It's a common, yet sad, motto for so many endurance athletes. The thought that slugging away mile after mile, that's all you need to get better. Listening to co-workers and fellow athletes talk about their training and goals, I feel they're missing out on what could be the most important part of their training: form.
A better way to describe form is to use the word biomechanics. The word form seems to miss much of what you as an athlete are going for when you work on it. Form is just scratching the surface of what you're truly after. What you really want to think about is your biomechanics.
In the latest installment of Inside Triathlon magazine, T.J. Murphy describes this as (and the title states) "Making the Invisible Visible". A very proper title for such an overlooked aspect of endurance, and better yet all sports.
Some people are just flat out fast. Take Usain Bolt scorching up the track or Ryan Hall flying through the streets at a pace we can (maybe) only think of doing for one mile, and he's racking them up over a two hour run. But it's safe to say neither of the two aforementioned athletes got to their elite level by talent alone. Somewhere along the way somebody pulled them aside and developed their form (biomechanics).
Usain Bolt getting the perfect amount of knee drive to propel him forward at epic speeds, and Ryan Hall placing his foot at the perfect spot under his body to not only propel him forward, but at the same time, preserve energy. That's the true beauty of biomechanics. Biomechanics is a two-fold winning situation. On one end they help you get faster, and on the other, help prevent injuries.
In his article, T.J. talks about the benefits of weight training, with the likes of Chrissie Wellington nonetheless, at the beginning of the article, but towards the end he drives home a list of philosophies every athlete (from the star quarterbacks to gangly cross-country runners) can utilize for better performances. The base of just about everything is the core. Not just core strength, but mostly core stabilization. Having a stable core is like having a properly tuned engine. It allows all the other smaller parts to run smoothly and fire properly at the right times. Say you have a loose core while in the swim leg of a triathlon. You're going to have issues in timing your pull and kicks. Not only will this slow you down, it will also waste priceless energy you will need later on in the race.
Going to the gym needs to be more than just stacking on muscle to your frame, it's a place to put your body through the motions of your sport under a load. And even doing your basic lifts properly all still stems from your core. Keeping your spine locked in proper position for each lift or movement is key. And this is especially key if you're just starting out to lift. Rather than throwing 250 pounds and squatting just because the guy before you could, start slow, light, and easy. Start with body weight squats, and get them right. Just the other day while I was stretching at the gym, I was watching a young teenager with 225 pounds on his back, with terrible form. By the time his knees got to 90 degrees, his back was arched forward and his head was facing down. Especially at this age, biomechanics of this lift are much more beneficial than the gratitude of a few friends standing around cheering you on. It takes a lot for me not to go over and help them. But with my bum knee, I'm not one to talk if I'm not even allowed to squat anything more than my body weight let alone have my knee go past 90 with that weight.
So before you go out and start building mile after mile on the road, trainer, or in the pool, take a step back and look at the mechanics of your sport. Where is your foot landing when you're running? What does your back look like while in aero position on the bike? Do your hips move up and down with every pedal stroke? Do your hips drop ever time you reach forward in the water? Learn some proper technique and form. Build it into your schedule a couple times a week to do some form drills or watch yourself in a mirror. As most endurance athletes will tell you, preserving energy with better form is on the same level as getting faster. The more energy you have for that last mile, or getting off the bike, or even in the 4th quarter, the better you'll finish. For me, I have noticed it in all three sports in triathlon. Especially in my running. Switching from a heavy stability shoe to shoes that get my foot strike under my body and more in my forefoot makes me a lighter runner on my feet. For videos and in-depth analysis of some mobility exercises checkout mobilitywod.com.