How to Customize Your Running Workout and Get in Great Shape

Some tips to bring your running workout out of the rut and into the fast lane. Stretches, drills, and workout ideas to improve your speed.

Running is a popular sport that is easy to see improvements in if effort is applied to the right areas. Both men and women can use running as an important part of a fitness plan. What gets people hooked on running is the initial gains in speed usually seen by those who haven't been exercising in a while, or are new to the sport. By the same token, running can be difficult to improve in speed after the initial weeks or months of getting back in shape. There are, however, simple drills that everyone is capable of doing which are great for improving speed, form, and power.

Believe it or not, the first goal is to establish a journal. If you want to get in better shape, you must first establish how fast you are. You also need to figure out how fast you want to be, and writing these things down in a journal is helpful to keep you on track on a daily basis. It isn't necessary to check your speed over a given distance every day, but if you track it once a week or so, you will probably get appropriate feedback. Also, in this journal, you can write down race times, which are the truest indication of your level of physical shape. Races are fun, and improvement in these undoubtedly indicates that you are getting in better shape!

So how do you improve your running? No matter your level of fitness, if you typically do your running alone, then you probably don't stretch or warm up enough. I am frequently guilty of this. Stretching and warming up performs several vital functions. It decreases the likelihood of injury, it burns some more calories, and it improves flexibility and blood flow, two things which will make your run more energizing and faster. Obviously, running stretches are going to focus mostly on your legs, but you should not neglect your abdominal, back, or shoulder muscles either.

Some key stretches and muscles groups are:

The quadriceps stretch: your thighs are one of the most important running muscles. To perform this stretch, hold the ankle of your left foot with your right hand, and vice-versa. Then, pull the ankle of that leg up behind the small of your back until you can feel a good stretch. DO NOT perform this stretch by pulling on your toe! I had a bad habit of doing this, and what happens when you do this is you loosen up the tendons and ligaments in your ankle and make it more prone to being rolled and sprained. Your ankle is one area of your body that doesn't need to be stretched. With any stretch, you should try to hold the stretch 10-15 seconds and repeat if necessary.

The hamstring stretch: There are various positions for stretching this muscle. Alone, your best bet is to keep your feet together and reach for your toes (keeping your knees straight).You can also repeat the same position sitting on the ground. This helps the back, too.

The calf stretch: find a step or curb to press your foot down on, or place your hands on the ground and push back onto one leg.

The groin stretch: these muscles are frequently neglected until they're pulled. To avoid that, sit on the ground and place the bottoms of your feet together. Men, you'll probably already be feeling a stretch. But for the women and those who don't, you can hold your feet and press your knees with your elbows. Try sliding forward until you are nearly sitting on your feet if you still don't feel much stretch.

There are many other stretches that focus on various muscle groups. I have hit the ones indispensible for running. Stretches should be performed after your warmup and after your cool down.

If you have been running for some time, you will quickly find that improvement is not coming as easily as it was. Your body is getting used to the exercise--so change it up! There are two types of running muscles: fast twitch and slow twitch. Fast twitch muscles are explosive and responsive, while slow twitch muscles are the dependable, repetitive ones. You need both to run, but the fast twitch muscles are easier to ignore. These are the muscles which you will need to use if you want to build speed.

There are several ways to build speed. First, if you are exercising alone, then you are probably going out for a nice long run every day or every other day. Nice long runs will only work the slow twitch muscles. This is important for building a base, but you need to mix some fast-twitch workouts in to become faster. The simplest way to do this is what we refer to in the military as 60-120's. The idea is to sprint for 60 seconds, then jog for 120. By doing this, you can work on speed and endurance simultaneously. You can also simply do quarter mile repeats if you have a track. You should be shooting for a time goal for the repeats that is significantly faster than your race pace. For example, if you can run a 5K at 8:00 per mile (2:00 per quarter), then you should be trying to run your repeats at 1:40 per quarter or better. Speed workouts are strenuous and effective, and they usually only need to be performed once or twice per week.

The final thing mostly often neglected by runners is drills. These are easy to do in a team environment, but like stretching and warming up, they take time that you may not want to spend alone in the dark, cold, or heat. The purpose of drills is to isolate various parts of the running stride and improve its speed, power, and efficiency. Pick out a distance of 20-40 yards to perform these exercises in. Here are some simple ones:

High knees: These increase your speed. Bring your knees as high as possible as rapidly as possible. You might feel ridiculous, but if you are performing it correctly, your legs should feel like pistons pumping up and down.

Butt kicks: You guessed it--the key of this exercise is to kick your own butt. Try to keep your knees still while literally bringing your feet up to your butt and kicking it if possible. Like high knees, this exercise should be done as quickly as possible.

Lunges: These exercises are for strength and stride length, not speed. Start from a standing position, extend your leg out, and hold up the opposite arm at 90 degrees (for balance and form). Reach your leg as far as possible, then lunge down until just before your knee touches the ground. DO NOT TOUCH THE GROUND! Push back up to standing position, then bring the other leg forward and continue lunging. If you aren't used to it, you will probably be sore the next day.

All of these things are much easier to do in a team environment, so find a team! Running clubs are everywhere, and races are a great place to link up with running friends. Running with people is more motivating and safer. If you have any running questions, whether about a specific exercise, injury, technique or anything, post them to this article and i will answer them with more for you! And remember, don't make radical changes in your workouts immediately. Build up slowly and don't be afraid to back off a little if things don't feel right. Being cautious is less of a setback than being injured.

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