How to do running drills

How to do Running Drills

Why should we do running drills?

Most of our running should be at an easy effort level. At that easy effort level, the range of motion we use for our legs is much reduced compared to when we do a 5K race.

Intervals and similar hard-effort speed sessions are beneficial for a number of reasons. One reason is that we get to practice what it’s like to run fast, while perfecting our running form. Thus when we get around to doing a fast 5K, our legs, arms and torso already know what it feels like to move faster and with a larger range of motion. If we didn’t do any speed work and just ran around at a low effort level all the time, come race day, the increased range of motion and speed of limbs would feel totally alien, with an increased risk of injury than if we’d practiced it in training first.

Another way to practice increased range of motion, but without running really fast, is to include Running Drills. These break down various bits of the motions of running, with exaggerated movements, travelling short distances. If you break running down into Knee Drive, Triple Extension and Whip, then Running Drills give lots of opportunity to practice these movements and practice speeding them up. If you join our course about how to run with good running form, you’ll learn about those movements and a whole lot more, including running posture and everything you need to know about running like a pro.

Drills have the added advantages of improving strength, coordination and proprioception. Drills improve strength because they are physically hard to perform well. The first time you try a 20 metre marching drill, you’ll no doubt be amazed how tired your hip flexors get. Drills improve coordination because the brain and limbs are challenged to coordinate all the different limbs and joints involved in ways they aren’t used to. Many times I’ve seen runners of many years struggle to do basic drills the first time, partly due to poor core strength, but mostly just due to the brain being rubbish at controlling the limbs in new scenarios. The good news is that the brain learns fast, so there are quick gains to be had here. Drills also improve proprioception because you are forced to actively think and feel what’s going on. Proprioception is the body’s ability to perceive where it is in space compared to objects around it, and other parts of the body. In drills, you’ll need to be conscious of where the ground is, how hard you are pressing it, where the limbs are in space at any time and how fast the limbs are moving relative to each other.

Due to the increased range of motion, running drills are great as part of a dynamic warm-up before a race or hard session. They can be used in a longer mini-session of their own. Or they can be inserted after a session to improve your ability to move well at the end of a race when tired.

Most runners should only perform a drills session once a week, although if you are just doing a few as part of a warm-up, they can be done more often. Fast club / Elite runners can perform a drills session twice a week. Why is this? Drills are tough, due to the range and speed of motions, so therefore a risk. If you are not already doing them, and are considering learning some, please introduce them gradually, to give the body time to adapt.

How to do running drills

Drills are performed travelling short distances with constant self-monitoring. You should be rested and ready before starting the next bit of each Drill because it is essential to have excellent form, rather than rushing into the next one with sub-optimal form. You need to try to avoid training your body to move incorrectly! Leave yourself between 60 and 120+ seconds between each drill, depending on how tired you feel.

For endurance runners, the most appropriate drills to start with are:

  • Marching A and Marching B
  • Skipping A and Skipping B
  • Run with High knee
  • Carioca (a.k.a. Grapevine)
  • Strides

“Run with High Knee” drill is quite hard. If new to drills, I suggest you start with “Marching” and master that for a few weeks, before moving on to “Skipping”, and leave “Run with High Knee” for a bit later after that.

“Carioca” (or Grapevine) is a fairly different drill. It simulates sideways movements that we don’t normally do while running in a straight line. When running on the road or on trails, we turn corners, which is a very similar movement. This sudden movement, with twisting of the knee, can be a danger area for injury if you are tired. Practicing sideways movements during training will reduce your risk in real-world running. It would also be useful as a warm-up for a speed session in which you turn around half way due to the constraints of a training area.

The “Marching” and the “Skipping” drills are broken down into A and B versions. The A is easier. The B is more advanced. Additionally, they can be performed first with one leg, then the other and then both legs together. Sometimes performing them with just one leg can be harder, so watch out for that.

Getting it wrong – things to look out for

Posture! Posture is the number one thing to get right in all of these drills. Keep your head up and back straight. Try to feel your legs and feet rather than looking down at the floor, because looking down will cause your posture to droop. You might have to look down to start with to check you are doing it right, but once you know what “right” feels like, quickly form the habit of doing it without looking down. Video yourself to check.

Glutes. If you just let the leg drop back down, you are missing out on a major aspect of these drills. You want to whip the raised leg down quickly. This means pulling the thigh back down to the ground with the glutes (bum muscle).

Wobbling around. This might seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. If you are wobbling around doing any of these drills, it may be too difficult for you at your current level of experience or tiredness. If you can perform the Marching Drill perfectly but wobble around during the Skipping Drill, then keep an eye on that. If it doesn’t become more controlled after a few sessions, drop back to the Marching Drill. Or do the Skipping Drill on the spot instead of while moving forwards. Similarly if the easier “A” version is perfect, but you wobble around on the “B” version, consider dropping back to the “A”. Also note that even though you might be able to perform a drill easily at the start of a session, you may find it tougher at the end of a session. If your form is off during the drills due to tiredness, it might not be the right time to plough on through because you want to train the body in good movements, not poor movements.

Arms: while travelling slowly in these drills, there’s a temptation to start chopping the arms, so the elbows bend till the arms are straight. Unlike sprinters, we don’t run like that, so instead keep the arms bent at the elbows as if you were running normally. Remember to drive the elbows back hard for improved balance.

