The Art and Science of Fitness | The secrets behind running like the wind - Hindustan Times
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The Art and Science of Fitness | The secrets behind running like the wind

Apr 19, 2024 11:47 PM IST

For some running comes naturally, but others struggle at it forever and still can’t get it right. So, how can you "run like the wind"?

“Run like a girl” is often used to suggest poor running form. On the other hand, “run like the wind” is used for fast, effortless running. Is there any truth to the two phrases or is it just a figure of speech? Also, how does one start to run effortlessly?

The trick is to get moving and become your best, better than yesterday. And soon you’ll be “running like the wind”.(Pixabay) PREMIUM
The trick is to get moving and become your best, better than yesterday. And soon you’ll be “running like the wind”.(Pixabay)

The god of speed in Greek mythology, Hermes, is often depicted wearing winged sandals, which helped him to fly and get to his destination quickly. Our own Lord Hanuman, the son of the wind, is known for his flying too, putting Superman to shame. So, whether we look at Eastern or Western culture, flying is associated with moving fast.

Then there is the goddess of running, Atalanta. In Greek mythology, soon after her birth, she was abandoned by her father because he wanted a boy child, not a girl. In her adulthood, she was again found by her father. He wanted to get rid of her as soon as possible, so he decided to get her married. Atalanta just had one condition for her marriage. Her suitor had to beat her in the footrace, and for those who would lose to her, she would kill. Her father chuckled because how could a young woman even think about beating any half-decent fit man? However, as Atalanta could run extremely fast, all her suitors died. Eventually, she fell in love at first sight with Hippomenes and became worried as she would easily outrun her newfound love. As a solution, the goddess of love, Aphrodite gave golden apples to Hippomones to drop at regular intervals which could tempt Atalanta and make her stop to pick them up. The trick worked, allowing Hippomones to beat Atalanta and they ended up marrying each other.

So the next time someone teases another by saying “You run like a girl”, remember the woman who could “run like the wind”.

If we were to see Atalanta run today, it would probably be an evolved version of how the elite runners run today, who appear to be floating, their feet barely touching the ground while they run. Good runners tend to spend less time on the ground, and more time being airborne. The time that either of their feet is in contact with the ground while running is called Ground Contact Time (GCT). It starts from the time the foot strikes the ground (foot strike), then balances on the foot (stance) and finally just before taking it off the ground (toe-off). It is measured in milliseconds.

Now, GCT can be measured using a force plate treadmill, slow motion video analysis and sensors in insoles, which most of us don’t bother getting done because of the expense or accessibility. Also, most have no clue what to make of it.

Sprinters tend to have the lowest GCT, i.e. less than 100 ms. At maximum velocity, Usain Bolt’s contact time was 86 ms. Elite marathoners would have under 210. Eliud Kipchoge’s GCT was 155 ms. If you have about 210-240, you are doing good. But if your GCT is above that, you can further improve your running.

Does that mean a high jumper will automatically be a good runner? Does the same apply to the Kenyan Maasai warrior tribals who in their adumu (jumping dance) jump surprisingly high? Being vertically airborne isn’t enough, after all, running is about moving forward, so there needs to be that fine balance between being off the ground and moving forward during that time. To move forward, your arms, spine, hips, knees and feet need to work in sync, something covered at length in the piece earlier this month.

The mistake that most people make is that to cover the distance they try to take long strides. This leads to longer than optimal GCT and landing too heavily on the feet. You then have to make a lot of effort to raise your foot and thigh off the ground, against the effect of gravity. Also, the next step doesn’t come naturally. This not only makes running more strenuous but also is a major reason for most running injuries.

Instead of longer strides, we should work on a higher number of strides per minute, also known as cadence. For that, we need to get our hips to move backwards and the forward motion will be natural. Most of us are stiff with our hips moving back. For this, you can do donkey-kick exercises, i.e. stand facing a wall, bend one knee, your sole being vertical to the ground, and then push your sole backwards. The same can be done lying on your tummy too. Over some time, your cadence will increase. There isn’t a perfect number, but 170-190 is a good range.

Once you start engaging your hip more while you run, running starts to come more naturally to you. This will already reduce your GCT. But there is no point if we focus on lesser GCT, without the foot and the ankle having enough force to propel your body up and forwards. For this, you need to be doing a few exercises.

Toe Curls: Take off your shoes and socks. Put a towel or a piece of paper on the ground. Put one foot over it. Now try curling up the towel or paper with your toes. Do at least 11 times with both feet. Move slowly. This could be done while sitting or standing.

Toe Curl Walk: Again, with your shoes and socks off, place your foot flat on the ground. Now focusing on one foot, only curling your toes, slide your foot forwards. Do it 11 times with each foot, slowly. This could become a habit each time before you put on your shoes when you’re going out for running, or even for work.

Both Legs Heel Raises: Stand tall as if being pulled up like a puppet. Slowly, over four seconds, raise your heels off the ground, hold for two seconds and then slowly, again over four seconds, come down. Do 11 or more repetitions before going out for a run.

Single Legs Heel Raises: When you run, unlike a kangaroo, you are on one leg at a time, so this exercise becomes important for optimal injury-free running, and reducing your GCT. Stabilise yourself by holding on to a wall, railing, chair etc. Bend one knee and now do heel raises as mentioned above.

Bent Knee Single Leg Heel Raises: Most people who do heel raises, do the versions mentioned above, but forget this important variation. When you run, and your foot is about to take off the ground, your knee isn’t straight, it’s bent. This engages a different calf muscle as compared to when the knee is straight. To work on that muscle, we need to be doing heel raises with the knee bent. The leg that you are standing on needs to have the knee bent and then do the single leg heel raises as mentioned above.

Skipping: This can be done with or without a skipping rope. Whether you are going out to run or not, do it for 2-3 minutes every day. Focus on landing softly while maintaining a tall posture. This is a good warm-up for a run, exercise session or any sport.

More than the numbers, go by the feel. No matter how much development has happened on the Artificial Intelligence front, what you can “sense” is any day better than all the gadgets we have become slaves to. To become a better runner, you need to run consistently. Regular slow and short runs are far more important than fast or long runs. When you run, let go of all that stress, release your shoulders, have a soft grip and breathe in and out slowly.

The trick is to get moving and become your best, better than yesterday. And soon you’ll be “running like the wind”.

Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal.

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