As she recovered from a hysterectomy last year, Dee Ogden was eager to resume running but nervous about the post-surgical impact on her running form. So she did something that surprisingly few runners do: She hired a coach.
"When you learn tennis, you learn about your stroke and form," says Ms. Ogden, 44, a registered nurse in Victoria. "Why wouldn't you do that with running?"
The coach she hired was Marilyn Arsenault, a distance runner who has represented Canada in international championships and is one of the top masters (over-40) runners in North America – an obvious choice, since Ms. Ogden had seen Ms. Arsenault's "fluid and beautiful form" en route to victory in road races around Victoria.
Ms. Arsenault is one of a growing number of elite runners across the country who are sharing their expertise with recreational runners in different ways. She offers one-on-one personal coaching, and also leads a series of frequently sold-out Mindful Strides clinics that promise to teach "healthy running form" to reduce the risk of injury and make running more enjoyable.
Learning to run may sound like a toddler-level skill, but doing it well turns out to be surprisingly challenging. For example, Fiona McQueen had been running recreationally for more than 30 years when she decided to sign up for one of Ms. Arsenault's clinics in January.
Despite her years of experience, Ms. McQueen, a 51-year-old lawyer in Victoria, was suffering a prolonged string of minor but frustrating injuries. "It was getting more and more painful to run," she recalls. "I was beginning to question whether my running days were almost over."
Under Ms. Arsenault's guidance, she made adjustments to her running mechanics, focusing on subtle details like balance and foot placement. After a few months, she was injury-free and once again looking forward to a long-running future: "I would like to be one of those amazing runners you see in their 80s finishing races with their grandchildren."
Ms. Arsenault herself ran only for health and fitness until her mid-30s, at which point she began working with Malcolm Balk, a running coach in Montreal who emphasizes good form. Her rapid transformation into a national-class runner made her a firm believer in the importance of running technique.
Once you've figured out how to run, then you can start to worry about all the other variables: How fast? How far? How often?
Many inexperienced runners make the mistake of always running at the same pace for the same distance, says Jerry Ziak, a top Canadian marathoner and Olympic hopeful who coaches about 35 runners in Vancouver. "Once I slow down the pace of their long easy runs and their recovery runs, I begin to introduce a wide variety of paces into their schedule," Mr. Ziak explains. This approach – a mix of easy and hard running, instead of doing everything at medium effort – is typical of the training elite runners do, and produces much greater gains in fitness.
Working with a coach also provides an opportunity to escape long-distance running's proverbial loneliness. About two-thirds of Mr. Ziak's clients gather for group runs several times a week. He also leads weekly running clinics that draw as many as 100 people on Wednesday nights. The runners warm up together and then split into smaller groups based on on pace and experience.
Brandon Laan – an elite marathoner who, like Mr. Ziak, is preparing for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October, where the last spots on Canada's 2012 Olympic team will likely be decided – has been offering something similar in London, Ont., with free group runs on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. He also offers private one-on-one coaching. Just as important as the run itself, he says, is what you do before and after: warming up with dynamic stretches, and taking the time to do strength and mobility drills for the core and hips.
Of course, this sort of advice isn't the exclusive preserve of elite runners – in fact, would-be runners are faced with a barrage of advice from websites, books, magazines and (yes) newspapers. But sorting out the good advice from the bad or the merely irrelevant is a daunting task.
"I had to be confident in who was providing the feedback," says 36-year-old communications professional Sarah Pollard, explaining her decision to work with Ms. Arsenault. "In this case, someone who could filter out a lot of the 'advice noise' recreational runners are exposed to."
While there's no guarantee that fast runners will also be great coaches, there is an implicit warranty attached to their advice – that, for one person at least, it really works. So there was no better advertisement for Mr. Laan's services than his convincing first-place victory at last year's Goodlife Fitness Toronto Marathon.
"I was inspired then when I saw him finish, with no one else even close to him," recalls Gillian Howard, a 31-year-old from London who hired him as a coach shortly after watching the race. Under his guidance, she has focused on running more efficiently, adjusting her stride to land more on the forefoot and leaning forward slightly from the ankles.
The result? "I'm learning a lot," she says, "and loving running more than ever."
Elite runners Marilyn Arsenault, Jerry Ziak and Brandon Laan offer guidance to runners ranging from complete beginners to Olympians. Here are some of the most common topics they address.
Technique: There's no single "right" way to run, but there are plenty of wrong ways. A coach can suggest small modifications that will make you more efficient and less injury-prone.
Pace: A common mistake is to always run at the same pace. It's better – and more fun – to incorporate a wide range of speeds, from short sprints to relaxed long runs.
Distance: Mr. Laan often finds runners place too much emphasis on a single long run – running 35 kilometres on a Sunday morning but only 15 kilometres the rest of the week, for example. It's better to spread training out more evenly.
Injury prevention: The "little things" – mobility exercises such as legs swings and joint rotations, and body weight exercises to develop muscles that running neglects – are often forgotten, but they play a key role in staying healthy.
Special to the Globe and Mail