Is it a problem or a symptom?

A 1,500m runner consistently gets out kicked during cross country season when he is racing 5k. If he’s getting out kicked the problem must be that he doesn’t have enough “speed” to be able to pick it up during the last 100m, so we have to start doing more short and fast work, right? Wrong.

This line of thinking is often used in the High School ranks as justification for the massive amounts of faster interval work that is done. The problem is that the coach is mistaking the symptom for the problem or cause. In our above example, the runner not being able to finish strong is seen as the problem in the coach’s mind, when in reality it is the symptom. The difference is profound. The lack of finishing speed is the symptom that tells us that something else must be going on. In this case, the real problem is the athlete’s used all of his anaerobic capacity to stay on pace until the last 100m of the race. So, when the last 100m comes, he has no “anaerobic” energy reserve left so that he can kick it in. One solution is to improve the runner’s aerobic abilities so that he can use more aerobic energy, sparing his anaerobic reserve for when it’s needed. So, in this situation we work on making him more aerobic at race pace. This is the exact contrast to what would have been done if we looked at the lack of finishing speed as the problem itself.

This is but one example of the symptom vs. problem confusion. This concept appears throughout coaching and life. Too many times we address what is right in front of us without thinking what causes what we are seeing. The point of this short post is to make you aware of the difference between what we see, and the underlying causes. By being aware of the difference, and critically thinking about it, you’ll be much more prepared to actually help your athletes then if you simply address the outward symptoms. Let’s briefly look at a couple examples with running mechanics.

Running mechanics is one of the places where you see this symptom vs. problem confusion occur the most. Most people address exactly what they see. They compare their model of good running technique with their athlete’s running form and figure out what LOOKS different. There’s nothing wrong with this initial approach. The problem occurs in the next step, the fixing of the form.

The coach picks out what looks different, maybe its foot strike, or knee lift, or their back kick is too low. The next step is where the mistake occurs, they see that difference as the problem, when often times it is the symptom. The coach makes the mistake of directly addressing what they see. If the back kick is too low they tell the athlete to pull the foot higher, or if knee drive is too low they tell the runner to lift the knee. They correct the symptom.

In each case, the cause or the problem is often elsewhere. For example, if back kick is too low, the problem isn’t that the athlete isn’t pulling his leg towards his butt, but instead that he probably is cutting off hip extension or has a backwards lean. For foot strike, the athlete could be reaching out because his shoulder is rotating too much or his arms are crossing the body and the lower leg has to “keep going” because the arms have kept going. In essence, the body is compensating. Another example is someone with a very high back kick. While the person addressing the symptom would simply try to tell the runner to lower his back kick, the smart coach would look at the whole body and figure out that something else might be causing that high back kick, such as an excessive forward lean.

This is why knowledge of practical and applied biomechanics is critical. You need to know how the body works biomechanically so that you understand how everything interacts. Not picking on them, but this is why many distance coaches suck at running form improvements. I just watched a video today of a good coach who has had a lot of success coaching distance athletes try and work on running mechanics. You could tell right away that he was addressing the symptoms. I’m not meaning to disparage this coach, as it’s a very common mistake. It’s just that most distance coaches don’t have a sprint/biomechanics background so it’s out of their area of expertise. You generally make the symptom mistake when you know just enough to be dangerous.

One final example is the stride rate idea. You constantly hear distance coaches talk about stride rate, most quote Daniels saying 180 strides per minute is optimal. This is a classic example of symptom vs. problem/cause. Stride Rate is a RESULT of good biomechanics, or in other words it’s a symptom of the person’s biomechanics. It is NOT a GOAL. The stride rate comes along with optimal biomechanics, not the other way around. It is very easy to change stride rate while making bad biomechanical changes. Look at the people who cover no ground but have the “optimal” stride rate. They’re spinning their wheels but probably think that since they are in the “optimal” range, they are good.

There’s your conceptual lesson for the day. Understand the difference between a symptom and an actual problem. Don’t fall into the trap of addressing the symptom just because that is what you can see. Instead, understand the underlying causes, or the actual problem. Just like in medicine, it does little good to continual address the symptoms of a disease or sickness if you never address the actual cause. You might look better/feel better for a short term, but the symptom will just keep coming back until you finally address the underlying problem.