Marching A Drill

Here is the Marching A drill. We’ll start with just marching with the right leg. As the left foot is placed on the floor, the right knee is driven up to hip height, lower leg hanging downwards, with ankle hooked at 90° so it ends up parallel to the floor. The right elbow drives backwards, remaining bent as if running, and not chopping.

Now engage the glute to pull the leg back down again rapidly. As the right foot touches back down underneath the hip, the left leg takes an easy (non-marching) step and the cycle repeats again.

Once you have mastered the movement on the spot, try it again taking little steps forward for 20 metres.

Now swap to marching with the left leg instead for another 20 metres.

Finally, perform the drill with both knees driving off the floor alternately – you are now marching with both legs.

For sprinters, these drills are sometimes performed without touching the heels down, but for endurance runners like you, it’s OK to touch the heel down just after the forefoot. Remain in control, minimising wobble at the ankle and all the way up the body with strong posture.

Marching B Drill

Here is the Marching B Drill. This is a progression from the A Drill by swinging the lower leg rather than letting it hang.

As the knee drives up, let the calf and foot swing backwards up towards the buttock on reflex. When the driven knee nears hip height, kick the sole of the foot forward.

Then the full leg is snapped back down in a pawing action, whilst controlling the movement of the calf by engaging the hamstring. If you feel the calf is just flailing around in front of you, it’s because the hamstring isn’t being used, so try it in slow motion – you will feel the back of you airborne leg go a bit tight as you keep it under control in the air.

There’s a scraping noise on the floor when you land so this is best done in shoes, not barefoot.

Skipping A Drill

Here is the Skipping A Drill. This is a progression from the Marching A Drill, performed in much the same way, but with the planted foot springing off the ground briefly between strides.

This lets you try using a bit of Triple Extension in addition to the Knee Drive and Whip.

When progressing from Marching to Skipping, runners often get it wrong by dipping forwards slightly at the waist during knee drive. Keep that posture strong!

Skipping B Drill

Here is the Skipping B Drill. This is a progression from the Skipping A Drill, performed in much the same way but with the lower leg moving backwards up to the buttocks and then kicking forwards again. There is a lot to coordinate here, so don’t be surprised if you find the Skipping B drill difficult.

Run with High Knee

Here is the Run with High Knee Drill. It’s a progression from the Skipping and Marching Drills by launching into a full running motion, but whilst covering ground slowly over 20 metres, keeping a high cadence. Try performing it using only one leg with high knee first, then swap legs, and then a final 20 metres with both legs.

Run with High Knee is harder than the previous drills. Learn to perfect the easier ones first before moving on to running with high knee. I see a lot of club runners doing this drill badly when they aren’t ready for it.

The Run with High Knee drill can go wrong if you find yourself leaning backwards, or sometimes forwards while trying to get the knees high. If you are successfully getting your knees up to hip height, but have to lean back to get the knees there, it’s far better to reduce the knee height and use correct posture. As you improve at the drill over time, you’ll find you can lift the knees higher over the coming weeks.

Carioca

Here is the Carioca Drill, also known as Grapevine Drill. This drill requires a high degree of coordination. If you have not tried it before, start with a very slow walk! Travel sideways by crossing the right leg in front of the left, then bring the left leg round and up to meet the right. Then continue travelling, by repeating the process behind instead of in front. So the right leg drops back behind the left leg and then the left leg is brought round and down to meet the right.

That description was quite wordy though. Don’t overthink it! Just give it a go.

Do the Carioca drill in one direction for 10-15 seconds, before travelling back in the other direction. You don’t turn around. Keep facing forwards.

During this Drill, your arms naturally fall into a spinning movement a little bit like they would perform if you were doing a sudden corner.

Once you’ve nailed the motion at a walking pace, with good posture, speed it up to a run! You may even find it easier.

Runners get this drill wrong by taking it too seriously and travelling sideways in an overly wooden way. It should feel fun, like a dance. Yes, your posture should remain strong and upright, but your legs should be soft and springy.

Don’t worry about exactly where the feet are pointing when they land. Having them land at lots of different angles is good. You’ll note that once the foot lands, the rest of the planted leg twists around the foot while the airborne leg crosses over. It’s this twisting that is risky when performed suddenly while running, such as when making sharp turns or avoiding obstacles, so the Carioca drill helps prepare you.

Strides

Strides are a more simple drill. Find something like a football pitch in length, 80-100 metres. From a standing start, gradually speed up, so you’ll be running slowly in the first 10 metres, then as you get to the middle, you will be running fast.

At that point, run a few strides very quickly, not quite sprinting though. As a beginner, start with 6 steps. Exaggerate your movements slightly. How quickly can you do Knee Drive? How quickly can you Whip the leg down again? Can you feel Triple Extension at the back with each stride. Drive the elbows backwards hard with purpose. How quick can you make your cadence?

Then, whilst maintaining an excellent posture, slow it back down again gradually to the finish line.

Runners often get this wrong by their posture and running form collapsing after the middle few fast strides. Maintain that great posture, just with shorter and shorter step length to slow you down.

Also make sure you are properly warmed up before doing Strides.

Drills in practice

Don’t rush into doing lots of these drills. It’s better to perform just a few minutes of drills with great form and posture, than have dreadful form during 20 minutes of drills.

Beginners: Stick to Strides, March A, Skip A and Carioca. Avoid Run with High Knees.

Intermediate: Add March B, Skip B and Run with High Knees

Advanced: Increase distance for Skip and Run to 30 metres.


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