Running technique 101

As someone who spends every day watching people move and then trying to get them to do it better I am always amazed at the illogical approach many have to exercise. If I asked someone to make me a three-course meal, who had never cooked before, and told them that all they needed to know was how to turn the oven on I’d be laughed at. But somehow when it comes to exercise many people think that all they need to know is how to tie their shoes up and they should be fine from there on.

And the problem with running is that it is supposed to be a natural, instinctive movement – something we’re all born with. But we’ve got the movement skills of a six-year old.

I can’t count the number of times I have heard people say something similar to, ‘How you run is how you run”. But nothing could be further from the truth. Running well is every bit as technical and detailed as any other form of exercise. From foot placement to hand position to how to breathe there is beauty and artistry in running well. Taking the time to do it well will have a reward just as big as improving your squat technique or pronouncing words correctly in a new language.

But, and there is a big but, there is no evidence at all to show that all these supposed “technique” coaches you can now find are actually doing any good. In fact, there is research that shows that altering a runner’s natural stride and form actually slows them down and makes them less efficient.

Lydiard hinted at this in a famous article featured in Sports Illustrated in 1962 where he said, “Forget about form. If a joker throws his arms around, that’s fine, so long as he is fit and relaxed. Then he runs smoother and easier, and form takes care of itself. We want the chap who can run for two or three hours and come back looking as fresh as he did when he went out”.

The thing that separates the best runners in the world from the rest of us is their ability to hold form while running. This skill is hard won over many years of pavement pounding and is one of the main reasons why you don’t see many great young runners in distance events. But the fact remains that the elite have spent many years perfecting their form just the same way a boxer learns the ins and outs of the fight game. As they’ve developed higher and higher skill levels they display this by racing faster and further.

A good runner is one that has learnt what it takes to go fast. When was the last time you went out the door with the sole intention of figuring out how you run and how to make it better?

Before any discussion can be had on training plans, pacing strategies, or which shoes to buy we need to first look at how to run. It sounds so simple, but trust me, it’s not.

My friend Rob de Castella, a former world champion and world record holder, knows a thing or two about running. During one of our conversations about running he gave me the simplest truth I have yet heard.

“Running is about kicking the earth as hard as you can on each stride”.

The physics is simple – the harder you push the earth, the harder it pushes you back which results in forward motion – Newton’s third law in action. But usually people are so distracted while they run that they may not even have realized this is what is happening. Perhaps they’re tuned out by listening to a favourite track, or they’re looking at the scenery to distract themselves from the pain they’re feeling, or maybe they’re busy thinking about how they need to tackle a problem at work. If I can give you one piece of advice immediately to carry through all your training from now it is to eliminate distractions from your running. Focus on making every step of every run more perfect than the one preceding it. Tune into your body and don’t be distracted by your iPod.

Running form discussions are usually derailed by minutiae. One minute some guy stumbles out of the desert saying he’s just been hanging out with some amazing barefooted Indians who are powered by chia seeds, and the next a Russian guy is talking about energy return, while at the same time there’s a guy in a lab coat telling you that the most important thing is the gravitational effect of Mars on earth’s atmosphere and if you time your running to coincide with the alignment of the planets that you’ll be faster.

The problem with a lot of the commentary on running technique is that most of it is based on personal experience. But in today’s world of information overload all of a sudden we have access to a nearly limitless supply of personal experience, albeit by other people.

But let’s make this as practical and based in science and biology as we can. After all, despite all of us on the planet being different, we share the same biology, so what works for one body will largely work for another.

Underneath the body are the legs. While the mass above the legs is largely non-functional mass in relation to running, the legs need to serve a variety of functions from support to shock absorption to force generation. And during each stride they’re performing all these actions at once. Underneath the legs is the ground, and as we said before, we need that so that we have something to kick against to provide propulsion for us.

Running is best described as a series of one-legged hops done in rapid succession.

Propulsion and lift off: When you push off.

Recovery: When you pick your leg up and extend it.

Impact and braking: When gravity brings you back into contact with the ground and friction halts your forward motion.

While we could break out here and discuss enough scientific research to make your head spin the most important take away is that your legs effectively act like springs throughout your run. “Tread lightly” takes on a whole new meaning when you start to consider the impact these forces have on your performance.

Many running coaches will try to shoe horn you into their idea of universal good form. Given that we are all built slightly differently, and that limb lengths, weight distribution, and even previous injury will change the way we run trying to achieve some textbook ideal for form isn’t going to work. Not only that but it will likely lead to injury.

I’m not sure perfect form exists in relation to running for most of us. With individual discrepancies in limb lengths, heights, and even body composition most of us will never move like an elite runner. Trying to shoe horn your body into someone else’s mechanics can be a fast path to injury. That being said there are some consistencies that hold true for all of us that can be worked on.

The Head. Good posture remains the same regardless of where you are or what you are doing. A neutral spine has a head position that is the same whether you are sitting, standing, or running. If your head is pushed forwards because you spend all day staring at a screen or slumped in a chair you’ll carry that same head position when you run. Because the head is so heavy it needs to be counter balanced somewhere else in the body. What happens is that to counter the weight of your head going forwards you tend to push your butt out behind you. This leads to a break at the hips so that you are never actually standing tall as well as heel striking.

With the head held in a neutral position you should be able to look at the ground at a point about three metres in front of you while simultaneously being able to scan for low branches.

The Shoulders. Good running involves little in the way of upper body rotation. In fact, the entire reason for moving your arms is to counter rotation to keep the upper body still. One of my pet peeves is people trying to run with what looks like military posture. If you try to run ramrod straight you won’t be able to use your arms effectively. The shoulders should round slightly, not enough to cause rounding of the upper back, but enough that the arms can swing freely.

