You probably wouldnít believe me if I told you that the best way to learn how to run fast is to first learn how to run slowly. Well, it's true. When Master Xu is teaching me T'ai Chi, he has me do all the movements in a very slow motion. This is because what he's teaching me can be felt more clearly when I'm moving slowly that is, to be balanced, centered, relaxed and feeling all the parts of my body working to create my movement.
I have found this same approach to hold true with teaching running, and here's why. As your speed increases, your movement becomes exaggerated, which on one hand is good: your stride gets longer, your muscles and tendons get a good workout, and best of all, you get to where you're going sooner. But exaggerated movement also has its downside. If there is anything incorrect or inefficient about your stride or your body mechanics, it gets magnified, which can lead to overworking muscles and pulling too hard on things that shouldn't be pulled on. If you push too hard with your legs when you're going at a slow pace, odds are you'll be pushing way too hard when you're running faster. If you're landing hard on your feet at a slow pace, it's sending a shock to your knees every time you take a stride. As you pick up speed that amount of shock will increase. So, if running faster is your goal, it's a good idea to have your biomechanics pretty on target or you could be unknowingly setting yourself up for an injury.
One of the best ways around this is to work on your running form at the slower speeds. When you run slowly, (jogging speed 12 minutes/mile or slower) it allows you more time to watch yourself while running. It's easier to sense all the tiny nuances of your running form to tell if your posture is straight or if you're relaxing your hips and ankles. You can more easily sense your center of gravity moving along the road or trail, or maybe that ever-present tension in your shoulders. Time expands when you run slowly allowing for spaciousness in your thoughts and observations. It challenges your ego to surrender to another call that of correctness of movement instead of the exhilaration of having the wind in your face. Donít worry, thereíll always be time for that especially when your running form becomes smooth and clean because you're so relaxed and fluid in your movement.
Running more slowly than you're used to may not be easy at first. It can be hard to "shrink" your stride down to a minimal length without having your muscles tighten up a bit. It might feel awkward at first because you're so used to running in a bigger way.
Here's how to do it:
Get into your best posture, lean forward and keep a very, very short stride. The key to running at a slower pace, especially if you're used to running at faster speeds, is to run with a very short stride. You can't force yourself to run "small" just relax into a place of what feels like minimal effort, where you're moving your arms and legs, yet your muscles are very relaxed. You will be leaning, but much less than at faster speeds. You'll be swinging your arms, but in a much smaller arc.
I suggest that you consider the benefits of having at least one run per week or at least the first 10 minutes of every run, be at a slow pace and here are a few things to think about and work with while youíre moseying along at the speed of life.
Watch your posture
Are you bent at the waist? Do you lean back when you run? If so, straighten yourself up so that your feet are landing at the bottom of an imaginary line that runs through your shoulder, your hipbone and your ankle. If your foot is landing in front of you, youíll be sending impact to your knees as you pick up your speed. Be sure you're posture is slightly tilted forward from the ankles.
Watch your cadence
You should be taking approximately 85-90 strides per minute with each leg. If your cadence is a lot slower than that, your stride is probably too long and you could be overworking your leg muscles. That's because they'll be supporting your body weight for a longer period during each foot-plant, thus increasing the work of your quads.
Watch your armswing
Don't let your hands fall below your waistline or it will slow down your cadence and increase the work to your shoulders (see above). A minimal armswing will help you run with a shorter stride and a slower pace.
Watch your foot strike
Are you landing on your heels? If you are, you're stopping your forward momentum each time your foot touches the ground. You're basically putting on the brakes with each step. How efficient is that? Let your foot strike at the bottom of your posture line, not in front of it. Your entire lower leg should be relaxed during all phases of your stride and you should be hitting the ground on your mid-foot.
Watch your shoulders
Relax, relax, relax those shoulders. Check in every 5 minutes if you need to, but constantly remind yourself to drop your shoulders while swinging your arms. It helps if you put the focus on your elbows when you swing your arms. Imagine that they are at the bottom of a pendulum and your shoulders are the fulcrums. At least once per mile, while you're running, let your arms dangle at your sides and you'll be teaching your shoulders to let go of tension while you run.
Take in your surroundings
Let your eyes wander and your heart open. Take the time to appreciate being outside and taking in the beauty around you. Breathe in the day and fill your chest with fresh air before thinking about how far or how fast you want to run.
There are limitless things to observe and work on while running, but this list should get you off to a great start. Remember to start every run SLOWLY, with a very easy, short stride. Think of the first part of your runs as a relaxation exercise time to let go of any tension and tightness you sense in your body. As you gradually get farther into your run, relax your hips and legs and then instate one or more of the focuses mentioned above.
For some of you speed-demons out there, running slowly might be a challenge. But if you can run relaxed at a slow pace, you can then bring that feeling into your stride as you increase your speed later in the run. The goal isn't to run slowly, it's to run efficiently, smoothly, and relaxed at any speed. And where you learn it best is during moderate movement. Running fast can be fun, but running at any speed, especially when you know that it isnít hurting your body, is what's most important.