How to Become an Efficient (and Fast!) Runner

Whether it is your first 10k, faster 21k or an ultra adventure, the key to your success in endurance training and racing is not simply adding more miles.  Nope.  The key, to moving faster and further without as much fatigue is training your body to become:




adjective: efficient

(especially of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.

That 'system or machine' is your body, 'maximum productivity' is your pace and 'wasted effort' is your work output.  Smart endurance training is focused on transforming the body into an efficient, economical machine with the goal of travelling further and faster without as much effort.  Smart training is simple, requires little to no equipment and yields massive results in exchange for a little time. Yet the majority of athletes spend pretty much 0% of their training hours working on efficiency training, convinced that the only way to improve is to add more miles and more hours to their weekly schedule.  Break away from old habits and expand your potential by embracing smart training this year.  Once you experience the wonderful sensation of moving with less effort, you will never again underestimate the power of efficiency. 

Whether your sport is running, cycling, skiing, swimming, hiking or anything in between, there are skills, drills and techniques that can (and will) improve your performance.  Any skill based sport includes training time for technique - skills and drills.  So why do runners think they don't need to do the same?  Many people believe that running doesn't require any skill.  HA!  I'm here to tell you that just aint so.  Running (like all movement based activities) is made up of a series of skills.  And just because you can do it, doesn't mean you are doing it efficiently.  

Let's compare running to swimming for a moment.  A few years ago I learned how to swim for the first time, as an adult.  I showed up at my lesson, jumped in the pool and nearly created a tidal wave with my terrible, inefficient, novice technique.  I used up so much energy (trying to survive) that my heart rate went through the roof and I was quickly exhausted.  I had to hold onto the side of the pool half way down the lane because I was so out of breathe!  So what do you think the coach did with me?  Do you think she said:  "Let's add some more laps of that.  Let's see more of that terrible technique!  You should swim like that 5 days per week."    Eeeesh!  I would have drowned, quit or gotten injured trying to make a go of it.  Nope. Of course she didn't say any of those things.  She identified my inefficient movements and helped me correct my technique with skills, drills and video analysis.  It took time, 4 months.  It took consistency, 2-3 days per week.  But I learned to swim and completed my first triathlon that spring:).  
And so...stop flailing around in the pool, trying to get faster by doing more laps of inefficient technique!  You get what you train and if you have inefficiencies (AKA energy leaks) you are only making them stronger by adding more miles and more time to your runs.  Let's change that;) 

Exercises To Improve Running Efficiency

Get Smart with Technique Training 

Efficient technique, is one that allows you to propel yourself forward with less energy.  It is smoother, more co-ordinated and with less wasted movements.  Regardless of the activity, when we move efficiently, we move faster without using as much energy- and as a result we experience less fatigue.  There is no perfect running technique.  But there are some key movement patterns that have been shown to decrease energy expenditure and improve running economy.  Some aspects of technique can be improved DURING your runs, but others must be addressed outside of your runs (ie corrective exercises for muscular imbalances).  Get started this week with one (or all!) of these simple but very effective exercises.  Remember...perfect practice makes perfect. You must complete the techniques frequently, over the long term and correctly to see the results you seek.  But- the great news is, the changes are permanent and you can maintain them simply by practicing your new, efficient technique!  Give your body a chance to adapt...stick with it! 

1. 170-190 steps per minute cadence.
  Recent research shows that endurance runners (that's you, unless you are a sprinter) decrease vertical loading force and up and down movement when they run with a cadence anywhere between 170-190spm.  If you don't change anything else, just do this one thing.  Get a metronome app on your phone and teach yourself to run to the beat of 170spm or more.  It will completely transform your running.  Nail this first, before you worry about anything else.  It is a very powerful technique.  New runners tend to run at a much slower cadence, keeping their feet on the ground much longer and increasing the load on their bodies.  A significantly longer 'ground contact time' creates a huge energy suck, as the body spends more energy moving up and down and absorbs more force than necessary.  

2.  Relax.  Relax your hands, shake out your arms, drop your shoulders, smooth out your face and stop doing that death grip thing when you are running.  Relax the muscles you don't need for running and save that energy for the muscles that need it!  More relaxed runners are more efficient runners.  Practice taking nice long exhalations, shake out your arms and think 'relaxed' effort during your runs.  Watch that speed increase;).

3.  Forward Motion. Our goal is to travel forward when we run, and excessive rotation of the torso and arms can work against us.  Practice swinging your arms forward and back, as if on hinges, relaxed but focused on driving the elbows back.  Channel your energy forward and save the side to side work for speed skating.  For some people, the forward and backward arm swing is very challenging and cannot simply be changed during a run.  If you work on a computer or with your arms out front for the majority of your day, you will develop muscular imbalances that change your posture and encourage cross body arm swings and torso rotation.  This is where corrective exercise comes in to play- you need to strengthen the upper back and lengthen the short, tight muscles of the chest and shoulders.

