The key dos and don’ts of good running technique is seemingly simple to many, given running is such a natural human action. We run every day, and from young as children. We run naturally, un-coached and often never coached. By the time we may want to become more self-aware of our innate running technique, it may be after years of already running. How can we then deal with transitioning from sub-optimal technique to better technique?
Short of a scientifically based comprehensive review of running studies, the task of designing and prescribing a fool-proof program for improvement is impossible. And even if one bothered with reviewing all the science of running studies, the focus of studies is predictably isolated to at most, one or two variables, performed in laboratory conditions. There are too many factors in the quest for running improvement, and of equal importance is the need to acknowledge that a personalised approach to planning must be the preferred approach versus a “one-program-suits many” attitude.
Here are my top four tips, combining science and common sense.
1. Managing Your Centre of Mass:
By understanding that your ‘centre of mass’ is a unique point in your body whist in running mode that defines a net nil weight balance, you accept the idea that weight distribution whilst moving is fundamental in running effort.
The centre of mass (“CoM”) is dynamic (i.e., changes with each step) as you move forwards when running. It adjusts according to the coming together of your (i) forward propulsion and (ii) gravitation influence. The combination of the forward propulsion (due to a combination of gravity’s effect on your mass as you lean forward, and the effort of your muscles and tendons to push and then pull, along with natural recoiling) and the downwards effect of gravity on your body mass results in your forward momentum.
The various forces at play in running announce themselves in how you ‘feel’ during and after a run. It is impossible to seek to consciously control the many micro factors that are dynamically at play as you run. Furthermore, these factors change as you tire, or become stronger and more able to maintain a consistent pace as you train. The alternative is to experiment with forward lean, balance and stride length & rapidity.
The legendary 1950s coach Percy Cerutty emphasized the notion that runners should “lift his weight out of his pelvis” meaning the hips should not be dragging and be instead forward leaning. This is a clear reference to the importance of finding and feeling one’s centre of mass when running. The Pose method suggests 22.5% forward lean is the maximum permissible, after which you need to put a leg forward to maintain upright balance. The percentage of lean is however variable amongst runners, contingent on flexibility, overall strength of legs, speed and weight balance.
A further way to maintain a more even Centre of Mass is to minimise sideways movement. So aside from the horizontal rise and fall, there is also the lateral (or sideways) movement, which is affected by arm swing and how straight your feet are. Arm swing for a distance runner should be different from a sprinters arm-pumping action, and the wrists should not rise above the shoulder or below the hip. From a forward view, the knuckles should not cross your torso’s centre line nor stray excessively from your side.
2. Quiet Feet, Straight Feet:
Your footfall should be quiet– the less noise from your shoes then the more efficient your effort. Less noise indicates better CoM distribution and thus your shoes contacting the running surface with less friction. The less pounding, the smoother your pace and so the less vertical impact on your legs.
By targeting a focus on horizontal momentum, you harness what forward momentum you have built up in your prior strides. A misconception is you can only “glide” if you are fast. You CAN glide at ANY pace. Focus on running an imaginary straight line, with less pace variation when you push off your rear leg, and pull through with your front foot. Pace consistency is more possible with less over-striding. It’s better to shorten your strides and attain pace consistency, whilst minimising vertical leg bounce.
Whilst there will be inevitable vertical movement, visualise minimising the variation in the maximum and minimum height range of your shoulder (or hip) line from a sideways view. Running styles that can be heard from a distance usually indicate excessive vertical pounding and/or excessive and pro-longed contact with the ground (due to scuffing from tiredness and thus excess friction with the ground).
The benefits of being aware of lessening your tendency to bounce is to reduce the gravitational forces on your legs and back and thus your tendency to experience lower back and knee pains. Similarly, if your feel lower back pain, sore shins or knees, consider if these are symptoms of too much vertical pressure and so too much rise and fall in your CoM.
3. Weight ‘management’:
The changing nature of our weight is indisputable, especially when we factor in pregnancies, illness, weight training, seasonalities like Lunar New Year eating and ageing. Our weight and how it is distributed, changes our Centre of Mass. If the change and distribution is for the long term, then our technique (and training) will likely need adjusting. If your aim is to reach your potential, then realise your potential changes as your Centre of Mass abilities and realities change.
Our expectations around our running ability, expressed through any number of measures, including endurance, speed, recovery ability and consistency of form and speed maintenance. If the main aim is to be a confident and injury free 4+ km runner every second day, then as a committed runner, improvement if likely an understandable and serious pursuit.
Weight management is thus also understanding how weight distribution affects your Centre of Mass, and so the amount of forward leaning impacts your running style. Finding the optimal angle of leaning forward is of course inter-related with your ability to maintain a leg turnover rate that ‘catches’ your gravitational force of your weight fall and converts some of that momentum, whilst also imparting the projecting ground force that comes from a combination of your combined leg, angle and feet muscles, hamstrings and tendons which provides forwards and upwards thrust and pull. The natural combination of these two broad effects per Romavov & Fletcher (2014) are termed ‘gravitational force’ and encompasses the idea of running being a pursuit that is optimized by less emphasis on pushing off the ground, and instead an action which is ideally about balancing weight distribution and your speed of travelling.
4. Harness Verbal Optimism:
Tell yourself (and others with your interest at heart) what your running goal is. This may be a distance goal, a time goal or a commitment goal for a particular (say) week. This fourth tip is perhaps the most powerful as it recognises the power of goal setting and our mental capacities to dictate our actions.
Concrete goals help us focus on relevant activities and help us think longer term about strategies for achieving or gaining improvement to achieve worthwhile targets. The recent field experiment by the (management) academics Sackett, Wu, White and Markle (2014) involved the monitoring of 1,758 marathoners and the effect of self-set goal targets for an upcoming marathon. Of the experienced marathoners who were a part of the sample, it was shown that those who were asked about their goal target prior to their run ran 6.75 minutes quicker than the experienced runners that were not asked to state their goal time.
The survey respondents in this novel study had an average finishing time of 4.36.01 and were runners in the 15 main marathons across the US, including Boston (2008), Chicago (2007-2009) and New York (2009).
By sharing openly your goal in a specific and quantified manner, the power of commitment and its effects on actions is thus clear from this study. What is unexplored, but more than likely implicit in the finding is that committed runners will consciously and sub consciously look to run efficiently to meet or better their targets.