Would You Like To Run Like a Kid, Again?

I spend a lot of time watching kids run. It gives me pleasure, but as a running coach I also learn a lot.

When I coach running, I often start by reminding my adult clients that we all used to run PERFECTLY. We were all actually amazing runners! I see the surprised look on their faces and so I explain a bit more about why I say this.

Have you ever watched a kid at play? They’re running all over the place purely for the fun of it. They’ve never had any instruction on how to run, and yet they cover a lot of ground, seemingly with no effort. They’re simply doing what comes naturally and loving every minute of it.

Over the years I’ve worked a lot with young kids and watched them run. I’ve even see them run a 5K fairly easily and with surprisingly good technique.

I’m also an advocate of the theory: We were all born to run.

But here’s what interesting.

By the time we become adults and start thinking of running as a sport rather than as play, it becomes hard work and we often need coaches to analyze and correct our technique.

But actually, running is pretty basic: you put one foot in front of the other. Right?

But some people are able to accomplish this with relative ease while running a 4- or 5-minute mile, while others seem to work harder and take considerably longer to cover that same mile.

Whether you’re a natural runner like a Kenyan marathoner or built more for wrestling, there are things to understand about running that will help you develop a better running technique and then, perhaps you’ll be able to put some of the joy you felt as a kid back into running.

There are three things that affect your running performance and efficiency:

  1. Turnover rate (how often your feet hit the ground)
  2. Stride length (the distance covered between each step)
  3. Ground contact time (time each foot spends on the ground versus in the air)

Turnover Rate

The optimal turnover rate is generally accepted to be around 80-90 steps per minute for each foot or 180 if counting both feet. Some runners do this naturally but if you’re not one of them, here are a couple of drills to help.

  • Visualize the ground as hot coals. To get through them, you dance along (like a kid), lifting each foot the instant it hits the hot embers. This drill forces you to pick your feet up quickly, which results in a higher turnover rate.
  • Get in the habit of counting your steps. Glance at your watch and note the seconds. Then count 90 steps and look at your watch again. The seconds should be the same as when you started counting. Some folks suggest doing this for only 10 seconds and multiplying by 6, but I think it’s more effective to do it for the entire minute.
  • Use a metronome. This is the most effective method. If you don’t know what a metronome is, look at one here.

Stride Length

We want to have the longest stride length possible without overstriding, i.e., stepping too far ahead of your body, which essentially puts on the brakes with every step and puts undue stress on your hips.

This is easier to talk about and a bit harder to actually accomplish.

How do you figure out your appropriate stride length? Your hip should be directly over your foot when it strikes the ground. But this is a difficult concept to visualize.

One method is to monitor stride length with turnover rate. On neutral terrain, run normally. If you’re overstriding, you’ll be unable to keep a turnover of 80-90 per minute and, if understriding, you’ll be doing more than the prescribed 80-90. This exercise is very instructive and demonstrates your optimal stride length to properly align your feet and hips.

The above exercise is done on flat ground, but runs frequently involve a variety of terrain. The key is to maintain the turnover rate of 80-90 throughout your run while adjusting the stride length for uphill and downhill. For example: When you’re running a steep hill, adjust with smaller strides (even using baby steps for extremely steep hills) and stretch out your stride again when you reach the top and start down, all the while keeping the turnover rate steady at between 80-90.

Ground Contact Time

This third factor in your running performance is actually a component of both stride length and turnover rate. Maintaining a consistently high turnover rate while maximizing your stride length and minimizing your time on the ground is the ULTIMATE goal.

Consider this rather funny point. The most efficient way to run would be to always be in the air. Stepping down on the ground causes friction which slows you down. Obviously, no one can run entirely off the ground, but the goal is to spend as much time there as possible.

You may have noticed that photos of elite runners (and kids!), nearly always catch them with both feet off the ground, whereas photos of amateur runners frequently show the runner with one foot firmly planted on the ground.

A strong push-off is key. When a runner’s foot hits the pavement, it should be in contact with the ground for only about a tenth of a second. In that short time, the force that produces forward propulsion is transferred through the leg. The heel rises as the runner pushes off the ground, which forces the knee up and creates horizontal motion. This should happen about 80-90 times per minute per foot.

You’re looking to optimize the vertical and horizontal components of the stride: Too much horizontal movement and you won’t get off the ground enough to optimize your stride length; Too much vertical movement will leave you bouncing along with a very short, ineffective stride length. A useful tool to measure this is looking at the horizon. It should bounce, but only a little.

Although those are the basics to a better run, there are several other things that can have an effect on your running performance as well.

The Mind Game

Running well takes not only physical efficiency but great mental strength and focus.

Those who are not natural runners, and I consider myself in this group, can go a long way in overcoming this challenge by working on their ability to maintain focus and stay committed to their run training.

Is there a way to build these mental skills? I believe there is. I talk a lot more about this during the running workshops I offer.

The Golden Nugget we need to understand is…………

Perhaps the secret that makes kids natural runners is that they don’t have any reason to be stressed about it. They are naturally relaxed and that’s the key to running well. You can do the same if you get your head out of the way and let your body move as it knows how to do.

I use a mental check-list to relax my body, which starts at the head and works down towards my feet:

  • Chin up; jaw relaxed
  • Shoulders relaxed, not hunched up
  • Standing tall
  • Arms swinging forward; not across my body
  • Hands loose; not clenched (Could I be holding potato chips without crushing them?)
  • Stride rate where I want it
  • Nice light feet

Find your own method for getting into relaxation mode and you’ll be amazed how your run instantly becomes easier and faster.

Here are some random thoughts we go over during my Running Made Easy workshops:

  • Think light feet. Listen as your feet hit the ground. You’d like to be a silent runner, your feet barely touching down.
  • Avoid striking down with your heel. Each time you do that, you essentially hit the brakes. Aim to hit the ground mid-foot.
  • Your hips and core are key in running. Keep these areas strong and flexible.
  • Always run as if someone is watching you.
  • There is practically no running injury that can be cured by running through it. Catch it quickly and stay fit with cross-training while you solve the problem.
  • Fluids are vital. Never run over 30 minutes without water or an electrolyte drink.

I’m pretty certain that running will always come easier to some than others. But everyone can improve his/her run if committed to doing so. The key requirements – good efficient technique, a strong head and a committed heart – are things that all of us can develop.

Though we may never be kids again, we don’t have to stop trying to run like one!