How To Run Faster, Farther, Forever

Photo of author
Written by
reviewed by Katelyn Tocci
Last Updated:
expert coach icon

Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind.

Over the past 25 years, Eric has coached Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles.
Eric is the coach in the international bestseller, Born to Run, and has written two books: The Cool Impossible, and Born to Run 2: The Ultimate Training Guide.

Life is hard! 

When I first read this, it stopped me in my tracks with a big slap across the face like the altitude did moving West to find my dream. I am not sure where that book is that provided this opening declaration, but the mindshift it created has stuck with me ever since.  

Declaration

A declaration it was. 

One of optimism, where personal interpretation was the game. I could accept that life is hard, or I could make that mind-altering switch to “it was up to me” as to whether life was hard. 

As I found my dream in Colorado, and my mountain running legs, all-day runs soon provided me with the idea that it was up to me.  As soon as I accepted that life or running can be hard, it made it just a little easier. 

A person trail running.
Photo Credit: Eric Orton

This three-word declaration became a battle cry, the soundtrack for my life’s journey, and it set a foundation for me to always work from as I navigated through the challenges that inevitably came. 

I could always rely on the idea of letting go and not resisting, which gave way to “the flow,” where things worked out above and beyond imagination.

Bruce Lee famously said, “Be like water, my friend.” Water takes on the path of least resistance and flows.

But hey, you’re a runner and already know this. It’s the magic and the medicine that comes with running. You’ve been out there on that run in the eye-stinging humidity where nothing feels right. Those typical and predictable thoughts come to mind, “why am I doing this?”

And you soon remember or realize, “You can’t have a good day without a bad one.” You understand that things will turn around; just relax, breathe, and don’t resist the lesson and gift of the day. 

In fact, it is days like this that are the reward, where everything gets stripped down to a choice: running can be hard, or running can be a gift.  Your choice. Your decision.

You are, in fact, just a choice away from being your best and flowing like water.  And just like this three-word gift provided the foundation for my decisions, so too can be the choice for you to work on your running foundation.

How To Run Faster, Farther, Forever 1
Photo Credit: Dillon Deloge

Foundation

We, as runners and athletes, yes, you are an athlete, need a foundation to call upon to guide us. It is this foundation that points us downstream with confidence to pick the rough rapids and ride the monster wave to big running goals. 

We all understand the importance of a sound foundation for our house or office building. We can also look at our vehicle in a similar way to how we want our body to perform when running. 

You have the engine and the fuel/energy to make the vehicle move, and you also have the foundation or the suspension system that provides the riding experience. 

This riding experience would be much different if there were no springs and shocks helping to provide a smooth, comfortable ride.

This is no different than the suspension system we have in our feet, calves, legs, muscles, and tendons that help us to propel our body forward with elastic energy, like a spring or rubber band. 

What type of rubber band would you like to use, the old dusty one you find in the corner of the kitchen drawer that is cracked and breaks with the slightest tug?  Or the brand-new band that is taut and snappy?  In fact, the stiffer the rubber band, the better it is.

And this is how we want our body to work for us, providing that foundation to always call upon.

A coach training a trail runner.
Photo Credit: Dillon Deloge

Health and Performance

We want ‘leg stiffness.’  Just like a stiff, snappy rubber band, leg stiffness for runners is a very, very good thing.

Two foundational pieces are necessary for run performance and run health, cadence, and leg stiffness. 

Before we get into the nitty gritty coaching, let me make my own declaration that might hit you like “life is hard” hit me. Here goes.

Most chronic run injuries, or what I call dysfunction, take place when RUNNING EASY.  Yes, when running easy. If we can’t run “well” easily, we have no foundation to rely on or call upon to keep our rubber bands nice and snappy and healthy. 

If we are not efficient when running easy, which is what we do most of our running time, we spend more time on each leg, with each step, increasing our ground contact time

You may even have a ground contact data point on your smartwatch.  To remain healthy and improve performance, it is crucial for you to decrease your ground contact time, and this is done through cadence and leg stiffness training.

If you have read the worldwide bestseller, Born To Run, you are familiar with author Christopher McDougall’s story of going from a broken down, always injured runner to completing a 50-mile race. 

I had to take him from the couch to a mountainous 50 miler in the deep crevasses of Mexico’s Copper Canyon in less than eight months. I attacked his leg stiffness, and in a few months, he went from not being able to run to doing 3+ hours with no problems – that ain’t the 10% rule.

We just needed to create a foundation, a suspension system of leg stiffness for him to call upon, that has allowed him to run faster, farther, forever – for the last 17 years.

How To Run Faster, Farther, Forever 2
Photo Credit: Dillon Deloge

Cadence

You are probably familiar with the term cadence and have heard about that magical number of 180 strikes per minute.

Our cadence, or how many times we strike the ground per minute, directly affects our ground contact time, and a good target number is 180 strikes per minute.

The slower our cadence, the more time we spend on each foot before we take off again. As I mentioned, this is where dysfunction and injuries occur.  

For example, if we are heel strikers, our foot has to go from heel to forefoot before it can leave the ground again as we run forward.

