Embracing social distancing and improving running ability and agility
In the current time and what will likely be a significant period of history, in which we should leave our homes only for essential shopping, work (for key workers), or once a day for daily exercise (in the UK). It is really encouraging to see so many people walking, jogging, running and cycling.
While it is positive to see so many people embracing the gift of exercise, in contempt of a virus that preys on those with underlying health conditions. Our preferred choice of moving our bodies, outdoor exercise, freedom and connecting with nature does not come without irritations and restrictions.
For instance, in my borough, Richmond Upon Thames, local council guidance recommends to only use parks and green spaces once a day and stay two meters away from other people at all times #SocialDistancing
My nearest big park, Richmond Park, has closed park roads for motor vehicles and cycling is suspended (with the exception of NHS workers cycling to work) to deter congestion and groups. Nearby riverside towpaths have also put restrictions on cyclists and runners to reduce traffic and footfall.
The physics of social distancing combining seasoned athletes, many of whom have had important races and events cancelled or postponed, and with high energy reserves, specific training goals and a fast pace; mixing with a high number of people new to, or reintroducing walking, jogging and running to their daily routine; along with the hubbub of dog walkers, folks popping to the shops, meanders and glazed wanderers. Depending on your tribe, there’s bound to be some vexation and minimal compassion for those obstructing and infringing your space.
Similarly, for everyone exercising outdoors, the etiquette of creating space along with the question of what a safe distance is when walking, running and cycling behind someone is tricky.
Researchers at KU Leuven and at the Eindhoven University of Technology found that depending on the wind, 10-15 meters is the approximate distance that we should stick to during COVID-19 times.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is unnerving for everyone, it is important to help nurture and encourage outdoor exercise, positivity, health and wellbeing; share knowledge and skills on exercising safely and the long-term benefits of our chosen activities; and mitigate further restrictions.
The following outlines five simple types of training and skills to help maintain suburban fitness, good observation skills and social distancing for runners:
The fishhook technique, as described in ‘Sniper & Counter Sniper Tactics – Official U.S. Army Handbooks’ by U.S. Department of Defense (ISBN 9788026876168), is used by sniper teams to backtrack or circle around its own trail in an overwatch position. The snipper team can observe the back trail for trackers or ambush pursuers. If the pursuing force is too large to be destroyed, the sniper team strives to eliminate the tracker. The sniper team uses hit-and-run tactics then moves to another ambush position. The terrain must be used to advantage.
For running training, the fishhook technique is used to keep a group of runners together, regardless of pace, ability and overall distance, with very fast runners doubling back on their trail to touch base with the back athletes. The fishhook technique ensures that all runners keep moving, stay together and finish together, with the fastest in the pack exercising speed, stamina, change of direction and re-accelerations; while slower runners gain progressive fitness and practical cues from their peers.
Ordinarily, the fishhook technique is an incredibly social form of group running and can be challenging good fun.
In current times, adapting the fishhook to avoid that elderly person walking slowly in your track, or for giving you an extra minute or two to avoid that dog walker lingering on the path/pavement, or group of slow-moving walkers/joggers obstructing your passage on a busy road or narrow path. By doubling back on your trail, you can assess if there’s adequate space to continue or choose to take a diversion.
Indian runs and fartlek training
Indian runs can be described as a team jogging single file around a playing field, with the last person in line sprinting to the front, when that person gets there, the next person at the end of the line sprints to the front of the line, and so on and so forth.
Fartlek training is simply defined as continuous running intermixed with interval training – periods of fast running and periods of slower running. Fartlek’s can be done alone or with a group, and the idea is to continuously move, combining speed, deceleration and re-acceleration for the prescribed duration.
In the current time, while we want to avoid jogging single file, modified Indian runs and fartlek’s may be unavoidable for uninterrupted training.
ZigZag drills often include forward-backward-forward sprints and forward-backward-forward change-of-direction. The drills focus on linear speed, change of direction, unorthodox movement and explosive power in the lower limbs, and they are commonly associated with soccer – specific to moving the ball during the match as a cutting manoeuvre; or for American football running back drills for body balance and control.
ZigZag drills are typically done around cones, slalom poles or bigger obstacles, passing around the obstacles, keeping eyes up. Cones are placed 3-5 meters apart in one straight line or as a rectangle. Three meter gaps work the cut step, while the five meter gap works on controlled acceleration.
ZigZags might sound simple, but the change of direction and agility involved requires different types of skill training. We’ve all experienced or seen folks out walking, running or playing a ball game who are incapable of changing track or speed. In large part this can be attributed to old injuries or weaknesses, ankle, foot or knee instability, suppressed reflexes or antagonist inhibition. Many times, people are unaware of, or simply tolerate or push through these deficiencies. It pays to empathise with anyone in this situation and to instinctively kick-in your own ZigZag skills.
