Developing Running Coordination and Athleticism (Or, Preventing One-Dimensional Fitness)

Runners can be in great shape, but most of them aren’t very athletic. Two of the worst basketball players I’ve ever seen were three-season runners. Ask most runners to hurdle, dribble a soccer ball, or cut back and forth on a football field and you will see some of the most laughable movements.

This is unfortunate because runners need full body athleticism and coordination to handle the stress of high mileage and tough workouts. Balance, running coordination, and proprioception are underrated as markers for running longevity.

Let’s take a quick yes/no test. Can you:

  • Put on your shoes standing up without falling over?
  • Sprint at a maximum effort without pulling a muscle or looking like a goofball?
  • Run technical trails without falling on your face?
  • Adequately complete exercises that have you moving in multiple planes of motion?
  • Fall gracefully while running and pop right back up?

Runners who only run usually can’t do most of these things. They try a lunge with a twist and fall over. They’re clumsy when they sprint. When they fall, they get laid out for weeks with a weird sprain. It’s sad.

These runners lack the basic movement skills of any well-rounded athlete. If you’re not a good athlete you’re never going to be a good runner. That’s why I encourage people to train for triathlons, cross-train, and learn the right way to do body weight exercises.

Elite coach Jay Johnson claims many of his own injuries can be attributed to his declining athleticism once he became a three-season runner putting in a lot more miles. Other sports give you the ability to move differently. How can you get an overuse injury if you’re consistently using different muscles?

Athleticism, Coordination, Power

There are a lot of ways to inject more variety into your running program so you don’t fall into the trap of being a one-dimensional athlete. Run different types of workouts. Practice core, general strength, and dynamic mobility exercises.

Running coordination is a functional skill that has a direct impact on your training. It can make you more powerful and efficient. An agile distance runner who can sprint, move effectively in three planes of movement, and lift heavy weights will simply run faster.

Running fast is a skill – don’t let anybody tell you it’s not. Your success will depend on your aerobic capacity, muscle strength, mechanics, and coordination. If you lack coordination and muscle strength then you’re not a complete athlete and you won’t reach your potential as a runner.

Visuals are great motivators so I want to show you my favorite videos for developing well-rounded fitness and running coordination.

The Lunge Matrix is a warm-up I do every day that builds strength in all three planes of movement: the sagittal, frontal, and transverse.

Watching the Team Indiana Elite video two years ago started my (healthy?) obsession with core workouts and mobility exercises. Safely increasing your strength, flexibility, and capacity to do more work means you’re going to be a stronger runner.

Sprinting is another way to develop more robust athleticism. Keep it varied – my favorites include acceleration strides (100m efforts that build to a sprint and then taper down), surges during a run, and hill sprints. The goal is to be comfortable when you’re sprinting – if you can do that, your mechanics will definitely improve.

When I was in college, I could always tell who had never run trails in high school. They were the kids who would always be falling over every root and rock when we went running. Running coordination is vital, so practice your trail running. If you can run 8 minute pace on tough trails, imagine what you can do in a road race?

The point of this post is to encourage you to do different types of exercises. Hill sprints, core work, triathlons, general strength exercises, and dynamic flexibility routines can all help you to evolve as not just a runner, but as an athlete.

You won’t get injured as often and you’ll be able to run more and do faster workouts. That will make you race faster.

If you agree, then it would be awesome if you shared this article on Facebook, Twitter, or StumbleUpon. The only way I can help other runners is with your help!

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  1. I started thinking along these lines about five years ago — that I wanted a more overall athleticism in my life that helped me function in the physical tasks of the real world . That I didn’t want to compartmentalize my fitness, but have it overtake all aspects of my living.

    So, as a start, since I had been watching soccer players in the kids league every Saturday, I thought of how they ran in all directions, not just forward. So, I decided to add different directions to my running. I would run backwards, and then turn to the side and shuffle sideways.

    Unfortunately, I did this without thinking it through and injured myself with the sideways shuffle (lol). TMTS! But the idea was right.

    • I think you have the right idea – we used to run backwards and do side shuffles in college as part of our warm-up. But as with any new training stress you should introduce it gradually and carefully monitor how your body is responding to it. There’s a lot of different ways to increase your agility, running coordination, and athleticism that can help make you faster. Backwards running and side shuffling are just two options. I hope you get over your injury soon and can continue training!

