Running technique Part IV  //  Running technique 101 – some simple changes

28 Sep 2007 Posted by

In our previous posts, we’ve moved from asking whether the way we run “naturally” might be incorrect, to discussing that there is such a thing as sound running technique, but that this technique is not necessarily the same for everyone, to looking (in yesterday’s post) at the scientific evidence behind the Pose theory in particular.

The fineprint of learning a new running technique

In that post, we looked at how intensive training with the Pose method was able to alter certain running biomechanics, resulting in reduced loading on the knee, but increased loading on the ankle. The principle behind “wholesale” changes to running technique was questioned, because it seems as though there is fine print that the athlete is not necessarily guaranteed to be injury free or faster, as the techniques promise. The success of the training seems to depend entirely on the ability of the athlete to learn the technique properly, which means there is little liability on the teachers of the technique – “If it works, great. If not, don’t call us, it’s not our fault you can’t run!”

And yesterday, I received a very interesting comment suggesting that if the atheltes in that study (20 of them) had been forced to train like novices for a short period, they might have avoided injury. In other words, having learned a new technique, they should have gone right back to the beginning and run like beginners – low mileage, mix walking and running etc – instead of running normally. And this is quite true, I’m sure it would work. But the ‘requirement’ to do this is precisely the problem with the teaching of technique. Does anyone else wonder how a runner of 20 years, who is running 50 miles a week, could be expected to go back to running 10miles a week simply to run a different technique!

So the fine print to these running techniques, both Pose and Chi, should now read:

Learn how to run faster and injury free…but…

  • There’s no guarantee you’ll leave a course or read our materials having learned the technique properly
  • If you don’t, it’s not our fault
  • There also a better than 50% chance you’ll pick up a calf or Achilles injury on the way, and that’s because you haven’t learned the technique
  • We suggest you spend about 8 weeks learning how to run again. But don’t worry, once you’ve learned, you will be faster and injury free!

But there was still some excellent theoretical support for both methods

Having said this, let me emphasize that the issue is not with the concept, or the principles, because they are actually very good, for both Pose and Chi running. The theory for Pose, as explained on the website, is actually the best explanation for good running technique that I have read, it’s well worth looking at. The problem is with the delivery, the implementation. Because holding courses and selling books and DVDs to change a person’s running style simply creates problems, as Jonathan wrote yesterday and as we discussed.

Yet many people swear by the technique and would never go back. Of course, some of these are marketing stories, hyped up for your ‘benefit’. But some are true – there is little doubt that Pose and Chi have both changed runners’ careers for the better, in some instances. But they’ve done the opposite too, and that’s the issue.

But what we want to do today is investigate how you might benefit from the series we’ve run. We’ve pretty much said not to worry about trying to make wholesale changes to running technique. But what is your option then? We’ve also said that there are small changes you can make, subtle things that can be learned. You’ve read from people how they practiced and trained and eventually became better runners as a result of what they figured out. And that’s what this post is all about.

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Running technique 101

A whirlwind tour of optimal running technique

This is where we depart from fact (not that we’ve ever been entrenched in it, to be honest – there are simply too few facts on this topic to do that!) and into an area many will see as opinion. However, as much as possible, I’ll try to stick to those things that can be argued with some physics or biomechanical basis. Feel free to comment

The head and shouldersthe source of relaxation

The head and shoulders tell the body what “mood” to be in. Tension often originates in the head, face and shoulders and simply consciously relaxing here can have the effect on the rest of the body. Whenever athletes “tie” up or get tense, the first place you see it is in the neck and shoulders, and the corollary to this is that the head and shoulders much be very relaxed when running. There are, as with most things, exceptions to this ‘rule’. Paula Radcliffe comes to mind as someone who looks as though she is scanning the airspace above her for attacking mosquitoes, yet she runs a 2:15 marathon! I would suggest that her excessive head movement, which many have suggested is a detrimental factor, is in fact a SOURCE of relaxation. That is, movement doesn’t imply tension. So the key is to relax. Start with the mouth, jaw, neck and shoulders. Many athletes, particularly as novices, suffer from cramp and pain in the shoulders – that’s nothing more than tension. Drop your arms, don’t hunch the shoulders and just let the arms hang loosely, and that goes away.

The armsthe jockey

The arms are the “jockey” to the body and legs, the “horse”. In long distance running, the arms obviously play a far lesser role than in the sprinter, where the arm provides a counter-balance to the torque and forces being applied to the trunk by the legs as they swing through. This is still the role during running, but it’s far less critical. Perhaps the two biggest factors to think of here are fatigue and tension. Fatigue is a problem with the arms, especially in shorter, higher intensity running. This is something that can only really be trained, no shortcuts! Tension is more of an immediately redeemable one, and if the arms become tense, it once again ‘filters’ to the rest of the body. The hands in particular are important – clenched fists, tight, rigid wrists are all signs of tension, so try to consciously relax these areas.