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    1. Brian on June 28, 2010 at 9:15 am

      Great post Steve. As a runner who leans a little backwards (especially when tires) and has a low heel kick, what would you prescribe to "cure" this? I've heard that hamstrings stronger/shorter than the quads can cause this. Correct?

    2. Anders on June 28, 2010 at 11:34 am

      Although it is quite easy to find how running form should look in books etc, I have not yet found any good book describing how things are linked, kind of a trouble-shooting guide for running form. It seems to me that this area is learnt 90% from coaching experience and only 10% theory you can read from books. The thing is that I am aware of that the problem can lie elsewhere than the symptom, but that does not help me much when I don't know where to look for the problem which often can be the case. For people like me it would be nice to be able to read some theory somewhere to be a faster learner, but perhaps this is something waiting to be written?

    3. klvn8r on June 28, 2010 at 3:56 pm

      Great article on looking for cause and effect. Sometimes finding the cause is tricky, but I agree that working on the "symptom" only rarely corrects an issue.

      One point I have found on the foot-strikes is that good biomechanics and stride rate go hand in hand. I haven't found working on biomechanics alone without attention to stride rate to be effective.

      Thanks for your articles. Very enjoyable.

    4. Post Paint Boy on June 28, 2010 at 6:04 pm

      I'm pretty sure that I watched the same video and thought a similar thing. That said, I'm not sure how I would've fixed the issue completely; that was some serious shuffling. What would you have done?

    5. stevemagness on June 28, 2010 at 7:50 pm

      Brian- It's hard to say without looking at your stride. It might be a body position issue, or it could be lack of hip extension. Try to imagine a slight lean from the ground, not the waist and see what happens. Strength differences could contibute during fatigue, but from the get go, if you're leaning back it's more likely some biomechanical issue.

      Anders- You outlined the #1 problem in sprint/biomechanical work. I've NEVER seen any paper/book outlining how everything is connected. It's a book waiting to be written. I've been fortunate enough through my coaching mentors to learn it from them. I've got a little "cheat sheet" guide to corrections I'll try and post sometime.

      klvn8r- Thanks for the comments. You're right on that finding the cause is the hard part. Stride rate is linked of course. It's an integrated whole. You've done well in working on biomechanics and stride rate together. That's how it should be done. Unfortunately I often see people ONLY focus on stride rate, which gets you no where.

      Post Paint Boy- Ya, we watched the same video. Not being in the situation and not knowing the athlete, I hesitate to speculate. Don't get me wrong, I think the coach is doing an excellent job with his runners.

      My tactic would be to try and teach one thing at once. When you have to make some drastic changes, it's a long process. I'd start with working on correcting one thing at a time with short/slow 100m strides. The first one would be to get some bounce into her stride. Have them think more vertical and see the horizon bounce. From there you work on proper hip extension and then finally foot strike. It'd be a long process.

      To help things out, I'd also work on pure 60m sprints at the same time. I'd start with steep hill sprints where the athlete would be forced to really extend the hip, push off, and drive. You'd then try and transition this feeling into flatter sprinting.

    6. Anonymous on June 29, 2010 at 2:48 am

      Thanks for the great information. I really enjoy your blog. You should write the book. Keep it up. Thanks Steve

    7. Anonymous on June 29, 2010 at 9:33 pm


      Great website and a wealth of information. Being a fast twitch masters runner that mainly races road 5k/10k's I have struggled with the classic tempo LT runs of 20-25min. I tried the following workout today, 14x400m at around 10km pace w/ 100m jog rest in 35sec. What is your opinion on this type of workout for a FT type for LT work and what other type of workouts should I be doing? To make a long story short been struggling for the last 5 years with increased mileage and lots of LT tempo type runs (e.g. 20-25min). From what I have read on your site been kind of going about the training in the wrong way.


    8. Carson Boddicker on June 30, 2010 at 2:37 am


      The limitations of such concepts that you suggest remind me of a recent article from a popular running magazine. I think you've hit it right on the head.

