I thought this was pertinent given the focus on running mechanics and barefoot running. It's an article I wrote for Running Times online a couple years back. It's a simple and practical look at how to run properly.
Running seems to come naturally, so why should we worry about our technique or form? Ask many coaches and they will tell you that distance runners should not worry about how they run. On the other hand there are books on running technique popping up everywhere. So what is the truth?
The truth can be found by studying the best distance runners in the world. If you look at frame by frame shots of world class runners, the majority of them run "correctly". Distance runners neglect working on their form it is difficult to change the way one runs. Recently, I sat down with two highly successful coaches and spent four nights watching 800m and 1500m Olympic or championship races. The similarities between almost all of the top runners were astounding.
Knowing how to run is the most difficult part. In the discussion below I will stick with what can be seen through analyzing elite runners and biomechanical knowledge. The following is based on the ideas of world renowned biomechanics expert and sprint coach Tom Tellez and I am much indebted for the information he provided.
The Drive Phase
The running stride can be divided into two phases, the recovery phase, and the support/drive phase. The drive phase causes the propulsion needed to get you moving and starts with when foot contact is made. Once foot contact is made you allow the foot to load up and extend the hip downwards and slightly back to create the force. The extension of the hip is where your power comes from. It is helpful to think of it as a crank device which you crank from the hip.
When coming off the ground you are trying to optimize the vertical and horizontal components of the stride. With too much horizontal movement you will flatten out and not come off the ground, thus losing air time and stride length. Too much vertical movement will leave you high up in the air for too long and you’ll bounce along with a very short stride length. Thus, it is important to optimize the angle and extend your hip so that you have a slight bounce in your stride. A good cue for this is to look at the horizon. If it stays flat, you are too horizontal. If it bounces a lot, you are too vertical. An analogy is to think back to your high school physics class and remember how to get the greatest distance when firing a cannon ball. The angle has to be optimized.
When the hip is extended correctly it will result in the working of a stretch/reflex mechanism. This is best thought of as a sling shot where you stretch it back and then let it go and it will shoot back to its original position. When you extend the hip you are putting it in a stretch position. Once the hip has extended, it is important not to try to do anything unnatural with your feet or toes. A common mistake is to try to push off at the end of this phase with your toes. This will likely result in too much horizontal momentum.
The Recovery Phase
With this mechanism, the recovery cycle of the leg will happen automatically. The lower leg will lift off the ground and fold so that it comes close to your buttocks (how close depends on the speed you are running) then pass under your hips with the knee leading. Once the knee has led through the lower leg will unfold and should touch down right underneath you.
Trying to actively move the leg through the recovery phase is a common mistake and will only result in more wasted energy. The leg won’t cycle through as quickly as it would if you allowed the stretch/reflex mechanism to work. A common mistake is to try to lift the knee at the end of the recovery cycle. The knee will lift enough if you stretch the hip sufficiently.
The knee should be allowed to cycle through and lift, but it should not be forced. The best example of this can be seen in assisted walking experiments with spinal cord injury patients. Since the spinal cord has been damaged, these people do not have use of their lower body. However, if they are put on a treadmill and someone actively pushes their leg back, extending the hip to initiate the stretch/reflex, the injured patient’s leg will cycle through the recovery part of walking without assistance! In addition it has been shown that the recovery phase of running constitutes less than 15% of the total energy used during running, further supporting the idea that most of the work is automatic because of the stretch/reflex. Trying to actively lift the knee or pull the leg through is a waste of time and energy.
Once the knee has cycled through, the lower leg should drop to the ground so that it makes contact close to under your center of gravity or your hips. When foot contact is made, it should be made when the lower leg is perpendicular to the ground. The leg does not extend outwards like is seen in many joggers and there should be no reaching for the ground. The leg should simply unfold and drop underneath the runner.
Initial foot contact is made on the outside of the foot, but you can not really feel this. For practical purposes, in distance running the foot should make contact flat footed, or on the forefoot with the heel touching the ground afterwards. Slamming the heel into the ground first is a braking action that also causes a high impact peak. By hitting forefoot/midfoot the braking action does not occur and the impact peak that shoe companies spend lots of money trying to eliminate does not occur. In addition to this, the Achilles tendon acts like a spring as it stores some of the energy that comes from the ground contact and releases it when the contact is broken.
If you remain up on your toes and never let the heel touch the ground or are too quick with the foot/ground contact, you lose this free energy because you don’t allow the foot and Achilles to properly store and then release the energy. This mechanism happens because of the elastic properties of the muscles and tendons. Once foot contact occurs, you allow the foot to load up, then extend the hip and start the cycle all over again.
Your arms are another integral part of the picture. They should work with you and be coordinated so that they swing in opposition with your legs and from the shoulder so that your shoulders do not turn or sway. When your left leg is forward, your right arm should be forward. On the upswing the arm angle should be slightly less than 90 degrees with the hands in a relaxed fist. In addition to this the arms should not swing across your body on the upswing. On the backswing they should swing back to just above and behind your hip joint.
Learning how to run properly is a very important aspect in maximizing your performance. It will make you much more efficient, meaning less energy is wasted during your race. Also, a major benefit is that it will decrease your likelihood of injuries. While these are good reasons to perfect your running, the best reason is that the majority of the world’s best run correctly and it is no coincidence that they seem to be able to race faster and train at very high volumes of work with very few injuries.
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