Today is an important day: I want to help you improve your athleticism and capability as an athlete.
Because it’s not enough to run a lot of miles and blast those tough speed workouts.
By only running, the risk of injury is higher and performance will be stunted (and it’s telling that no elite runner “just runs”).
Indeed, we need to focus on other physical skills besides endurance (the ability to resist fatigue) that will improve our athleticism:
- Strength: the ability to produce force
- Flexibility: the ability to attain large ranges of motion at the joints
- Speed: the ability to move the body and its parts rapidly
- Coordination: the ability to accurately and efficiently move the body and its parts in order to accomplish some task
These skills make you capable of doing more: mileage, speed work, and (of course) faster racing. And it’s no surprise that these primary “biomotor abilities” are featured prominently in the USA Track and Field coaching curriculum.
They’re defined more broadly as:
Biomotor abilities are abilities in the biological and motor domains that enable success in athletic performance.
Many abilities that are seemingly missing from the list are actually combinations or subcategories of these primary abilities.
For example, power is a combination of speed and strength, agility is a combination of speed and coordination, and mobility is a combination of flexibility and coordination.
Think of yourself as an athlete who specializes in running – not just a runner. When you do, you’ll train more effectively and ultimately improve.
We’ve discussed the topic of how to improve athleticism in different ways in the past:
- Coach Nate Helming and I discuss mobility and athleticism
- Using variety to improve gains (like with planks or squats)
- How to incorporate barefoot running to increase strength and coordination
- How speed training can boost athleticism (and is rarely done by distance runners)
Incorporating a variety of workouts, race distances and types, strength exercises, mobility routines, and types of training then a runner’s fitness will be more well-rounded and holistic.
In short, they’ll be a real athlete – not just a runner.
We’re discussing this topic again because it’s really that important. Since I’ve gotten many questions recently about the problems that result when we are not athletic, let’s drive this point home.
The Problems We Runners Face
Since running is admittedly a very two-dimensional activity (run straight ahead!), if that’s all we do then our physical skills will atrophy. Strength, flexibility, and agility will plummet.
Sure, our endurance might be great, but if we can’t utilize that fitness because we’re injured or uncoordinated, then we’ll never run fast. If runners focused on how to improve athleticism, many of these problems wouldn’t appear at all.
Over the last year, I’ve heard it all:
“I can’t run trails! I’ll turn an ankle!”
If you’re chasing a big goal like a Personal Best, ultramarathon finish, or maybe a Boston qualifying marathon, then you must be more anti-fragile!
Trails are not dangerous if you’re capable.
“I can’t hold this bodyweight exercise…”
Some bodyweight exercises (like the supine marching bridge in the Standard Core Routine) are difficult. But so is running fast!
When easy or intermediate exercises can’t be done by runners who want to stay healthy or run a PR, there’s a clear discrepancy. Increase your movement fluency to improve your capability.
As strength coach Randy Hauer likes to say, There are no fast, weak runners.
“My squat form is terrible.”
Running is a series of one-legged squats performed in a ballistic, plyometric manner. How can anybody run well without being able to squat adequately?
Poor form on traditional, basic, and fundamental exercises is a red flag that there’s a lack of movement fluency – and therefore, athleticism.
“I don’t run two days in a row because I want to stay healthy”
Running more is generally the most effective way to improve your racing performances and get faster. If runners take off 3-4 days per week for injury concerns, this is a major red flag.
- Not much running can be done in merely 3-4 days per week
- If a runner is truly so susceptible to injuries that they can’t run two days in a row, the problem is strength, not the running!
- This is obviously a self-limiting belief and I refuse to let you settle for average
Many runners have some or all of these problems. But this isn’t bad news! In fact, it’s good news because these issues can all be resolved.
We can rebuild these runners. We have the technology!
How To Improve Athleticism
If the goal is to become more generally capable, what exactly does that mean?
Quite simply, a capable runner is capable of more work:
- Drills, strength exercises, and dynamic stretches
- Good form and movement patterns
- Trail running on uneven, unstable surfaces
- Resilience to injuries
Capable runners can perform running drills athletically. They have efficient mechanics. Their injury rate is lower than average. And they can run on technical trails, the beach, or potholed roads without major problems.
Doing so requires thinking differently about training. You can’t just run – you have to train more like an elite or college-level runner (but that does not mean running as fast, as much, or as complicated workouts as they do).
What it does mean is that we must model how we train after how the best train. That means new habits:
- A dynamic warm-up before every run
- A cool-down after every run consisting of runner-specific mobility or strength work
- Varied running surfaces like trails, grass, the track, and roads
- Consistent strength training in the gym
- Running drills to refine form and reinforce good habits
- Hard workouts (fartleks, tempo runs, etc.) that increase our range of speed capability
Once we start training like competitive runners – even at scaled down levels for us mere mortals – we’ll see dramatic improvements.
The Goal: Anti-Fragility
Anti-fragility is a property that’s defined as:
A property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.
It’s quite counter-intuitive. You’re supposed to get better as a result of volatility?!
But it’s true. Anti-fragility creates more robust runners. Steve Magness sums up the idea well:
The idea is to build athletes who thrive off of uncertainty.
While there’s a difference between psychological and physical uncertainty, today we’re focusing on the physical side of training.
By incorporating the suggestions above, runners will improve many other aspects of their fitness besides raw speed or endurance. And in doing so, injury rates will plummet, performances will skyrocket, and runners will feel a lot more capable.
In short, they’ll feel a lot more anti-fragile.
Where Do I Start?
If you’ve only been running with none of the “extra” work described in this post, you shouldn’t try to tackle everything at once. That’s a recipe for hurting yourself.
Instead, start with one suggestion and make it a consistent habit that sticks. Once you’ve done that, you can move on from there. By stacking your skills in this way, you’ll soon find yourself extraordinarily more capable than you were 2-3 months ago.
Here’s where to start:
- Begin each run with a dynamic warm-up routine.
- Next, add a bodyweight strength or core routine after each run.
- Then once you’re stronger, start running on more varied, uneven surfaces
- Next, add running drills 1-2 times per week
- When all this is comfortable, it’s time to start strength training (start here)
- Add harder workouts when you’re ready
You’ll see that this is a progression of increasing difficulty. Just like your running, the ancillary work to improve your movement fluency must also be progressive.
After spending a few weeks on each aspect of your training, you’ll undoubtedly improve athleticism in multiple ways: stronger, more resilient, flexible, coordinated, with higher levels of proprioception, power, and skill.
In a word? Capable.
Resources for Enhanced Athleticism: