Hi Everyone. Coach Al here. I often get questions from our team members and others about which running drills are best for improving form as well as “fixing” running gait issues. Today I decided to share one of those questions and my response to it.

Now I’m sure the title of this blog post caught your eye, right? On the topic of running drills, are they really a waste of time?  Keep reading to learn more. Here’s the question I received:

“I saw my functional movement guru recently; he was really impressed with all my hard work and how well I’ve progressed since he saw me last. Gave a thumbs up to all the exercises and the return to running program as well, and made one small suggestion that made a lot of sense to me, so I wanted to run it by you guys. He asked if I was doing any running drills…and I replied, no, not really. He related it to my swimming- how I’ve taken such a big chunk of my swim time to retrain my movement patterns with my swim, and since I am returning to running, yes I am strengthening weaknesses, but he felt quite strongly I should be incorporating more drills to unlearn poor movement patterns. Retrain my brain so to speak. And this made total sense to me- I know I have been doing exercises that strengthen the muscles I should be using when I run, but the brain also plays a large part in how we move too, and I thought the drills suggestion was awesome. BUT- I have no run coach, and not sure where to go from here. Can you help?”

These are really good questions and I’m sure, many of you have heard this kind of recommendation before. So here’s my response…

First, you ARE already doing “drills” with the exercises you are practicing and progressing (such as the basic glute-bridge and others), you just may not be “thinking” of those movements as running drills.

Most people don’t think of a basic bridge (and the variations including one-leg versions) as a running drill. But it is. It’s a hip extension pattern that mimics what happens when you run. Done correctly and progressively, the movement strengthens the body to run stronger, better, and faster. Isn’t that what a drill is supposed to do?

My point in presenting the bridge as a “running drill” is this: Traditional running drills are highly dynamic. Bounding or A-Skip/B-Skip – these are movements that are very challenging to do well. If the foundation (and the basic skills designed to build that foundation) aren’t solid and well established, especially combined with a lack of the required strength to absorb the loads inherent in running (resulting in loads equaling 3 to 4x our body weight from the effect of gravity and ground reaction, and up to 1500 or so foot strikes in every mile), then no amount of even more complex or “traditional” drill work is going to FIX the lack of a strong foundation or the lack of those basic foundational skills.

Start at the beginning, and master that beginning before moving on to something more complex. After all, if you were a math student, wouldn’t you expect to learn basic math and algebra efore moving on to calculus?

Two Popular “Schools of Running”: What’s The Deal?

Some run coaches and other supposed “experts” (including those runners who consider themselves to be the experts) often suggest to others, who may not have learned how to extend their hips with their butts correctly (as with the basic bridge), or learned how to stabilize their core, or even perform a perfect 1-leg squat for that matter, to do complex drills like A-Skip, or B-Skip, or some other “typical” running drill.

Chi Running and The Pose Method represent two “schools” of running form that also offer lots of drills, designed to “teach” the body how to run efficiently and effectively.

Are the drills sometimes fun to do and learn?* Yes. Do they “teach” you how to run well? By well, I mean, with appropriate stability, balance, coordination, applying powerful forces into the ground efficiently and effectively.

The answer is a resounding NO.

The reason is simple: the drills, just like running, are made up of very complex movement patterns involving LOTS of moving parts and our entire nervous system.

Something we frequently discuss with athletes here in our Pursuit gait lab relates to this very point, which is… conscious control of running.

What do I mean?

Let’s start with a question that is worth considering honestly: Can you consciously control what your entire body is doing when you are running? Other than basic posture, arm carriage (which would change as soon as you stopped thinking about it), stride rate to some degree, and where you’re looking, the answer is NO, you can not.

Core stability, hip and ankle mobility, foot mechanics, ground contact time, over striding, etc., are ALL things which largely HAPPEN FROM THE INSIDE OUT, NOT THE OUTSIDE IN!

The take-home here is clear: drills can be learned, yes. But will they change what happens on the INSIDE?

No, as a general rule, they do not.

Now is a good time to pause and for me to make something very clear: I am NOT saying all running drills are bad or that there isn’t an appropriate time and place for them – what I am saying is this:

MOST runners who do drills are NOT ready for them, and because of that, they will serve no meaningful purpose, nor will learning them result in meaningful changes to either injury resistance OR speed potential. 

Most running drills DON’T help you “un-learn poor movement patterns” at all, they usually do the reverse! They take “poor” (meaning compensated) patterns and often make them worse.

