Well I had a cold that knocked me on my ass for way too long. On the plus side, it left me with some time to cobble together a little post. It’s a continuation of my beginner’s series that you can blame on Shay-lon.
Now let me start off with this disclaimer: I have no training in biomechanics, physical training, or anything even close to that. In fact I have zero formal training and no credentials of any kind. I have not written nor studied any documents or papers about any of these topics so PLEASE take everything I say with a heavy pinch (or bucket) of salt. All I can speak to are my experiences and stuff that I have picked up anecdotally or from browsing articles.
I do have a background riding horses and that made me acutely aware of how changes in my posture affected the horse that I was riding. It forced me to look at how my body was influencing the horse and what I had to change to make them move better. This meant that I was hyper-aware of how I moved all the time which helped me to sort out the cause of various aches and pains.
OK so now we have that out of the way, let’s talk form. I didn’t want to lay that out right off the bat because if you’re starting something new, you’ve already got a lot of things to think about. Get out there, move a bit, and inevitably questions will start to pop up in your mind. I could sit there and talk to you about training programs and shoes and foot strikes and breathing and form and tension and you’d probably ignore most of it until you have a context, some sort of a framework, to sort all the information. And I’m big on imagery; consider yourself warned.
No discussion of running form can take place without referencing foot strike. In fact, if you put more than one runner in a room and ask about foot strike patterns, and it will just be a matter of time before tempers begin to flare. Runners take this VERY seriously. So what is it and what’s the big deal? Essentially, your foot strike is how your foot hits the ground with either rear foot (or heel) strike, midfoot, or forefoot touching the ground first.
I know that there have been many many studies done to determine if there is any difference between foot strike patterns as far as susceptibility to injury or efficiency in movement and as far as I can tell (I’m standing by for the hate mail) there have been no discernible statistical differences found. In fact, a person’s foot strike will actually change, usually as fatigue sets in or to compensate for changes in terrain. I would also be wary of any study that focuses a lot on shoes. Not because I’m a minimalist but if a study is funded by a large sporting goods company that has a huge interest in the kinds of shoes that can be peddled, you have to question the objectivity. Or maybe I’m just cynical.
So what does this mean for the beginner runner? Not a lot in and of itself. The biggest problem that I see with newer runners is overstriding and I think this is how it happens: when we walk, for the most part, we naturally strike with heel first, the foot rolls through the arch, and then we push off with our toes. It’s natural to want to replicate that as we speed up since it’s a movement that we already know. But when all of your weight comes down onto the end of your heel with your knee somewhat locked, well is it any surprise that some folks end up with sore backs or knees? That energy has to go somewhere and joints are prone to stress since they are just a bunch of tissue holding them together.
So how do you avoid that? Take shorter faster steps (faster cadence) and aim to have your foot touch the ground just slightly in front of your body. This helps to keep your legs from locking too. A slight flexion in the knee means that the force of your landing can be absorbed and recycled. I like to think of a ball rolling across the ground. I find that image helps to make me think of my energy rolling over the surface instead of planting any part of me into the soil.
Now for your torso: it has to stay upright with head over shoulders and shoulders over hips. A teensy tiny lean forward from your hips but that is all. Sprinters do tend to have a more forward posture but that is because they are working with a very short burst of energy in a shorter duration. It seems that the longer the run, the more upright the posture becomes. If you search on Youtube for any of the Olympic races and compare the forms of the top sprinters and marathon runners that should demonstrate the difference. Why the emphasis on staying upright? Your entire respiratory system is made up of two balloons, a bellows, and some tubing. If your torso is leaned over or your shoulders rounded and your head staring down at the ground, you’re going to create pinches and compression on those components and keeps them from expanding to their fullest. And believe you me, you want to get every single bit of air you can.
Don’t believe me? Try this…unless you’re driving. In which case you shouldn’t be reading this anyway…stand up straight and pretend that you have a string attached to the top of your head that’s holding you up so that your posture is perfect. Let that string release and bend only your head to look at your belly button as you take a few breaths. Did it feel like it was a bit harder to get a full lungful? Did you feel your shoulders round slightly? Stand up and breathe again. That is a tiny change but, for me any way, it demonstrates how tiny tweaks in posture can have huge effects.
That’s part of the reason why core strength has been the biggest addition to runner’s programs since the invention of the interval. When you get tired, your body collapses, you can’t get enough air, and you start this downward spiral to exhaustion.
I can just hear at least one person saying: “OK smarty pants. Where do you want me to look?” Well that depends on where you’re running. If you’re on beautiful smooth pavement then you can stare into the distance. If your surface is a little less pristine, you’ll want to look at where you’ll be in a few strides. The rougher the ground, the closer in you’ll want to look but still not directly down at your feet. If you’re staring at where you are right now, you won’t be able to calculate where you need to put your feet in a few minutes. Body awareness (or proprioception) is a skill that you have to work on and practice which is why I recommend staying either on level ground or walking over trails to start. You’ll see some people that can navigate trails like mountain goats and it is a sight to behold indeed. That took time, practice, and a lot of falls to get that good but like any skill, it can be learned.
And lastly your arms. You want to keep your hands relaxed and your elbows bent roughly between 45 and 90 degrees and close to your body. I know that we tend to think of running as a “leg only” kind of workout but your arms do play an important role: if you run over rough ground, you can widen your elbows slightly to help keep your balance, pumping your arms can help give you momentum to get over that pesky hill, and the all important “end of a race jump over the finish line” just wouldn’t be the same without your arms way over your head. I know that the conventional wisdom says that you should never cross your hands over your midline and your hands should be carried low. I had to think about why that is and I have come up with an answer: when your hands cross over in front of you, your elbows swing out to the side. That means that there has to be some tension in your upper arms and shoulders in order to cause that movement or extreme twisting of your torso. It’s the same when you have your hands up high and your elbows at an extreme angle. All of those things requires that there be tension somewhere in your body.
Which leads us to positive tension and negative tension. Positive tension is the feeling of your muscles holding you upright. It does not require any thought, it is just your body keeping you up. An example of negative tension would be running with your hands in tight fists. It requires a lot of energy to keep your hands that tight. The next time you’re walking around your house, try keeping your hands in fists and notice how draining it is.
The best part about your form is that you can work on it all day long. Make a concerted effort to check in on your posture all day long. It will act to strengthen your core and also establishes it as your new norm. Whatever image or memory aid you need to remind yourself of proper form, use it.
This is my checklist: string at top of head so I’m hanging down with my feet just touching the ground which means my head is over my shoulders and shoulders over my hips. Shoulders loose (shrug a few times), arms loose, hands very lightly closed so I can still run my fingers along my thumbs, elbows loose (sometimes my arms are too loose and I look floppy in race photos). Short steps with a quick cadence that picks my feet up over the ground and keeps me rolling with ease. Whenever I start to get tired or feel my feet shuffling, I do a scan of my form and usually find that something is out of alignment. For me, I notice my shoulders start to creep up or my right hip starts to lead. So I give a few shrugs then pull my shoulders back, shake out my arms, and reset my posture.
So that’s my take on form. I’d love to hear your take on it. Do you have any tips or tricks that you use?