Years ago, my intrepid marathon pit crew, Team Sina Bina, stood ready to hydrate and cheer me at the crack of dawn on the sidelines of the course on Oahu. Bless them. They didn't know they'd be standing there well over an hour before spotting me Quasimodo my way towards them in all my sweaty, road meat glory.
However, their time was not wasted for they had the great honor of watching the pack leaders waft by them while the sun still hung low on the horizon. Once I found them, I guzzled water, simultaneously sucking down air in wheezing gasps which resulted in a vortex of H2O effluvium escaping my pie hole and landing rather inconspicuously on my already sweat logged running shirt. My state of physical apoplexy escaped my crew. They were too busy waxing poetic over the languid beauty of the elite runners. Extolling their silence, their buoyancy, their speed, the effortless quality of their motion.
I limped off, snarfing oxygen in lame pursuit of those damn glorious runners.
Here's the sad part, I defy any distance runner of middling aptitude to admit that they've NEVER spent at least 43 minutes of a long run daydreaming of miraculously corralling superhuman speed during a marathon, imagining they find themselves prancing along at the head pack on race day. We train fully aware that the probability of running a 2:14 marathon is nigh impossible and yet we run.
But speed aside, there's no reason you can't run like an elite athlete. As a matter of fact, there's every reason to try because chances are a few elite changes will make you marginally faster and, more importantly, will stave off running injury.
Aside from the obvious form requirements, like running tall and striking mid-foot, elite runners have a consistent stride rate of about 180 to 190 strikes per minute. It sounds insanely fast and if you're running a 14 minute mile, there's a chance you'll start off scuffling along like Groucho Marx. But keep in mind, if you've got a low stride rate you're channeling your energy DOWN instead of forward. That slows you down and results in greater impact (read INJURY!). Considering that elite runners spend less than one tenth of a second per stride meeting rubber to road, you'd think they were flying (actually, I think they are) and that limited impact time goes a long way in alleviating a ton of stress on the body.
(For simple stride drills, check this out)
Here's how you figure out your stride rate. While you're running, start a timer and count how many times your right (or left) foot hits the pavement in sixty seconds. Aim for 90-95 strikes total (which gets you to the 180-190 optimal stride rate). Chances are, you're off.
Here's how I make an immediate adjustment. I pick a power song on my i-pod. I've got a line-up of songs just for stride rate. Every 20 minutes into a long run, I go back to my "STRIDE RIGHT!" song as a gentle reminder that logging miles isn't enough, I need to think about form and stride. I just run to the beat and I know that I'm hitting my optimal rate because after about 10 miles, I'm incapable of counting properly so I just let the beat help me along. Lately, the song that gets me there is "Pop Song" by Starf•cker. But I have a feeling you've got a diddy of your very own that will get you where you need to be.