Running Tips

When playing softball, how many times have you said to yourself, “If I were just a step faster, I could have beaten out that grounder?” How many times have you said, “If I were just a step quicker, I could have caught that ball or at least prevented an extra base?” I’ll bet something like that happens to you at least once a game. If you were just a bit faster, how much more could you contribute to your team? If everyone on the team were just a bit faster, how much would that affect the outcome of each game?One of the greatest assets a softball player can have, especially at our advanced ages, is good foot speed. Anything you can do to improve your speed will be a boon to you and your team. The only way to run faster is to run faster! You’ll probably have to use trial and error to find just the right method, but below might be a place to start.

WARMUP: Benefit: Warm up your muscles and thereby avoid injuries. Your heart is a muscle, too, and needs to warm up before heavy exertion just like any other muscle. When you begin your jog, your breathing rate will increase. After eight or ten minutes, you’ll notice your breathing will be almost normal again as a result of your lungs and blood now being fully oxygenated. Some folks refer to this as getting a second wind. If you start sprinting before then, your body will be in oxygen debt and you will be agonizing. Method: Jog for 10 minutes at a comfortable pace. Speed is of no concern but always be aware of your running form. Ideally, your head and torso would not move at all; your arms and legs would have a piston-like back-and-forth motion. Side-to-side motion should be negligible. Your foot should strike the ground directly below you, never in front (slows you down and causes bounce). You should always be as relaxed as possible (shoulders low, no fists), even when sprinting; relaxed muscles are more efficient and burn less oxygen. Do not proceed to sprinting unless you can jog at least two miles comfortably.

SPRINTING: Benefit: To increase leg turnover resulting in better foot speed. Once you start these sprinting drills, you could see your speed increase by as much as 50 percent within six weeks. Method: Run the 10-minute warm-up prescribed above and stretch as recommended in a separate essay. Stretch before jogging if it isn’t convenient to do it after—just be sure to do it before you sprint. Accelerate from a standing or jogging start, reaching top speed in four or five strides. Sprint for a total of 50 strides, the whole while trying to accelerate even more. Think: turnover, turnover, turnover. Shortening your stride may help. Yes, shortening your stride may actually slow you down, but at this point turnover is the critical thing. Whenever sprinting, focus on form as described above, but also ensure that only your toes touch the ground (running heel-to-toe or even flat-footed is okay when you’re jogging). Sprinting on your toes will give you a smoother, faster stride and will keep your head from bobbing making it easier to follow those fly balls you’ll eventually have to run down. Once you complete your 50 strides (hint: try counting 25 strides of one foot), jog for about three minutes and then sprint for 80 strides, but this time pour on the coals from the very first stride. Following each sprint, keep jogging if at all possible. If you’re just too gassed, walk until you can resume running. Do not stand still or you may tighten up! Variation One: Do the sprints above down a gentle slope, jog back up, and repeat (suggest two 50s and one 80). The slope must be gentle enough that you can still run on your toes. This is another great way to increase your leg turnover. Variation Two: Do your sprints uphill, jog back down, and repeat. You can choose a steeper incline since you’ll have no trouble running on your toes. This is a great way to strengthen your legs Variation Three: After warming up, run four or five 50-stride sprints with three-minute jogging intervals, and then finish with an 80-stride sprint. The 50-stride sprints will serve you well going from one base to the next, but you’ll need the 80-stride training to keep from running out of gas when running more than two bases.

You might want to try some of the sprinting variations suggested above on alternating days. On your non-sprinting days, run a little further to make your sprinting days seem easier. Never feel guilty about taking a day off completely—in fact, one idle day a week is probably a good idea. Also, consider doing some upper body strengthening as recommended in a separate essay. We’ve all seen Olympic sprinters and marveled at their upper body muscle tone. A strong upper body promotes a stronger arm swing when running. One sprinting theory states that: the faster you swing your arms, the faster your legs have to go. A strong upper body gives you a strong arm swing.

How can you time yourself between sprints? If you run on a high school track, just jog four laps for a warm-up, and then start your sprint at the beginning of the fifth and each succeeding lap. Otherwise, you can use a wristwatch with a built-in timer; just set it to go off every three minutes; my Timex Triathlon costs about $15. Not using a track or a watch? Exact three-minute intervals are not critical. Just guess!

COOLDOWN: Benefit: To eliminate lactic acid built up in your muscles during endurance training, thereby preventing cramps and soreness. Method: Jog at a comfortable pace for about ten minutes before hitting the showers. Stretching after a run is a great idea!