When you MASTER the basics first, then you may be ready to move on to a host of different “drills” which really challenge the nervous system and improve some aspect of running (I do think the jury is out on this however). The point is, certain drills, if they are going to be beneficial, will only be when learned and worked on in the presence of mastery of the fundamentals, and basics, first.

Swimming and Running: How Are They Different?

Your trainer’s comparison between running and swimming is really common, but it’s dead wrong.

The two “movements” are very different beyond the obvious factors (being horizontal in the water vs. vertical on land), and thus are learned very differently. As such, the role of drills is very different for each sport. Here’s what I mean:

  • Regardless of intensity, swimming and running happen at very different speeds. For example, on average most triathletes take 18 to 20 strokes when swimming freestyle for 25 yds. That’s 18 to 20 individual strokes over the course of an average of 20 to 30 seconds. In that same 20 to 30 second time period, the runner has taken 80 to 100 strides. That’s a BIG difference in terms of the amount of time and focus you can give to controlling and executing the basic movement pattern. Swimming can be consciously controlled to a MUCH GREATER degree than can running, because it is happening much more slowly. It is less dynamic in terms of time and speed of the movements.
  • While we know swimming freestyle is “complex” (reach, catch, pull, kicking, etc), the truth is that when comparing the “complexity” of the run gait cycle to the freestyle stroke, running is more complex. For example, you could really lie on your stomach in the pool, put one arm out in front of you and keep one arm at your side, and just paddle like you were on a surfboard. And while your entire trunk is involved, your lower body could truly just be stationary and not doing much. It is, in effect, the motion of your arm and back that is largely responsible for swimming freestyle. In contrast, running involves virtually every single soft tissue in your body – its truly holistic and total body! And when you add in the forces acting on our body such as gravity and ground reaction forces, the movement becomes extraordinarily complex, immediately! And there’s no way to “slow it down” or make it less complex, unless you do what I alluded to earlier – lie on your back and work on that 1 leg bridge or stand and groove a perfect 1-leg squat.

In summary, because of this complexity difference and the speed of the movements, there’s no comparison between the “thoughtful” drills you do in the pool to improve technique and skill, and the run gait cycle. And as such, how we learn and improve upon our skills must be approached differently.

(*If you’d like to learn more about the connection between core stability and swimming, go to our podcast on the topic).

What Determines Your Path: Is it boredom or a need to be entertained while you train? OR is it a genuine pursuit of personal and athletic excellence? 

Now at this point you may be asking….”ok, well I’ve mastered the basics – shouldn’t I be ready to tackle A-Skip or B-Skip?”

My response to that is to say this: As I look back, rarely have I ever coached or seen a runner in a clinic or worked with someone in our Pursuit Training Center who had mastered the basics well enough for me to say, “you are not only ready for the most complex drills but because you’re ready, you’ll get a ton out of them!” That just hasn’t happened very often. Does it happen occasionally? Yes, but not very often.

The reverse, however, happens a lot. What is that? A runner who continues to struggle OWNING basic static stability or low-level dynamic stability, and who hasn’t yet developed powerful glutes and hamstrings to explode their hip extension…”wanting” to learn a new “cool” drill that they THINK, will take the place of good old, patient and persistent hard work.

That is what it comes down to, I think.

Building strength and stability is sometimes boring, and it is very hard work. Drills, on the other hand, are more fun and seem to be more beneficial because of the complex nature of them. And in that lies fools gold, in my opinion.

What’s more, our subconscious mind hates for us to engage in “practice,” and in mastering the basics! Why? Because there is no “guaranteed” positive outcome. So, we need to be smarter than our subconscious mind and understand that to be the best we can be, we need to:

MASTER THE BASICS and FUNDAMENTALS first.

Own them. Completely and totally.

When you become super stable and strong and keep improving those elements, and then start training FASTER with the strength you’ve developed (and keep returning to the basics to ensure you OWN them completely), trust me, you won’t be asking what drills you ought to do to get faster and better – IT WILL BE HAPPENING AUTOMATICALLY!

All of the above form the philosophy of training that drives our company and team Pursuit, and of course how I have personally trained as a runner and triathlete:

No one, not even those will great talent, will be successful over the long term, if they attempt to put higher fitness or higher-level skills, ON TOP of a basic compensational or dysfunctional movement pattern (or a lack of basic functional balanced strength and length).

So, back to the title of this blog post, no, I don’t believe all drills are a waste of time at all. Explosive drill work, just like running form technique work, does have its place!

That place, however, isn’t at the beginning nor is it for the great majority of developing runners or triathletes. These things are FROSTING ON THE CAKE.

The thing is, before you apply the FROSTING, you HAVE TO BAKE THE CAKE!

To your success!

~Coach Al