With this comes undue knee and ankle flexion that causes us to use more of our quad muscles and can shut off the use of our glute muscles. It also causes our knees to go too far forward, placing a lot of stress on the Achilles, calves, and shins. 

So instead of just knowing that 180 strikes per minute is the golden standard, it is more important to understand why that is important. 

Simply put, if we strive to improve our cadence and reduce ground contact time, we are eliminating the chance for the above biomechanical dysfunction to occur. And when do we typically have our slowest cadence? When running easy.  

It is normal for cadence to naturally increase when we run faster, and that is why including faster intervals can be a very good training tactic for all runners. 

This is why it is crucial for run health and performance across the board to improve your cadence when running easily – when it is the most challenging.

The key is to improve over time. One of the most common mistakes runners make when working on cadence is they want it to be instantaneous or just a decision to be able to go out and do it.

It takes time and practice.  Embrace the goal to just get better over time and get as close to that 180 number as you can.

Here are some training tactics to help you on a path to better cadence.

  • Running In Place Practice: At home, before a run, take your shoes and socks off and run in place barefoot. This is a very simple way to understand foot strike placement and to practice the muscle memory and strength for good cadence. While running in place, put the song Rock Lobster by the B-52s on your playlist and run in place to the beat of the music. The beat is 180 beats per minute and will help you to “feel” the 180 cadence.  Check out this video for more:
  • Nose Breathing: One challenge runners have when adapting to a higher cadence is running too fast or speeding up. We need to keep it easy, and to help with this, do nose breathing intervals where you breathe only through your nose with a focus on a higher cadence. This will keep your effort honest and help you improve over time. Or if you use heart rate in training, use your zone 1-2.
  • Not All of the Time: Don’t focus on running with a higher cadence all of the time. Pick specific days when you work on this. If you focus on it every run, your brain will get overwhelmed, and you will get frustrated. Pick and choose your spots weekly and within a run.
  • Avoid this Mistake: Many runners make the mistake of lifting their knees and legs too high or too fast to get a better cadence. Switch this up and think about providing quicker force into the ground, as if you were squishing a tiny bug.  It looks like this. 
  • Natural Shoe as a Tool: Use a natural or very minimal running shoe for your cadence practice. With a zero drop and low-to-the-ground shoe, this will help you to utilize your natural elastic energy for improved cadence and strength.  Click here for a few ways to integrate a natural shoe as a tool.

Leg Stiffness

This may sound like a horrible thing, but leg stiffness plays a huge role in improving cadence and your ability to run strong, efficiently, and economically, and all good things for running.

Stiffness is very different from tightness. As runners, our most important ability is our availability, and leg stiffness is that ticket for admission. 

Why is this so?

Good leg stiffness allows our body to land and get off our feet quickly and efficiently. Our feet and calves work like springs and rubber bands, and every time we land when running, these rubber bands are stretched and then released as our foot leaves the ground, propelling us forward.

Good leg stiffness helps quicken our cadence, reduces ground contact time, and avoids the biomechanical malfunction we have been discussing.

But it might be easier for me to just show you what I mean in this video:

Here are some training tactics to start adding to your running week for better leg stiffness.  The great thing about training leg stiffness is it can be done during your run or as a warm-up.

#1: Skills and Drills

Sticky Hops and Pogos are the go-to skills, so focus on these first and then dabble with my library of leg stiffener drills in the playlist below.

How Many: 2-5 X 8-10. 

When: 1-2 times per week as a run warm-up or during your run, or done separately. Check out the video examples of each:

#2: Downhills

Perform moderately fast downhill running repeats on a gradual grade. It is important to avoid heel striking, so if you are forced to brake and heel strike, you are running too fast.  Get better over time.

How Many: 5-8 X 15-30 seconds 

When: Once per week as part of one of your runs.

#3: Fun Sprints

Perform short sprints at a FUN speed.  I tell my athletes if they dread these, they are too hard. Keep them fun. They just need to be short so they are faster than your other running.

How Many: 5-10 X 10-15 seconds.

When: Once a week, done in the middle of another run. 

Have fun with this, and don’t see it as something more to have to do separate from running.

Integrate all of this into the runs you are doing and embrace how running can be strength training in and of itself.

Running can be hard, or not.

Run Strong, to Run Free!

How To Run Faster, Farther, Forever 3
Photo Credit: Luis Escobar
Photo of author
Eric Orton is a renowned performance expert and running coach who has dedicated his life to exploring the potential of the human body and mind. Eric was one of the coaches who pioneered the online coaching industry and has operated his run coaching business for the last 25 years helping Olympians, professional, and age group athletes, including runners for distances from 1500m to 240 miles, Ironman triathletes, cyclists, etc. His study of ancestral cultures, like Mexico’s legendary Rarámuri ultrarunners, has made him one of the foremost authorities on running, evolutionary biomechanics, and human performance. Eric is “the coach” in Christopher McDougall’s international bestseller, Born to Run, where his coaching was instrumental in helping Christopher complete the epic adventures described in his books, Born to Run and Running with Sherman. Eric is author of two of his own books: The Cool Impossible which has been published in 7 languages and 15 countries, and Born to Run 2: the Ultimate Training Guide. Eric travels the world speaking and coaching clinics on running. He is the former Director of Fitness at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and currently lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.