Secret runners’ business: Take your performance to the next level

If Michael Porter were a running coach I’m willing to bet he’d be a good one. The Harvard University Professor and strategic management guru wouldn’t be one to sit idly by and prescribe training to athletes without critical examination and analysis of the effectiveness of the program.

I’d imagine a ceaseless quest to identify what could be improved, modified, introduced into the blend of training methods and interventions available to runners looking to harness performance gains. But I doubt he’d ignore mastering the basics before trying extreme measures or zany training interventions.

So if you’re in the running game searching for improvements, perhaps stuck on a performance plateau or generally mired in a funk, reference to one of my favourite Porter models can be a useful starting point. Weighing up the pros and cons of what you could do to increase your advantage over the competition can be made easier with a bit of structured thinking.

Back in my corporate days I used this model as a method to assist strategic operational planning. It breaks any potential actions into two distinct groupings: strategic positioning and operational effectiveness.

It’s very human behaviour to look for the next best thing, rather than focus on doing the basics really well. It’s interesting that I found repeatedly in company life that attention invariably drifted towards short-term funky solutions or proposals.

I’m not adverse to the innovation often associated with strategic positioning. However, it’s easier to leap into, evaluate the impact of and ultimately succeed in new ventures if you already have total command of your current business fundamentals.

In running terms this strategic management model would equate to getting the most out of your current training mix and volume using well established methods (operational effectiveness) before adopting unproven ideas and technological solutions into your running (strategic positioning). Sadly I read about and often see runners bombarded with quick fixes and silver bullets. New shoe technology, orthotics, nutritional supplements, compression wear, altitude tents, expensive trips to Colarado, anti-gravity treadmills are all increasingly on the running menu.

So what are the basics you need to master in running?

Before you look into adopting extreme training measures or questionable technological solutions to pursue performance improvements you need to master tried and tested training elements. Two of these are building your aerobic fitness and doing some simple strength and coordination training.

Build your aerobic base

This doesn’t mean going from zero to 100km per week in six months, but does involve year in, year out adding some additional running volume. Gradually increasing your training in three to six months plateaus rather than trying to add mileage each week is the way to progress safely. Look towards gradually evolving your training to the point over a few years where you could run a marathon without any additional training. The benefits of this type of training include increased running economy and the ability of the body to deliver oxygen deeper into the muscles and use it more efficiently.

If you haven’t developed your aerobic system sufficiently then interventions such as altitude training or sleeping in an altitude tent are unlikely to have much impact on performance. The reason: you may be able to transport more oxygen in the blood, but if the body hasn’t developed the plumbing (amount and relative density of tiny capillaries) to deliver this oxygen rich blood to the muscles, the benefits will be minimal. It’s a bit like putting jet fuel in a Toyota Corolla.

Strength training

Developing the strength and coordination to run with good technique is a fundamental training practice that every runner should master. The current domination of the world marathon scene by Kenyan runners has been linked to the relatively recent adoption of structured strength work and access to gymnasiums in their training camps. The improvements are multifaceted and well worth chasing for joggers and weekend warriors alike. Studies have shown that strength improves by:

  • the central nervous system and muscles learning to work more efficiently;
  • better coordination between groups of muscles;
  • eliminating muscles activating at the wrong time; and
  • assuming advantageous postures allowing muscles to express their maximum strength.

Including some strength work in your running program is smart and keeping it simple and mastering the basics will provide the majority of the benefit. Before you move onto tossing kettle bells around, purchase the latest generation of abdominal work-out machine or begin hanging from those dangly strappy things in the gym, make sure you can activate the correct muscles and adopt the right postures for simple exercises. This means knowing how to complete old favourites such as bridging, leg press, lunges and squats really well.

Conclusion: The next level of performance

Once you’re confident you are maximizing your performance and have mastered running fundamentals you can look towards different training stimulus. This includes explosive plyometric training, altitude camps and more advanced strength training. The foundations will invariably remain the same but you can then introduce and evaluate the effectiveness of new measures safe in the knowledge that you’ve made the most of the low risk, well proven and high reward training strategies. I think Michael Porter would approve.


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