  2. Two months ago (OK, right up until a month-and-a-half ago) I would have thought to myself, “here goes Fitz again, spouting off on drills and the like.” Don’t get me wrong, I did strength and core training, but it was largely tossing weights around without much thought about what I was targeting or why. Amazing how injury can change your perspective, as I know it has for you.
    We may disagree on the specifics of how to achieve better flexibility and strength that is appropriate for running (I do think there is value in a subset of the yoga routines that are our there), but we don’t disagree that, as you have mentioned Coach Jay Johnson saying before, “To be a better runner, you must first be a better athlete.”
    I’m planning a post much like this one down the road, when I reveal the rebuilt Predawn Runner, and I look forward to reviewing more of the exercises you have posted as ideas to enhance my own routines. When I can step away from the yoga, that is.

    • I’m really looking forward to reading more about the rebuilt Predawn Runner. You know I’m not a huge Yoga for runners fan, but I’m also a believer in doing what works for you. So get after it!

      • Fitz, one other comment, the assistant physical therapist I’ve been working with has been doing a lot of balance work with me – standing on one foot on a half-medicine ball, using a balance board, bouncing a small medicine ball off an inclined trampoline, alternating hands, while balancing on a half-cylinder. Really challenging work and he’s making the same arguments you do about improving injury resistance and running performance through better balance.

        • I’ve always been hesitant about balance training. First, I just never enjoyed doing it. I didn’t feel as though I was getting much out of it. I’d much rather be increasing strength with proven exercises like squats, dead lifts, hill sprints, etc. Second, Steve Magness has a great article on this here: The science looks pretty good that it’s ineffective. But from a “general fitness” perspective, I think balance and coordination are important – I just think there are better ways to get it than using Bosu balls, etc.

  3. I needed this today. I was planning on writing a “I’m not very graceful” post on my blog and then I read your questions and I felt much better because can I:
    *Put on your shoes standing up without falling over? – Yep.
    *Sprint at a maximum effort without pulling a muscle or looking like a goofball? – I think so.
    *Run technical trails without falling on your face? Yes! Woo!
    *Adequately complete exercises that have you moving in multiple planes of motion? – Yes.
    *Fall gracefully while running and pop right back up? – Yes, tripped one mile into a 16 mile run last fall and got up and kept going. Luckily it was about 5am and no one saw. This was before I started running trails.

    So I guess I’m not as bad as I thought I was! I’ve been working really hard on my balance and always use waiting for something (microwave, standing in line, laundry etc) to work on it. And I definitely feel more rounded since we started working together too. You know, I even prefer the standard warm up because of the lunge matrix.

    I may never be coordinated enough to do a layup in basketball though!

    • I’d say you’re on the right track Lisa! Once you can do a basketball lay up using your non-dominant hand then you know you’ve hit the big-time 🙂

  4. This is interesting and really inspiring… I’ve never been too coordinated, and if I were to join any other highschool sports- I’d get to know the bench quite well. But I guess I can have a lot of fun doing different planes exercises, and maybe be able to actually pose a challenge to some of my friends when we play a game of soccer or the like. Thanks for the article!

  5. Another great post Fitz!

    I can’t thank you enough for all your efforts here on Strength Running. The additions you have helped me make to my training regimen have helped me immensely. Now if I can just control my enthusiasm and heed that “gradually” advice.

    I try to convince as many of my “road only” running friends to get out there on there on the trails! Being somewhat of an “old dude” my legs really appreciate the softer surfaces and the constant changes in direction.

    I do however have a lot of problems with any lunge routine. Most lunges give me really bad pain in both knees. I have no problems with squats, as a matter of fact they normally make my knees feel better. Any advice?

    • Difficult to give advice without seeing your form. Are you leaning too far forward? Do you have a pre-existing condition with your knees? Oh, and thanks for the kind words Chris – congrats again on your own new running blog!

  6. Great article Fitz, and very important message.

    “Runners can be in great shape, but most of them aren’t very athletic.” That takes a lot of guts to write to an audience of runners, but it needs to be said.

    I think sometimes people find safety in their routine, and are afraid of looking foolish or clumsy when trying unfamiliar movements, or are just worried about injuring themselves.

    It’s natural to latch onto the things we are good at and avoid the things that make us feel inadequate. Obviously, practicing the stuff we aren’t good at will be much more beneficial in the long run.

    • Thanks Dave. Doing some of the sideways/backwards lunges the first time (especially with weight), I nearly fell over. But the progress is important. Learning new movements can be really helpful, even for runners.

  7. Hi, i´ve been trail running for almost a year, i also used to do crossfit, but due to a knee injury i had to quit it. I want to know what are your thoughts on pilates to complement my running for core and strenght trainning.


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