliated with any of them, however a quick search on amazon or ebay will bring you multiple results. Just look for the ones which expand and can contain relatively large objects without bouncing.
In a race, I’ll make sure to include my previously discussed hermetic pocket to make the contents of my belt waterproof.
9. Kinesiology Tape
I have a long history of cases of crossfit-done-wrong and crossfit-done-too-much. I experienced shoulder dislocations, muscle ruptures and various other injuries. To recover from these injuries and increase my confidence in getting back on track, I’d always tape the injured area to partially restrict movement – just in case. This is exactly how you can use kinetic tape in running.
Those of my clients prone to IT band issues are always recommended to place kinetic tape to the insertion points for add additional support. Others have varicose veins, which tend to get painful after long and strenuous activities. Another group of people I was part of myself struggle with knee pain. Taping tissues around the knee cap generally would not fix the underlying problems or the source of the issue (often cushioned shoes), but it does add some support. Most of all, knowing that you have this tape on can be a morale and confidence enhancer.
Of course, kinetic tape should never be used to deal with bad form or to make up for a lack of prep for the impact of running on the body. However, it can be a life-saver when you know that a body part could start hurting at mile 12 of a half-marathon Tough Mudder…
The most important thing when you’re trying to improve your running is to not be impatient. For me, it’s been years of experimenting, suffering through injuries and figuring out how biomechanics work. It took me exactly 9 years of regular running to fully understand the triggers and boosters that work for me. Start off by trying just one or two from this list to see if they work for you. And, do let us know if it helps!