4.  Run like a Ninja.  Rather than tell you how to place your feet on the ground or what part of the foot to land on, I will simply tell you to 'run like a ninja'.  The key to efficient running technique is decreasing the impact and staying light on our feet.  Ninja's are stealth, smooth and very quiet.  That is your goal as an efficient runner. Imagine sneaking quietly through the house...and trying not to wake anyone up.  Light and quiet.  The best way to learn to run like a ninja is to take off your shoes...  Yup.  Read on. 

5. Go Barefoot.  No, not all the time, people!  Just for your drills lol.  Running barefoot is a game changer for many people in the running technique department.  Shoes (especially the ones with big, fat squishy, cushy, high heeled out soles) interfere with our bodies proprioceptive feedback- we can't feel the ground or the impact of our foot strikes with a thick layer of squish between our feet and the ground.  Research shows that even though we cannot feel the impact when we wear thick cushioned shoes, it is still there...AND... the impact is actually greater than it is when we run in less cushioned shoes (to a point)!  Once we remove our shoes (or run in a more minimally cushioned shoe that allows us to feel the ground) our brain immediately tells our body to run with a more 'biomechanically protective' technique- because it hurts, otherwise.  

Here is your homework for this one:  During 1-3 runs this week, jog down to your local track or tennis court (clean, hard surface) then take off your shoes and socks and run for a minute or two.  You don't want to do too much more than that, otherwise your feet will take a beating.  You can build up to 5 minutes or even longer, if you are on a softer surface for your feet, such as a grass field.  The goal is not to become a barefoot runner (unless that is your thing, of course;).  The goal is to learn how your body would run naturally, that is, without shoes...and then work on replicating that in your favourite sneaks.  If there are changes to be made,  your body will modify your technique pretty quickly, in order to protect you from excessive impact (aka pain).  A small number of people may not have the level of proprioceptive feedback to notice the impact while running barefoot.  If you are still landing heavy during this drill, then please run 'like a ninja' in this case, to avoid destroying your feet!  The most common changes that people notice with this drill are: higher cadence, lighter / quieter foot strikes, weight shifted forward under the foot, elimination of excessive heel striking, less up and down movement (bouncing).  All of these changes are considered biomechanically protective behaviors - and they will improve your running economy while decreasing the load you are placing on your body.  Cool stuff!  

6.  Do your ABC's.  Improve your co-ordination (get smooth) by breaking down and practicing specific phases of your running.  Once you break down your technique, you will notice the less co-ordinated aspects of your running gait- they will feel twitchy, clunky, heavy, 'dumb' or just plain unco-ordinated!  Practice your ABC's during a few runs each and every week, as part of your warm up.  Start slowly, until you develop smooth technique so that your body can learn the correct patterns first.  Speed will come! Work at a pace that allows for excellent technique- you get what you practice;)  

Review the A's (All Drives), B's (Don't Kick Your Butt, Kicks) and C's (Circle Drills) with a video and step by step instructions, right here.

7.  Train Your Power Points.  Have you heard of the 4 Power Points AKA 4 Drives?  If not, you are missing out on some serious power!  The 4 Drives are key movements that power our bodies forward while we are running.  Strengthen these drives and you will find yourself running faster without as much fatigue, before you know it.  The 4 Drives are best practiced on a hill as you will be able to connect with them much better, but you can also use them to crank up your pace during speed work and when you need a boost.  These movements TAKE energy, but the body responds to them by rebuilding stronger over time.  Think of these as specific strength training exercises for your running form and practice them in intervals, every time you encounter a hill.  Use one at a time, until you master them all.  And like always, train your weaknesses and race your strengths.

  1. Arm Drive- drive elbow back and down

  2. Push Off- push the earth away with the ball of the foot and leave the ground from tip toe to get full ankle joint extension.

  3. Knee Drive- take the power from the push off and drive the knee forward and upward on the angle of the hill.  Imagine you are 'kicking the butt' of the person in front of you!

  4. Hip Drive - lead with the hips to get full hip extension and tap into the power house of the body your glutes!  Failing to achieve full hip extension is a great loss- lead with the hips and engage those glutes.

8.  Get Stable.  Many runners lose a massive amount of energy to excessive up and down movement as a result of weak pelvic stabilizer muscles.  The typical culprit is weak glute medius muscles which can get lazy in a seated lifestyle.  If you sit at work or school or spend part of your day driving, you are at risk of gluteal amnesia (yah, it's a real thing and I see it every day;). Sitting is very hard on the body.  Sitting for hours every day, stretches out and weakens the glutes while simultaneously shortening the hip flexor muscles in the front of the hip.  Stretching the hip flexors can help, but lasting changes usually only come from strengthening the posterior and lateral muscles of the hip and correcting the imbalance.  Get started with the following stability exercises 3-5 days per week, 10-20 repetitions, 1-3 sets.  Stick with it until you reach the maximum number of reps, then progress to the next level.  Progress through the levels as you are able to master each with good form and a strong glute connection.