Should you do any of the above on game day? If your body will allow it, there’s no reason not to do it. However, play the game first and run later. Otherwise, your legs will be rubbery and game performance will suffer. Whatever you do, please do not run just once a week. Once-a-week strenuous exercise is a greater hazard (heart attack) than no exercise at all. Do not count softball, bowling, golf, etc., as strenuous exercise.

SHOES: You really need to wear a good pair of running shoes to avoid injury, and don’t wear your running shoes for yard work or strolling the mall. Running shoes should be reserved for running only—other activities break them in differently and can lead to running injuries. A good pair of running shoes should be considered an investment, not an expense. For most of us, the chances of adverse effects from running are negligible if you wear good shoes. You could go to a running specialty store and get fixed up properly, but it’s going to cost you. I’ve had excellent luck with the New Balance Factory Store. They’ve got a toll-free number [(866) 623-6245] and folks on the other end who can fit you properly. I’m not pushing New Balance but they are the best shoes for dirt cheap that I’ve found (typically about $40)—good source for softball shoes, too. Most NB models run the same size as your street shoes, but ask to be sure. They also come in different widths, the only brand that does. Your main concern in selecting a shoe should be fit and function—color and style are secondary considerations. If you get your shoes elsewhere, stick with manufacturers that specialize in running shoes. Plenty of chain stores sell shoes that look like the real thing but aren’t, and you could be sorry if you run in them.

I’d suggest staying away from the sports shoe places in the mall unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. While these stores may have the right shoes, they may not have anybody who knows anything about them—probably just HS kids. Stick with a real running store (Jus’ Running in north Asheville, on Long Shoals just north of I-26, the new one in downtown Brevard) or the folks at NB.

Tell the clerk the following: your weight, weekly mileage, running surface, and foot problems. You need to mention your weight so that the clerk can suggest something with the right amount of cushioning—you don’t want to put Volkswagen shock absorbers on a dump truck or vice versa. The mileage and running surface will determine shoe composition and tread requirements. Most runners strike the ground slightly to the outside of center on the heel (when jogging) and push off slightly toward the inside of the foot. You can verify any foot problems by looking at the wear pattern on your shoes. If you walk exclusively on the outside or inside of your foot, or roll from inside of the heel to the outside of the ball, the clerk needs to know this in order to recommend a motion control shoe. Otherwise, you could develop injuries. If you have low arches, you’ll need a shoe with a good arch support. Keep track of the mileage you put on a pair of running shoes and start thinking about replacements before you get much over 500 miles on them—they lose cushioning rapidly after that. Once you’re through running in them, running shoes are fine for yard work or casual wear, but not vice versa.

Runners should be careful about their dress. (Actually, don’t wear a dress while running—people will laugh and point.) Wear layers in the winter—several thin, loose layers are much better than one thick one. Running-specific clothing is best because it’s designed to wick moisture away from your skin yet keep you warm. It also lets heat out without letting cold or moisture in. Don’t overdress. You should feel cool when you start a winter run, but feel fairly comfortable after a mile or so. If you’re fairly comfortable when you start a run, you’ll probably overheat and start sweating heavily—not a good thing in cold weather. I can’t tell you exactly what to wear for what weather; but you’ll figure out what it takes through trial and error. Some folks are comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts at 40 degrees while others start bundling up anytime the temperature dips below 60. You can run comfortably in nearly any weather conditions if you have the right clothes. About the only time you must stay off the roads is during an electrical storm or when the roads are icy. Some folks like to run shirtless in the summer, but I prefer a running singlet (a light shirt with straps instead of sleeves) to help wick away sweat and stay cooler. In fact, a running singlet makes a great first layer in winter, too. Good sunglasses and a hat are advisable on sunny days. A hat also reduces heat loss on cold days.

Runners need to maintain good hydration. In fact, everyone does but runners are going to sweat more than the average clod. If you wait until you feel thirsty to have a drink, you’ve waited too long. Some folks favor juices or fluid replacement drinks (e.g., Gatorade), but water is fine, too. Can’t get excited about the taste of plain water? Try carbonated. Drink before, during, and after exercise of any kind. You need to drink in the winter, too, because the dry air sucks as much fluid from your body (maybe more—through the lungs) as sweating does in the summer. Keep an eye on the fluids you expel—they should be as clear as possible. If you’re not passing fluids regularly, you’ve got a REAL problem. Get into the habit of sipping water at every opportunity—you can’t overdo it unless you inhale. In rare instances, too much water can result in potassium depletion leading to disorientation. Counteract that possibility by eating bananas or popping vitamin pills containing potassium. Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated drinks as they have a dehydrating and diuretic effect.