Find the right beat, and you’ll run faster and better

Search for playlists of music that’s 175-180 beats per minute, writes Mary Jennings


Find the right rhythm to make your running a breeze

It is reasonably easy to focus on running technique when we start a run. With fresh legs, a clear head and great intentions we feel strong, tall and confident when we leave home. As the run progresses, should breathing become laboured or legs start to feel heavy, staying focused on form becomes increasingly difficult. We get distracted and concentrate more on the finish line, speed or maybe even an awaiting dinner rather than adapt our movements to make the run feel better.

Technique fatigue

The second half of a run is when we need all the help we can get to make our running stay efficient. If running becomes more of an effort the longer you run, it is worthwhile experimenting with stride length as it can have a positive impact on comfort, energy and performance. It’s easy to fall back into bad habits, especially when we are tired. Spot the difference between a marathoner at five miles and at 25 miles. An effortless runner with an efficient stride in the early stages often looks heavy and plodding a few hours later.

Running with brakes on

The length of our stride has a lot to do with how much effort we use on our run. A long stride is often not the best thing for a runner. When we stride out in front of our body, our heel generally hits the ground first. This “heel-strike” has been linked to many injuries due to the impact of the significant force it sends up the body from the heel through the knees, hips and into the lower back. The rear leg also has to work extra hard to move the body forward to overcome the “brake effect” of the heel-strike. It’s no wonder so many runners are fatigued in the latter miles after the lower legs constantly work overtime.

Aiming for shorter steps

Instead of long strides and leg power, Chi Running focuses on shorter strides and uses the rest of the body as well as gravity to help move the runner forward. With a quicker turnover of the legs, we don’t have time to stretch our legs forward and heel-strike. Instead we hit the ground closer to our body with a midfoot strike and reduce the impact and the braking effect of the heel strike. When you run with a quicker cadence (shorter stride length), you take more steps but each of these steps requires less effort and in turn your body stays fresher for longer.

Running to the beat

The simplest way to experiment with stride length is to let your steps fall into the rhythm of a beat. A fast beat will have the legs turning over quicker and will require less leg effort to move forward. Those who listen to music when running already know that some songs feel great to run to while others can make us feel sluggish – all depending on their beats per minute. Running to a beat is certainly the single most effective way I have found of keeping my technique fresh and my cadence quick and consistent, especially when I feel my concentration is lapsed. Put simply, it takes the thinking out of technique at the times when your head is overloaded and needs a little break.

How does it work

Our body loves rhythm and will fall into the beat it hears, just like when running to music or falling in with the stride of a running buddy. The optimal running beat is three beats every second and with each beat equating to a step, that’s 180 steps per minute. Crazy it may sound, but powerful it is. Whenever I feel like I am losing my form, I turn on the beat. It has a magical effect of making me feel taller and lighter at once. Although 180 beats per minute (BPM) is the ideal cadence, if you have a long stride currently it may feel much too fast. Try starting at 170 BMP or even 165 if you are struggling and build gradually.

Where to start

If you have no experience of Chi Running, start with the technique basics before progressing to running to the beat. Assuming you have a little knowledge of Chi Running principles which we covered in the Irish Times Get Running series, you can start experimenting with rhythm. There are three options for finding your beat. Most quickly, download the metronome app on your smart phone. Alternatively, a clip-on metronome is a little gadget that you can set to beep at regular intervals and wear on your belt. If the thought of running just listening to a beat is enough to stop you running, search for music at 175-180 BMP instead – there is an array of playlists and albums to choose from.

Step up not down

Now you have your background track sorted, it’s time to go for a run. Everytime you hear a beep, lift your foot a few inches off the ground and before you know it you will be on to the next step. Too many of us focus on the downward pounding of each step. Instead lift the foot just enough to let the road disappear behind you like you are running on a treadmill. As you practice, you will notice that your body position may change and you will lead your run with your body rather than your legs allowing gravity to kick in and feeling like you are being pulled along the road.

Float along

When we tire we are all liable to start to plod. The beat stops us from staying too long on the ground and moves us onto the next step without having to concentrate too much. Most of the students I have coached report that their running feels less effort, more relaxed and lighter when running to the beat. Consider that a marathon is over 42,000 steps or a 5km at least 5000. Anything that can help our steps feel better is at least worth an experiment. Try it out and see if the beat can help carry you along your running path.

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).

First, pick the programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: This programme is an eight-week course that will take you from inactivity to being able to run 30 minutes non-stop.
- Stay On Track: The second programme is an eight-week course for those of you who can squeeze in a 30- to 40-minute run three times a week.
- 10km Course: This is an eight-week course designed for those who can comfortably run for 30 minutes and want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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