      Carson Boddicker

    9. Anonymous on June 30, 2010 at 4:19 am

      Hi Steve,
      My first visit to your web site, and it is impressive. Keep up the good work. I agree that as coaches, we often see the effect at work and not the cause. However, my experience in biomechanics has taught me that very little in running mechanics is trainable to effect speed performance. Unless, footstrike is occuring beyond center of mass, it makes little or no difference what else is occuring mechanically at high speed running. Running for normal bipeds is inherent, just as it is for the fastest land quadrapeds. No one teaches a cheetah or thoroughbred to run faster through improved limb positioning. They run fast because of the amount of force they can deliver in as brief a time possible. The same holds true for all biped and quadraped locomotion. Why is it then that the mechanics of human locomotion is considered to be so important? I think it comes back to your original point–we attempt to focus on the effect of what we see as opposed to what actually is the cause of faster running. Rarely is it in the mechanics.

      Coach Doug Robinson

    10. stevemagness on June 30, 2010 at 11:25 am

      Doug- Thanks for the comments and hope you find the site useful.

      I agree that force application is important. We'll have to disagree on the importance of mechanics. I understand that you're coming at it from a viewpoint based on the Weyand research.

      Briefly, my concerns with that idea is that humans and animals such as cheetahs are different. If we look at research using animals, you're right running is an inherent activity. The motor pattern for running in animals seems to be stored mostly in the spinal chord level of the CNS, so it doesn't require the higher levels of the CNS.

      This is partially true for humans, but it seems like humans rely more on the higher levels of the CNS to fine tune and adjust running. The research that demonstrated this nicelt is when they took people with spinal chord disabilities so that their higher level nervous system was not functioning in terms of muscle activation. They also took cats and gave them lesions to mimic this effect. When put on a treadmill for assisted walking, the cats were eventually able to almost entirely mimic real walking. With people, they could somewhat mimic the walking motion, but it wasn't real walking. To through out random numbers, essentially the cats were 90% of real walking while the people might have been 40-50%. The point is studies like this, and many others, demonstrate that human motor programming and control is different than animals in key simple activities like running walking and swimming.

      Additionally, just go watch every person run. We all run different. Watch a cheetah run on TV, it seems like they all run pretty much the same. Whether this is caused by outside factors (shoes, environment, etc.) it's apparant that maybe in a natural environment, running is an inherent skill, but in today's world it's not.

      Just some thoughts to consider.

    11. Anonymous on July 1, 2010 at 3:52 am

      Steve said:
      "Additionally, just go watch every person run. We all run different. Watch a cheetah run on TV, it seems like they all run pretty much the same. Whether this is caused by outside factors (shoes, environment, etc.) it's apparant that maybe in a natural environment, running is an inherent skill, but in today's world it's not."

      Yes, we all DO run differently. It stands to reason that most cheetahs are within certain dimensions (size and weight) and will run similarly, but Shaquille O'Neal and Nastia Liukin are at opposite ends of bipedal locomotion–long levers vs. short levers. Should they both practice similar mechanics to run like Usain Bolt? My guess is that is near impossible and likely detrimental to each of their mechanics to perform faster running speeds. Every runner has different mechanics because we are different in size, bone length, muscle attachments, etc., PLUS, I suspect that the interpretation of a skill is unique to each as well. To simply say that all runners should perform similar textbook-form mechanics in order to run faster just doesn't fit. As you pointed out, "We all run different." The old saying, "Form follows function," still holds true. Improve the function of the skill (strength / speed) and form will improve. It doesn't take coaching cues or mass series of drills to accomplish.

      Coach Doug Robinson

    12. Daniel Riou on October 17, 2010 at 3:36 pm

      I do agree with most points. How do you correct those biomechanical mechanics? Feedback? What will you tell the runner? I do believe in the body's ability to find an efficient stride. However, one thing is pretty sure, the lower body is made to run at about 90 rpm (bike, running, other?). Or 180 footfall/min. It's the optimal ratio to let blood flow through the legs, so why not aim for it? I believe that running in racers and aiming for 90rpm will get you pretty far concerning the lower body.

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