The Back. While the back shouldn’t be held ramrod straight, as if you are a soldier standing at attention, it shouldn’t have excessive curve to it. An excessively curved back is a sign that some strengthening is needed to maintain posture while running. Without good posture you won’t be able to effectively counter all the forces created while running.

The Arms. The arms should hang in a relaxed manner from the shoulders. It’s all too common to see runners with their shoulders shrugged up near their ears and wonder why they unduly fatigue when running. The goal of running is relaxed economy and the arms play a big role in that. In distance running the arms swing from a point just outside the body to a point almost in the centre of your body, in line with the bottom of your sternum. As one of my triathlon coaches once said to me you should think of flicking your nipples as you run. As you speed up the arms will move in a straighter line so that they travel more parallel to the hip instead of this slight cross-body action.

The arm action itself is not one of pushing the arms forward, but pulling back and letting it relax on the way forward. It is the elbow drive backwards that pulls the opposite knee up and forward, so focus on elbow drive backwards, rather than on arm swing forwards.

The arms themselves will be held at about a ninety-degree angle at the elbow on the backswing. As the arm swings forward this will close. The main thing to remember is to stay tight and compact without wild swinging motions of the arms that waste energy.

The Hands. The hands should be loosely clenched as if holding a small stick in each hand. One well-known triathlon coach, Brett Sutton, even makes his athletes run with M&M containers in their hands to enforce this. They are easily spotted even years after moving on from him as they all run with imaginary M&M containers in their hands with thumbs suspended midair over where the top of the container would be.

The Wrists. Every time your wrist bends or the hand flops around you are wasting energy. Like with the back we don’t want joints held rigidly but there needs to be some firmness. Think of making the body like a young tree branch – springy and bendy, yet firm enough to give structure. If, on the other hand, we make the joints rigid and hard like an old branch, we become stiff and inflexible, unable to generate the kind of bounce needed to run well.

The Pelvis. Many people spend their days in what is called anterior pelvic tilt – that is with the pelvis rotated forward. While this may be your natural stance it is not ideal for running. This position is often due to overly tight hip flexors. This over tightness needs to be addressed otherwise the thigh is not free to extend backwards on each stride. For many people slightly rotating the pelvis forward will simply bring them back into neutral. A good test for this is that if you push your hips as far back behind you as you can (imagine Beyonce twerking to get this position) you’ll feel your abs are disengaged. If you begin to pull your hips towards your rib cage you’ll feel your abs start to engage. At the point where your abs are lightly activated you are now in a good position to run where the leg can swing freely underneath the body. The pelvis and the back must be working together to allow you to “run tall”.

The Legs and Feet. Before we discuss how the legs and feet operate we need to differentiate between “ground contact” and “landing”. Merely having your foot on the ground doesn’t equal having all your weight on it.

Percy Cerutty believed that running should be a free and uncomplicated movement. Work on relaxation before you worry about speed or distance – think easy, light, and smooth. We’ll get to fast eventually, but to start with let’s work on those three. One of the biggest benefits of running slowly is having the mental space to work on the dynamic relaxation required for running. If you can’t run relaxed and economically at 6min/ km you certainly won’t do it at 5min/ km or 4min/km.

So where do we begin? Tony Benson has this to say:

“First we need to practice getting the landing right. Start by jogging on the spot and feeling the natural landing position. As long as you keep your body vertical you will stay on the spot. If you want to move forward simply push your butt forward (don’t arch your back) so you are leaning from the heel not the waist and you will move forward (actually you will accelerate forward) naturally. Now find a straight line (i.e. as on a track) and start running along it. Have someone check your landing. Your right foot should cover half the line when it lands and your left should also cover half the line on landing. If your feet are not landing in this way or your heel is ok but your toes are pointing out you are not landing under your centre of mass. If you are landing in this way the outer edge of the foot will make contact first because the foot has a natural tendency to hang that way when relaxed while the backward pulling action will automatically align the foot into the correct position. The landing will also be relatively light because the foot is not landing all at once.

If you are landing correctly the foot, lower leg and thigh will have been swept backwards at the time of landing because if your landing is not active the heel will hit first and the braking effects that accompany a full heel landing will occur.

To be successful in achieving a correct landing position you will need to develop the power to be capable of applying a millisecond of downward force as the lead arm is pulled backwards. The corresponding downward drive of your opposite leg then causes your body to rise. This means your foot has more time to swing back into a position directly under your body.

Landing under your body means your foot spends less time on the ground than if you land on your heel with the foot out in front of your body because you do not spend unnecessary time pulling your body forward to get into a position to push off into the next stride. More importantly if you have ever been told to “lift your knees up” or to “run tall” ignore these poorly stated directives because, as per Newton’s law, to focus on lifting the legs will cause the hips and indeed the whole upper body to drop”.

Running is every bit as technical as any other activity you can find. It is not a matter of lacing your shoes up, sticking your head phones in and tuning out the rest of the world while you mindlessly plod around the streets.

Make an effort to make every step better than the one before it. Focus on posture, breathing, hand position, how you carry your arms, footfall, and most of all turnover. Your goal as a runner is to keep the body as a stiff spring to make it an efficient energy return device. A large part of that is a high cadence of around 180 steps per minute as it gives you an increase in stiffness for no extra physical training. There is nothing else you can do that can make you 100% better at running instantly. There are many free metronome apps available for phones these days. I suggest downloading one so you can use it in training to monitor your cadence. It is free speed and injury resistance.
Spend some time focusing on not how fast you run but how well. Make every step better than the one before it. The increase in economy will help you run faster for longer than before.