" Every step counts"

I've been lucky enough having had the chance of coaching some great athletes.

For me the definition of a great athlete means somebody who is ambitious with their goals, does not settle for the average, but does it with an humble attitude. Somebody whos mind stays open and always willing to learn and explore new. And someone who does not give up easily, who is willing to also do the work that's required for to reach the goals they've set for themselves.

That's someone like Merja. 

Below she tells about her experience with Skill based running training and our journey together learning about "the art of pulling my leg up" ! 

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" In the picture above, you can see a cadence trail and hear the metronome beating at the speed of 95 bpm in your ear, whispering in a coach-like way, “hamstring-hamstring-hamstring-hamstring”. The elderly gentlemen playing pétanque glance more than once at the person pulling up her legs (and swearing) on the sandy sports field in Kaivopuisto who once in a while spurts into the movement that everyone could understand as running. That was me, it was the summer of 2015, and I had decided to learn to run.

I wanted to learn to understand why running is fun, but I didn’t want to risk having an injury and being sore every few weeks or months. In addition to my inner motivation, an important reason to why I wanted to try a totally new way of running was my trust in the proposer and my knowledge of the coaching methods she and her colleagues practise in their CrossFit box. When I started CrossFit, I really started to rethink my ideas about training volumes, technique, performing methods and the meaning of mobility training. Our coaches in the box (Stadi CrossFit) impressed the meaning of skill work as a way to avoid injuries. They emphasized the importance of performing the workouts correctly rather than quickly. They didn’t let you avoid mobility training, and you learned the significance of the core muscles. I get bored easily and need new stimuli quite often. That’s why I appreciate the variety of workouts in CrossFit. I’m also someone who likes to have guidance, is interested in new perspectives on training, and is eager to learn new things in cooperation with professionals.

Instead of running as much as possible, I had to rely on that the new way of training could give me a new start and enough training stimuli

In that context, I was quite an easy target for trying out something new and also for a paradigm shift in my running habits. Coach Ansku suggested to me that instead of focusing on long runs, I could learn new priorities, such as running skill work, running form, balance and technique, and special strength training that could also help in avoiding injuries. Learning skills and a good running posture could give me the base for adding more distance, volume and intensity. Running and long-lasting (and long-distance) workouts in general were decreased to a few workouts per week in which technique work, time trial (tempo) running, and interval running alternated. Instead of running as much as possible, I had to rely on that the new way of training could give me a new start and enough training stimuli. Because it was summer time when I started and I hadn’t set my sights on any competitions, I decided to maintain my long-distance cycling routines in the background. But when the intensity of the running workouts increased, I also trimmed my cycling routine so that I could concentrate more on my running to build the basic level of skills.

My running workouts included a variety of functional movements and strength training that improved my coordination, balance, core muscles and the art of pulling my leg up!

I did running technique workouts in which different drills helped to improve my performance technique. I had to replace long steps and heel strikes with a “brisk” running form. I started to learn a rapid cadence and more pulls per minute. Like at CrossFit classes, my running workouts included a variety of functional movements and strength training that improved my coordination, balance, core muscles and the art of pulling my leg up. After I had learned at least a little bit of controlling my body (from head to ankles, from hands to legs), maintaining a good running posture and understanding a cadence higher than 91 bpm, I started to do high-intensity interval workouts. But even in the beginning I was given challenges in the form of shorter sprints (25–50 m), which helped the new technique to become part of practice. I also realised that I could learn to run slowly by running fast sprints. Mobility work became part of my routines in every workout and even between them.  

The hardest part in the beginning was to accept being a beginner

When we had reviewed my running on video and did the first drills in Kaivopuisto, the hardest part in the beginning was to accept being a beginner. Exercises that were appropriate for learning were hard at the first steps. I got frustrated, when the simple drills and high cadence got me exhausted, and I felt that I didn’t face anything else but new weaknesses. It was crucial that Ansku was and is a coach with a mission and passion for her work. She was always able to tell me what the meaning of each workout was as part of the whole and what its intention was and gave lots of feedback. Humbly and patiently I continued to jump back and forth on the sandy sports field. When I was learning something totally new, I needed a programme, instructions, visual and written stimuli and supervision. In addition, it was motivating for me that we did workouts in different places: We met in the misty Kaivopuisto in the early mornings, cycled through snow to the running tube at the Eläintarha sports field and “ran” with a rubber band and skipping ropes in the box. I was surprised to notice that my body responded little by little; I started to enjoy running and really felt like I was learning something. I started to feel how my body felt more stable when running 100-m sprints, I learned to use my hands while running, higher cadences started to feel normal, and it was suddenly easy to jump onto the block of wood on one foot. I got more aware of my training routines and my own ways of learning – also that I’m pretty lazy if I don’t do a weekly training programme.  I felt that my running condition increased even if I did just sprints.

Between the springs of 2015 and 2016, I focused on technique and skill work both in running and in CrossFit in general and did mostly high-intensity interval workouts instead of long-distance/lasting workouts (in the winter time I had spinning or swimming once or twice a week). I took condition tests both in the summer of 2015 and spring of 2016 and I got better results in the latter. Never before had the start of cycling season been as easy as in the spring of 2016. Even though I started to manage a good technique in running and continued to combine that with a little more distance, my heel was still aching every now and then and I had problems with my breathing. I had a little decline in my training in 2016, especially in my new running routines, but I noticed that high-intensity training in the CrossFit box and cycling helped to sustain my condition. At the same time I noticed how a stressful working period and too goal-directed training might be hard to combine.  At the end I abandoned wearing high heels and I got a new medication for my mild asthma. Not to mention changes in my stress levels. I started running again with indoors training in the winter of 2017. I knew how to start, what to do and how to programme thanks to the good advices I had got before. Running felt very nice and I started to feel that this could really be a part of my training repertoire.

 

My goals are somewhere else than in competitions. Because every step counts, I want to maintain the meaning of good basic technique and a playful feeling.

Ever since then I have been running and doing CrossFit and my other sports without any pain, and the whole package is working now.  I explore running with barefoot shoes and I’ve started to run on trails and playing in the woods with a compass. My goals are somewhere else than in competitions. Because every step counts, I want to maintain the meaning of good basic technique and a playful feeling. I want to know how I run and that my running workouts have variation. With the help of CrossFit training in general and experimenting with a new type of running, I have gained structure in my training and understood the meaning of technique and skills over loads, distance and speed. By concentrating in learning something new I gained new enthusiasm, perspectives and learning experiences. I have also learned that this CrossFit-type of running training helps me not only to develop but also sustain my endurance for example in the times when I don’t have lots of time to train.

- Merja