Pop off the ground to become a faster short-course runner.
Javier Gomez is one of the fastest runners in our sport. His 29:16 10K at the 2012 London Olympic Games, which earned him the Olympic silver medal in the triathlon, was 4:42 minute-per-mile pace after a lung-burning 1.5K swim, two stress-filled transitions and a 40K bike leg with heart rate-spiking surges after every turn. How did he do it? Like many speedy single-sport runners, Gomez maximizes the elastic energy his tendons re-inject into each stride. Every runner benefits from this nearly free energy source, but Gomez does it better than most because of his running style, allowing him to “pop” off the ground like a pogo stick with every foot strike instead of relying on his leg muscles to propel himself forward.
Elastic energy stored in the tendons is the most efficient energy source for a runner, according to running coach Bobby McGee. That’s because muscles burn tons of energy at high running speeds, while the spring-like action of tendons uses considerably less, says McGee, who has examined the differences between the world’s fastest runners and the more pedestrian among us. He says researchers have found that as much as half of the elastic energy in running is stored at mid-stance (when a runner is balancing on one foot) in the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon. So if runners hit the ground with their heels instead of their mid-foot and wear shoes with high heels and lots of support, “much of this elastic capability is lost,” he says.
Granted, not everyone can wear racing flats, and thicker heels and supportive shoes are necessary for many runners to avoid injury. But what if you’re an efficient runner who can use minimal shoes safely, and you want to run the fastest you can in a short-distance triathlon? McGee advises athletes fitting this description to rely more on the elasticity of their tendons by moving to a mid-foot strike (not recommended for the average triathlete, he warns, because changing your running gait can be risky), to wear the least amount of shoe needed for their specific gait and to realize that great power (not strength) is required to pop off the ground like the best runners in the world. “You need to land softly enough to not injure yourself, but hard enough to load so as to be able to bounce,” he says.
McGee tells athletes who show up at USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., that to compete in ITU they need to run this way, and he has them doing drills like the ones at right to facilitate their technique change. But that’s not his advice to long-course athletes. “The fatigue incurred in long-course triathlon makes it all but impossible to run in this fashion,” he says. “If I am able to help long-course athletes with their run mechanically, it is to make them more compact, have a higher turnover, a shorter stride length and a softer foot strike—quite the opposite of what it takes to run low 4:40 pace off the bike.”
While some athletes are born to run, Gomez, who started as a swimmer, “has worked hard on his running,” says McGee, adding that he’s “reduced his dominant heel strike to an incredibly effective foot strike.” That, combined with his high cadence, a great range of motion in his hips and a very stable pelvis (which allows him to generate tremendous power from his glutes) is why Gomez can run so fast at short distances. McGee explains that when the pelvis, knee, ankle and foot are stable and stiff during the impact from a foot strike, they can load and release energy just like the tendons. “The best always make it look easy,” he says.
Prepare your body to pop off the ground efficiently with these drills:
A-Skip: Skip forward with moderate knee lift and a quick push of each foot to the ground. Think about bringing each foot down powerfully so that it bounces off the ground.
Quick Feet: Run in place or slowly forward at a fast cadence, bringing your feet to the ground softly from toe to heel and allowing them to “pop” off the ground (instead of “lifting” your feet).
Hopping: With one leg off the ground and your center of gravity tilted slightly forward, hop lightly forward and backward over a line on the balls of your feet, pushing off the ground as your heels come down. This strengthens your lower legs for a mid-foot strike.
More information on improving your running form and videos on running drills from Bobby McGee can be found at Bobbymcgee.com.