Becoming An Athlete

04/30/2008 - 15:18

By Pete Rea/ZAP Fitness/Running Journal/February 2007

The vast majority of runners arrive in our sport from another. Be it tennis, soccer, football, basketball, or lacrosse, running, particularly road running, tends to be the receptacle for many who have either left their prior sport for good, or simply want to improve their aerobic conditioning for the first. The benefits of background in a sport such as basketball or tennis or other motor skill sports are vast. Increased agility, basic fine motor skills, as well as the accompanying benefits of better proprioception and balance all allow runners to deal with various road and (in particular) off road impediments more effectively.

There are of course, although rarer the athletes I am addressing today: runners who run and who have only run during the course of their athletic career. These are runners who in large part tend to be a bit uncoordinated, less explosive, and less agile all around than those coming from agility based sports. Spotting these athletes, my fellow coaches and I often discuss, is a fairly easy task. Managing rooty, uneven, technical trails is more difficult, toe off in the late phase of stride follow-through is more labored, and perhaps most overt is the general lack of lift in the stride of these runners. In all, as South African Physiologist Dr. Tim Noakes discovered in 1997, runners with little to no explosive characteristics have to expend more energy to achieve the same degree of acceleration and tempo.

Young Gun Lesson -- Taking some of the Grace out of Grace

Allison Grace is an extremely talented young post collegiate distance runner, and one of the top prospects to come out of the graduating class of 2006. A silky smooth almost effortless looking runner, this University of Kentucky graduate joined the ZAP Fitness team in September. Unlike most of the ZAP team who experimented with sports such as basketball or skiing, Grace's athletic origins began largely with long distance running. Her lack of explosivity showed itself almost immediately, and consequently we began a systematic regimen of creating power, toe-off and coordination. In other words, we decided to take some of the grace out of Grace.


One sure fire way to increase your overall explosion and athletic ability is by implementing some basic coordination based drills. With Alli we began by using the "Jelly 5," five drills used by coach Arch Jelly as the basis for increased power with his former mile World Record Holder John Walker. They include -

Hurdle walk overs - setting hurdles at 33 inches and walking over them one leg at a time to increase flexibility of hip- flexors.

Lunges - Putting one leg in front of the other and lunging to the point where both the front and rear legs create 90-degree angles. This drill increases power of hamstring attachments as well as the upper calf.

Side Skipping Med Balls - Shuffling sideways with a partner, toss a medicine ball back and forth, then change direction. This drill creates strength of lateral muscles as well as overall strength and coordination.

Child Skipping - Remember when you were a child and you would skip down the sidewalk? This is virtually the same. Skip for 60- 70 meters focusing on toeing off the "drive leg" and driving the arms into the air. Repeat three-four times.

Heel Walks/Toe Walks - Walk high on your toes, followed by walking on the backs of your heels for one-two minutes at a time x two-three sets. This drill increases the strength of the plantar fascia as well as the tibialis posterior and anterior.

Begin by attempting these drills once every eight-10 days. After three-four months, move to twice every eight-10 days. Expect mild soreness following the first three-four sessions.

Trail Running

Off road running, particularly single and double track trails, are an excellent way to increase power and overall muscle coordination and proprioception. Trail running also has the benefit of augmenting strength of lateral stabilizers thereby reducing the risk of IT Band, groin, and perennial injuries so common to runners. Each year here at our ZAP Fitness adult running camps, runners from large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston, where most running is paved, are introduced -- often for the first time -- to trail running. These runners routinely comment on the difficulty of running on uneven surfaces. Within a year, most of our campers are hooked and find they search for trails in their area to continue to improve their coordination. Most cities and small towns in the South possess wonderful networks of trails. Even if it means driving an hour once a week, an occasional trail run will have a significant impact on your running based coordination.

At a recent coaching convention I had a mild argument with a fellow elite development coach about the definition of the word/term "athlete" and whether or not runners fit the definition. The coach I was debating claimed that, by nature, long distance runners were not athletes or even, in most cases, particularly athletic. I disagreed vehemently but conceded that increased athletic ability can and will benefit distance runners. With some intelligent and well-placed drill work as well as off road running you too can be on the path to greater power and reduced risk for injury.

ZAP Fitness is a Reebok sponsored non-profit facility that supports post collegiate distance runners in Blowing Rock, NC. ZAP puts on adult running camps during the summer and is available for retreats all year. The facility has a state of the art weight room, a bio-lab for physiological testing and a 24-bed lodge. Coaches at the facility include 2 time Olympic Trials Qualifiers Zika Palmer and Randy Ashley as well as head coach Pete Rea. For more information go to

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