Every country, race, and culture participate in sports. Some are more popular than others. In the United States, football is highly celebrated, yet the sport is near non-existent in the rest of the world. Baseball is only prevalent in the US, eastern Asia, and the Caribbean. In Europe, soccer (or football) is king. Norway has won more gold medals (41) than any other country in the past three Olympics in 2014, 2018, and 2022, despite being a much smaller country than the likes of the U.S., Canada, and Russia. A large part of that is the dominance of ice skate racing sports in the country. Crickett is wildly popular in other parts of the world but not in the United States.
There are many sports in this world with varying popularity in different cultures. There is, however, one sport that universally speaks to all languages, races, and cultures: running. Every human population has run for sport, recreation, and accomplishing various tasks now and in history. Modern technology has changed much of the current need for running. But for exercise and sport, running will always exist and hold its place in competitive sports.
Humans are uniquely well-equipped for distance running. Compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, humans are slow sprinters, and we are weak in terms of strength and power. But we have amazing endurance. And within the human race, no other people group has dominated distance running than the East Africans. Kenya, in particular, holds by far the most distance-running records of any country. Thus, researchers have often studied Kenyan runners to learn more about human performance.
Research on Running Faster
A study published in 2021 examined a group of elite female Kenyan runners. The researchers wanted to study the data behind their techniques. They examined the intricacies of their gait cycles, step rates, and ground contact time, three significant factors determining running economy. Running economy refers to the efficiency of running. Getting from a starting line to a finish line as quickly as possible is all about who is the most efficient with their energy. Most elite athletes are relatively equal in shape. The winner isn’t necessarily the best conditioned or the strongest one. Those things help, but the most significant determining factor in who wins and loses is who can be the most efficient or economical with their energy.
The researchers’ findings were interesting. They found the stride frequency and length seemed to vary without much consistency. What was consistent, though, was their minimal ground contact time, which makes sense. The moment the foot hits the ground, the body slows down. The trade-off, of course, is the body speeds up with the push-off. The key to running efficiency for these women is minimizing the slowdown phase yet maximizing push-off to speed up.
Ground Contact Time
There is a fine line to walk (or run) regarding ground contact time. A runner wants to maximize the push-off phase of a gait cycle, yet a lot of push-off requires too much time slowing down on the ground. This error is prevalent with “heel strikers” or runners that land too much onto their heels. Too little ground contact time delivers too little push-off, reducing stride length, which can quickly exhaust a runner. This makes running a complicated lesson in physics and biomechanics.
So how can the average runner figure all this out? That stuff is way too complicated. You may ask yourself some questions, but how can we answer them? Questions like: how is my running economy? Do I spend too little or too much time on the ground? These are valid questions. The easy answer can be found elsewhere in the study.
The researchers also found another determining factor in enduring speed. The elite runners all had low “vertical displacement,” meaning they didn’t jump very high from the push-off. Their heads weren’t bouncing up and ground. Just enough elevation to stay afloat, almost like they were gliding.
Fixing the vertical displacement tends to fix the too little or too much ground contact time issue. Running athletes should aim to minimize the elevation changes during their strides. Pretend you are running down a short hallway. Don’t let your head hit a ceiling that’s only 6 inches above your head. The closer to the ground, the better. Just don’t trip. Your running economy should automatically improve.
Practical Applications for Runners
The elite runners of East Africa have set the standards for enduring speeds and running economy. It only makes sense that we should all strive to be the best we can be by imitating the best. Elite runners have shown that they spend minimal time on the ground, yet they never propel too high off the ground.
Anyone aspiring to run better and faster can instantly achieve that with these lessons. First, try to lessen the amount of time spent on the ground. This will force you to run faster. In addition, aim to minimize how much your head bounces. A good trick is to pay attention to your surroundings. If you see a sign ahead, try to read it! If you can’t, even though you could while standing still, you are probably bouncing too high. Or, pretend you are in that short hallway. Aim to be a more horizontal runner, not vertical.
This will force you to run faster. You may find that you fatigue quicker and can’t run as far. Good! You became a faster runner. Now, continue with that practice, and learn to run farther.
The biggest mistake runners make is determining their running distance, then running that distance the best they can. This is an error. Instead, runners should determine their pace or speed first. THEN, find out how far they can go with it. Keep training until you can maintain a good speed for the duration of your race.
Training for a full or half-marathon? Use this strategy. Compete for cross country in high school or college? Use this strategy. Don’t run the distance you want. Train the speed you want until you can endure that pace for the entirety of your upcoming race. And do that by spending minimal amounts of time on the ground, yet not bouncing up and down too much. Don’t worry so much about stride length or frequency. Do it how the best in the world do it, and see if your times improve.
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