Running, Racing, & Injury Prevention Tips
OK, lets get straight to business. I strongly believe that toe-running is the single most important thing that many runners can focus on in order to improve their running. Rather than repeating it here, go to the Toe Running section of the Training page to read my thoughts on the issue. It will be well worth your while.
Mention hill running to most people, and they will instantly assume you mean uphill. This need not be so. The merits of uphill running are fairly obvious: improved strength, the extra aerobic work required, emphasis on better sprinting form, etc. What is not so obvious is that downhill running can be equally beneficial. It does not help that downhill running is often blamed for an assortment of injuries.
Downhill running is akin to over-speed training, i.e. the resistance work you often see sprinters doing. By lengthening your stride and increasing your turnover, you are able to run at a significantly faster and more efficient rate than you would otherwise. The key is to choose a gradual incline -- one that you feel comfortable running your hardest without feeling like you are leaning back and braking.
It is that very braking motion which causes the majority of the injuries that give downhill running such a bad name. Try to lean forward and visualize running on your toes. You will be amazed how much faster you can go with no extra effort. Practice this for a while, and you'll be the talk of the team or the running club on the next trail run!
Rest is a very underrated aspect of running, especially distance running. To be good at running, you must adopt a mindset along the lines of, "the harder I push, the better I will be." Well, this is good only up to a point. As a coach of mine said (specifically for summer training, but the general theory carries over into the competitive season, as well), "make your hard days as hard as possible and your easy days as easy as possible." The idea is that if your easy days are taking away from your hard days, you will merely run mediocre every day and not do the work necessary to become faster. It is the hard workouts that make you a faster runner, not the easy ones.
Personally, I am in favor of three hard workouts a week (two if one of the days is a race), with an easy day between hard workouts and races. I prefer six days a week of running, with the seventh day spent cross-training (bicycling, for example) or resting, if need be. Many people go the route of seven days a week, 365 days a year. This works for some, but breaks down many others. Find out what works for you, give the body time to get accustomed, and stick with that routine.
There is much more to rest than when and how hard to run, however. Other related things to consider are: sleep, diet, stress level, and mental preparation. All of these combine to dictate how your body will be able to react to your training regimen. You've probably heard your coach say, "two days before the race is most important." This refers to both sleep and food. Why two days before? Because the night before a race you will probably be too nervous and/or excited to sleep, anyway! By eating correctly, your body replenishes the nutrients which are burned up through exercise.
With a name like that, how can you help but be curious? Belly breathing is one of the more difficult techniques to master, but is very helpful even if you are only mildly proficient. As always, here's the run-down: The idea is to maximize the amount of air drawn into your lungs with every breath. Why not call it Lung Breathing, you ask? Because, that's why. Anyway, here's how you do it. Roll your shoulders forward slightly (also known in stuffy circles as slouching) and let them relax. As you breathe in, push out with your stomach and at the same time push down and out with your diaphragm. This allows maximum room for your lungs to expand and draw in precious oxygen. If you're not sure where and/or what your diaphragm is, check an anatomy book, because I'm not quite sure either! I know it's right around the center of your chest near the bottom of the rib cage. Some help I am... Once you get comfortable with how this feels, focus on how many strides you can cover between inhales. Initially, four strides (eight total steps, two steps per stride) will probably be just about your limit, but after a little practice you should be able to reach eight strides. Give it some time, it will start to feel more natural. And if you have problems with side cramps, this technique will put an instant smile on your face.