Last Sunday, E and I attended an all-day running workshop that my coach, Sam Murphy, held at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in South London. I had been in contact with Sam over email for many months, but it had been quite some time since she had seen me run. I thought it would be the perfect time to check my progress, and in particular my technique, as I launch into my next marathon training cycle. I also figured it would be a great opportunity to observe her in action, given that I admire her coaching style and will soon be a coach myself! Lastly, I was excited for E to work with Sam – he had only met her briefly before one of my sessions, and I knew that he would benefit from her feedback.
The title of the workshop was Running Well, which also happens to be that of one of Sam’s books. Principal topics of the day, which was divided between classroom presentations/discussions and outdoor practical sessions, included technique, injury prevention, drills/warm-ups, running-specific strength exercises, different types of runs, how to structure a training program and stretching, among other things.
Given my previous coaching sessions with Sam, and the fact that the workshop would surely be geared towards runners of varying levels and experience, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when E and I arrived at 9:45am. Additionally, Sunday was predicted to be one of the hottest days of the year (and it certainly was) – not ideal for either spending time in a classroom or performing various running activities in a crowded park, including a mid-afternoon threshold interval session! However, we survived, and everything Sam covered turned out to be extremely relevant and useful, in addition to being presented in an interesting and fun way. E and I left at 4:30pm feeling wiped out, but enlightened and pleased we attended!
Our group consisted of 15 runners, myself included – a good size! Sam obviously led the workshop, but her husband Jeff, a lovely guy who also happens to run a 2:29 marathon (!!), as well as another coach named Suzy helped her throughout the day. Having, effectively, three coaches was awesome and in my opinion, a huge selling point of this workshop. Not only did it help Sam lead the group more professionally and efficiently, but it was great to have the additional support and feedback to ensure that each of us received a substantial amount of personal attention within the larger group setting. So – £55 for a six-hour workshop with three coaches? Not bad at all.
Sam kicked off the day with a video analysis – each of us had to run for a short distance at a normal pace while she recorded it with a camcorder. She would later play back and analyze each person’s recording frame by frame, together with a second video taken later that morning. She had done a video analysis with me about a year earlier in a one-to-one session – it can be shocking to see yourself run, particularly for the first time, but is crucial to becoming more aware of your technique and discovering what you need to improve. It’s quite common to think you’re doing something a certain way when in fact you’re doing quite the opposite!
For example, E and I both thought we had moved away from heel striking, but then later saw clear evidence that we had not. Even worse, we were overstriding – our feet were landing in front of rather than directly below our bodies. E seemed pretty surprised – he insisted he had corrected this after completing a series of sessions last year with some running specialists who focus on biomechanics (recommended by Sam, in fact). I think it’s quite easy to slip back into old habits, though – it can take awhile to retrain your body! For me, I had a feeling before watching the video that I hadn’t fixed my heel strike, but I really thought I had improved my stride/foot placement! Sigh. At least Sam confirmed that the rest of my technique was looking great, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that my kick is actually relatively high. I always feel like my heels hardly leave the ground, compared to other runners I observe.
We moved into the classroom around 10am. After introductions, Sam addressed in detail how to warm up properly before a run and why this is important, as well as how to instill good technique (as well as what defines good technique) by performing a variety of specific drills. Sam had taught me some of these before, but they have been missing from my routine for quite some time, so it was good to jog my memory as well as learn some new drills. Hopefully those images of my feet landing way too far forward will make me more disciplined about incorporating drills into my training on a more regular basis.
Our classroom time was followed by our first outdoor session, which gave us an opportunity to put what we had just learned into practice under our coaches’ watchful eyes. It was only 11am, but already the temperature was very uncomfortable – we were sweating buckets after a simple warm-up!
The hour covered technique drills, which included (just to name a few, and including language borrowed from Sam’s handouts) things like jogging to a metronome to encourage a higher cadence or faster leg turnover, “elasticity bounces” or quick jumps on the spot to bring focus to the foot strike, “pick-ups” or kicks up to your butt to help avoid overstriding and “exchanges,” where you stand on one foot with other foot raised in a “number 4” shape and switch to the other foot in one swift movement (pictured below). Obviously these are better explained in person or with photos, but hopefully you get the idea.
Sam discussed a specific technique goal and demonstrated the corresponding drill to achieve it, which the group then attempted either in place within two lines (pictured above – I’m in the pink top across from Sam) or moving forward and around a set of cones (as in the below).
So what did Sam define as elements of good running technique, supported by these drills? Some key points from her “Running technique” handout include the following:
- Body posture – head up; eyes forward; torso upright (not bent forward at the waist – slight forward lean comes from the heels); pelvis in neutral (think of it as a bucket of water, that you don’t want to spill); and shoulders relaxed;
- Arm position – elbows bent to at least 90 degrees and kept relatively close to the body, but rotated slightly inwards; movement from armpit not shoulders; and hands relaxed;
- Legs/feet – land with the foot under the pelvis with bent knee, rather than in front of body; lead with the knee not the heel (as I do!); increase cadence to 180 steps or higher; bring the foot off the ground more quickly; pull the leg through more quickly with a strong knee bend; and move away from a pronounced heel or toe strike and towards a flatter landing.