The actual position of the arms is up for debate. Generally, one would say that an elbow angle between 80 and 100 degrees is ‘natural’, but there is range around this – think of the Chinese athlete Wang who runs like a soldier with virtually straight arms. This may not be the most effective way, but I have little doubt that if she tried anything else, it would be unsuccessful. But the key is to just relax and let the arms hang in what you feel is a natural position.

Hipsthe centre of mass, and the source of your “fall”

The hips are, as described by the Pose website, one of the more important parts to consider. This is where Pose theory is particularly strong. Ideally, the hips should be as far forward as possible (within reason) because the hips are more or less where the centre of mass is. As we described the other day, if you land well in front of your centre of mass, you decelerate. That’s one reason why when you run downhill, you feel like you are jarring much more. If you want to speed up on a downhill, you know what to do – simply lean forward. Not at the shoulders, but by getting your whole body tilted forward just a little. That means getting your hips in front. In otherwords, all runners know that when running down hill, they can control speed by moving their hips. Slowing down involves “sitting back”, or dropping the hips slightly.

Applying the same principle to running every where else, if you can just learn the habit of keeping your hips “high” then you will always be in this position. In otherwords, don’t “sit” and run at the same time – get your centre of mass up and forward, if you can. This is not easy, it requires quite strong core muscles, and so that’s why runners often benefit from some Pilates or gym training in this area. But the take home message is the same – get the hips up and lean forward if you want speed.

One of the biggest mistakes made by runners is to lean forwards at the shoulders. The problem if you do this is that you hips actually go backwards! This means that by putting the shoulders forwards, you even less likely to be in a position to harness gravity to go forward. This is most noticeable on uphills, where the temptation is to lean forward, hunched over. Not only does this hinder breathing, but it actually destroys your efficiency. Rather concentrate on leaning from the ankles, so that your hips are forward. It sometimes even helps to pull your shoulders back, as though you are standing in the upright, soldier ‘at attention’ position.

The knees

“Drive your knees forward! Come on, pick em up!” That’s a cry I heard almost every day while still running track at school, for it is the universal cry of coaches who want their athletes to speed up. The problem is, as we discussed the other day, it’s actually counter-productive, for two reasons.

One, the athlete then tends to overemphasize stride length because they are instructed to do so. This means they work even harder on contracting the quads to drive the knee forward. Consider that this is usually done towards the end of a race, when the athlete is tired and so doesn’t have the luxury of energy to waste and you see how this ‘drive’ is probably only causing more problems later on. The athlete would be better advised to focus on maintaining a high turnover and rather saving energy on the drive.

Second, and perhaps more important, the athlete tends to overstride. The problem here is the same as before with the hips – if you ‘reach’ for the landing, your foot goes way out in front of you and lands way in front of the centre of mass. That causes braking and deceleration, which then means you have to work even harder to speed up or maintain a speed. So the instruction to lift the knees is probably not a good one. My advice to runners, then is rather think about lifting your feet off the ground, and forget about driving the knee. This is another thing that the Pose technique advocates, and it’s certainly correct in principle. From an application point of view, it’s important not to ‘overload’ the mind with all sorts of instructions, but for this one, the simple concept of pulling your foot up underneath you is easy to do and makes a difference.

The feetmost important of all

Finally, perhaps the most important thing of all – don’t worry about how your foot is landing! The moment you start becoming pre-occupied with whether you are landing on the heel, the midfoot or forefoot, you’re in trouble. That’s a recipe for injury, because your mental concern about landing causes you to be tense on landing, and a tense muscle is not able to cope with the repetitive strain it needs to. Also, you change the loading patterns. For example, we’ve spoken about landing on the forefoot, and the injuries it can cause. most often, this was happening because runners were consciously placing their feet in plantar flexion (pointing toes out) before they landed. As a result, they landed on the forefoot, but the poor calf muscle was bearing the brunt of the body weight.

So what should you do? First of all, remember that the landing of the foot depends on the position of the foot under the body. If you ‘reach’ for the landing, then you will land more on the heel (unless you plantar flex, which is a BAD idea!), whereas if you allow your foot to land under the body, then you land midfoot. That’s all you need to know, the rest is details. So don’t worry about it.

The final point in this regard is that 75% of elite athletes are heel strikers, according to the latest study from Japan. I referred to this study the other day, but what was found was that 75% of runners in a 21km race, running at 3min/km, were heel strikers. Of course, one could always argue that if they were fore-foot strikers, they’d run even faster, but the point is that there is no apparent association between WHERE you land and how fast you are. So forget about landing – gravity will handle that for you!

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Final conclusion

It’s been an extremely stimulating and challenging series of posts, I’m sure you’ll agree (especially if you have managed to read them!). I do apologize for the length of the posts, I wish I could make them shorter, but I guess faced with the choice of presenting half the information and keeping more reader’s attention, and getting all the information out and losing some people, I’m going for option 2. So it’s really important to get the details out. What I think I will do is a final post tomorrow, just wrapping up this series on running technique, and hopefully summarizing it quite dramatically. But thank you for reading, for your comments and interests!

See you tomorrow for the “executive summary!”

Ross

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