The current climate is an ideal time to work on ZigZags as they can be done in a relatively small area; and the enhanced physical preparation and skill acquisition from ZigZags will help to build reflexes to deal with unexpected perturbations for your important outdoor runs.
Think of imaginary cones, slalom poles or bigger obstacles as safe zones from micro-virus droplets – you need to reach the markers for safety. Incorporating this drill into your training improves motor skills, speed, changes of movement, and re-accelerations.
Examples of ZigZags:
There are several interesting studies that investigate the physical attributes that relate to linear speed, agility, change of direction, and explosive power including Jones P, Bampouras TM, Marrin K (2009) ‘An investigation into the physical determinants of change of direction speed.’ (The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. 49. 97-104); and Popowczak M, Rokita A, Świerzko K, Szczepan S, Michalski R, Krzysztof M (2019) ‘Are Linear Speed and Jumping Ability Determinants of Change of Direction Movements in Young Male Soccer Players?’ (Journal of sports science & medicine. 18. 109-117).
These research studies found that the most effective neuromuscular control for change of direction speed (CODS) is influenced by running speed and eccentric knee flexor strength; and that sprints and jumps are the most effective training skills for forward, backward, and sideways motion.
Bleep and shuttle run test
The Bleep Test, also known as the beep or multistage fitness test, is a method developed in the 1980’s to test the fitness and maximum aerobic capacity (or VO2), or stamina, of an athlete.
The standard test has 21 levels, and each level consists of a different number of shuttles. The test is performed by running between two markers placed 20 meters apart, at an increasing pace as indicated by the beeps. The test ends when you can no longer keep pace, or level 21 is completed.
The constant shuttling back and forth works on turning and being efficient with your turns. If the turns are too wide, then valuable seconds are wasted; and as the speed required for higher levels is fairly quick and as rest time decreases, it is important to be as efficient as you can.
In a research study by Ramsbottom R, Brewer J, Williams CA, ‘Progressive shuttle run test to estimate maximal oxygen uptake’ (British Journal of Sports Medicine 1988; 22:141-144), it was found that the correlation between VO2 max and shuttle level, and VO2 max and potential 5km running speed was almost 100% precise for active men and women.
In the current times, the bleep test can provide a good workout in a limited space and useful information on your aerobic fitness.
My view is that jump rope workouts are extremely effective, and as you might expect, doesn’t require much more than a rope and a little space.
Results from published research reports on comparative training responses to jump ropes and jogging are insightful as well as confusing – due to questionable methodologies, test groups and incentives to participate.
Research by John A. Baker (1968) ‘Comparison of Rope Skipping and Jogging as Methods of Improving Cardiovascular Efficiency of College Men,’ Research Quarterly. American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 39:2, 240-243 (DOI: 10.1080/10671188.1968.10618043) found that a daily program of rope skipping for 10-minutes is as efficient as jogging daily for 30-minutes for improving cardiovascular efficiency as measured by the Harvard step test.
The research report found that rope jumping at a moderate pace (administered to 92 male students) roughly equivocates to running an eight-minute-mile.
By comparison, a report by Michael T. Buyze, Carl Foster, Michael L. Pollock, Sheila M. Sennett, John Hare & Neil Sol (1986) ‘Comparative Training Responses to Rope Skipping and Jogging,’ The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 14:11, 65-69 (DOI: 10.1080/00913847.1986.11709222) found that ten minutes of rope skipping does not elicit a training response comparable to 30 minutes of jogging. For this research, participants included sedentary volunteers (17 women and nine men) split into groups of rope skippers and joggers. The skipping group had higher injury and drop-out rates compared to the joggers.
Jump rope workouts and tutorials:
There are lots of easy to learn jump rope variations including single-leg and split-leg jumps, running in place and taking off and landing on both feet, etc.
About 7 reps of 2-3-minute skipping intervals will strengthen the calf muscles and improve the elasticity of the surrounding tendons and fascia. Skipping also improves coordination and helps to improve overall cognitive function.
Imagine that you’re a boxer – a traditional boxing round is three minutes of work with a one-minute break in between each round. A few rounds of skipping will soon get you fighting fit.
By developing tools to be observant and notice your surroundings, and anticipate the need to fishhook, fartlek and ZigZag into your outdoor exercise, as well as experimenting and testing yourself with the Bleep Test and jump rope skills, your motor ability, coordination and stamina will stay at optimum levels.
Featured image credit: Rowan Harrison from Farnborough, England – King of Europe Round 3 Lydden Hill 2014, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link
“Good drivers have dead flies on the side windows.”Walter Röhrl (World Rally Champion 1980 & 1982)