Glute Bridge - hip extension. Lie on your back, knees bent, with feet hip width apart and squeeze an imaginary coin between your cheeks and lift your hips up off the floor.  Keep core active, tuck tailbone under at the top and finish with a good glute squeeze.  Do not let hamstrings, quads or your back muscles kick in and take over- stop, breathe and get those glutes back to work.  Lower and repeat.  

  • Level 2: Hold the squeeze for up to 60 seconds.  

  • Level 3: Shift your weight from one leg to the other until you are strong enough to hold all of your weight on one leg without dropping through the pelvis or firing the hamstrings or quads.  

  • Level 4: Go to single leg lefts!  


External Hip Rotation - clamshell.  Lie on your side, with your head, shoulders, hips and feet against a wall, to maintain alignment.  Knee's bent to 90 degrees, head aligned with spine and just enough space for the palm of your hand to fit behind your low back and the wall.  Set your core by activating your low abs and maintain this connection throughout the exercise to prevent your hips and spine from rotating so that you can isolate the hip.  Belly in, squeeze the cheeks and externally rotate the top hip, lifting the knee and opening from the back of the hip, like a hinge.  Rotate the top hip forward slightly to prevent the body from rolling back.  Exhale as you lift and engage the glute...once the lungs are empty, inhale and return to the start.  Reset and repeat!  Try to lock yourself into the postion to make it harder for the hip muscles.  

  • Level 2: Add a light resistance band!  

  • Level 3: Perform seated with band.  

  • Level 4: Progress to dynamic external rotation - lateral band walks, band resisted glute bridges, deadlifts and squats etc.  

  • Join Team ELM Online for full video access!

Hip Abduction - side leg raise.  Same as above- lock your self in by using a wall while you are first learning to isolate and engage the hip muscles.  This time, you are working on the outer hip muscles by lifting a straight leg up - heel sliding up the wall behind you.  Keep that core stable and that space behind your low back small, by engaging the low abdominals.  

  • Level 2: Side Plank position, on elbow, with bottom knee bent.

  • Level 3: Side Plank position with bottom leg straight

  • Level 4: Progress to standing variations- band resisted or cable resisted side leg raises.

  • Join Team ELM Online for full video access!

9.  Get Strong.  There are SO many great strength exercises to build a stronger running body!  Including strength training 2-3 days per week, 5-12 repetitions and 2-3 sets will not only improve your running technique but it will also make you stronger up and down hills and under fatigue, more resilient to overuse injuries, improve your body composition and metabolic rate (hello muscle tone, goodbye body fat), improve your balance and even have a positive effect on your aerobic fitness.  What's not to love?  Choose exercises that are compound and use multiple muscle groups as well as those that get you on one leg and replicating components of the running phases. A routine to get you started is:

  • Box Squat (get low) with Kettlebell or Barbell

  • Pull Ups or Lat Pull Down

  • Walking Lunges with Dumbells

  • Seated Row or Standing Cable Row

  • Deadlift or Single Leg Deadlift with barbell or Kettlebell

  • Overhead shoulder press with dumbells 

  • Ab Roll Out or Hanging Knee Tucks/Toes to the Bar

  • Back Extensions or Supermans  

  • Join Team ELM Online for full video access!

10.  Get Lean. Extra mass can = Extra work.  Carrying significant levels of extra fat increases the oxygen demand on the body.  Read more about the what, why and how of using Nutrition to change your Body Composition here.

11.  Shed Shoe Weight.  Running shoes increase oxygen consumption.  0.7-1% per 100g of weight (that is a lot!)- if you were a 4:15 marathoner that would translate into shaving approximately 15-20 minutes off of your time (minimal vs traditional footwear)!  Heavy running shoes can definitely effect your performance by making you less efficient!  If you have happy feet and calves (no foot or calf injuries) and you want to get faster, run in the lightest shoe that your body feels happy in.  Too minimal and the numbers sway the other way, however, so be sure to test the waters and transition into more minimal footwear slowly and gradually over time to allow your body to adapt and decrease the risk of lower limb injuries.  Read more about the role of footwear in relation to running injuries here.

There are many different ways to improve your efficiency as a runner (and any discipline for that matter!).  The best way to do to DO IT, however!  So, get to work and commit to including at least one or more of these techniques into your running program this week.  You can do it!  Let me know if I can help:)