Here we are, below, determining our cadence (steps per minute), which you can do by running for 60 seconds and counting how many times one foot lands (easier than trying to count both feet!), and then multiplying by two. We did this twice, and I hit 196 both times! This is a definite improvement since I first started to train with Sam.
After drills, Sam had us do a short run, where we ran at an easy/steady pace but concentrated on a specific aspect of our technique for one minute at a time. Because of the heat, this was cut short slightly, so in total we only ran about 1.8 miles in the entire morning session. We had to save ourselves for later, so we were told!
On our way back to the classroom, Sam did a second video analysis, to see how much of what he had learned had seeped into our technique. Obviously no one changes these things dramatically overnight, but it was still impressive how many of us, myself included, made some small improvements.
The air conditioning felt incredible when we went back inside for our short break. I had a big snack (half of my packed lunch, an amazing cous-cous salad I had cooked the day before), knowing I would struggle with my sensitive stomach to eat lunch and do speedwork in the heat less than two hours later. Sam then launched into her “talk and practical on running-specific strength” – like with the drills, she explained and demonstrated each exercise (things like the plank, bridge with knee lifts, lunges/squats etc., as well as slightly more obscure running specific exercises), and we then tried it on our mats. Much of this Sam had shown me before, but it helped to go through them and check with the coaches to make sure I was doing them all properly, since I had a few questions from when I used to do these more regularly.
Lunch was a “working lunch,” where we gathered into small groups and received feedback on our running videos while eating. Sam clicked through each frame (the clips were only two or three seconds long), showing us what we were doing well, and what we weren’t doing correctly. It was interesting to learn from others as well as from my own video – many of us were guilty of the same mistakes – primarily, heel striking and overstriding.
I was excited for the next segment – training programs – given that I still need to create my own Portland marathon training plan. Sam explained the various types of runs – recovery, threshold/tempo, VO2 max, long etc. and stressed the importance of ensuring that you go into each run knowing what purpose it serves in the context of your training. This was nothing new, but as with some of the other material, good to hear again.
I did, however, have many questions about preparing my own program and got some clarification on several things, including tempo runs (continuous running at a comfortably hard pace) versus threshold interval runs (also run at this pace, but as you would imagine, broken down into shorter periods of time with short recoveries). Although Sam only gave me the intervals to do during my two training cycles, which I had always wondered about, she said that I can alternate between the two in my upcoming program. She also provided me with other tips that I will think back on while building my own marathon schedule for the first time.
By this point, it was around 3pm and not only an oven out there but also a complete zoo in the park, with TONS of people, animals, vehicles and everything else you can imagine all around the place. In other words, it was the PERFECT time for a threshold interval session!
There I am at the start line of our loop – don’t I look thrilled to run 3 x 6min at 7:25 – 7:40 pace, with 90sec recoveries?! E obviously was equally excited. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but I’m happy to report that I somehow managed to hit an average pace of 7:27, despite the heat, crowds, a very unhappy stomach and slowing down at the end when I felt like I was going to die. Sam, Jeff and Suzy were each positioned at different parts of the loop to announce the time and, more importantly, encourage us to keep working hard in such tough conditions. That is where having a coach present during a training session can make a huge difference. Okay, and I confess that my competitive self managed to escape and ensured that I maintained my position at the front of the pack – but only because I had to hit my goal pace! Check out my Garmin entry to see how I did in more detail.
Finishing this session was a massive relief, not only because I wasn’t sure I would hit my target, but also because all that was left for the day was a nice long stretch session in the shade. It felt awesome, and it was also great to get feedback from the coaches on something that is so important, and yet far too often neglected after a run.
We returned to the classroom for some Q&A, said our goodbyes and then E and I made our way back home. We were exhausted, hot and hungry – but also feeling slightly ill, not only from the physical exertion but also from the mish-mash of foods we had eaten throughout the day (gatorade, flap-jacks, banana, cous-cous salad etc). Exercising in that type of heat really messes with you if you aren’t used to it, and if you aren’t careful about your nutrition and hydration. I think mostly, we were just tired.
But it was SO nice out by this point in the day, and everyone we knew had spent the afternoon lounging in the park, that we couldn’t help but stop for some pear cider in an outdoor cafe, which of course went straight to our heads. We then were suddenly starving and cooked up some Ostrich burgers. Turns out the whole combination was NOT the best idea and we spent the next hour lying on the floor (literally) curled up in a ball not feeling very well. Eventually it passed, and by perhaps 10pm it finally stopped feeling like a sauna outside, and we were able to look back on our day with a sense of achievement, as well as a new awareness of what we must improve going forward.
To check out Sam’s comments on how the workshop went, as well as to read about future workshops, click here.