Thursday, June 2, 2011

Running and Form

I thought that most semi-serious to serious runners took a good look at their form as part of the process of becoming a serious runner. However, the article about running form in the June 2011 issue of Runners World makes it sound like this is not the case; they focus on how form is kind of a red-headed stepchild in the sport and focus on how the “barefoot running” trend is sparking a newfound interest in form.

While I’m sure that barefoot running is helping people's form, I'll offer a rebuttal about the lack of form focus in the past in the form of a personal anecdote about my softmore days at Essex Junction High School (the good ‘ol days of 1987). Before that, I was run as a social thing, not really training or preparing for races in favor of jogging around town while laughing with my friends. That all changed when my Cross Country (XC) coach, an excellent man named Steve Dowd, called me and my friends out on our lackadaisical ways. He insisted that we could unleash our talent if only we were more focused, and the way he challenged us resonated with me, and I started working harder during training.

I slowly became a much better runner, but I didn’t really take the next step until one Saturday when our coaches videotaped us running across a field. Watched the tape later that week, we looked at my form and the coaches pointed out what was good and what was flawed. They were mainly upper body related: my right arm was not only situated significantly lower than my left, but it was also swinging down and out much more that the other arm. This was a big deal for me because I had had no idea that I was doing anything incorrectly, so simply staying more conscious of my arms during my runs enabled me to become faster and more efficient.

Another big benefit of having coaches work with us on form came when they pointed out that the slapping sound of feet hitting pavement was the sound of wasted energy, and that the trick to avoid this was to roll your foot so that you didn’t lose any energy in the transfer of foot to ground. All this contributed to me being much more mindful of my form and thus significantly reducing the amount of energy I was wasting with each stride.

I write all of this to say that I’m surprised that RW considers the focus on form to be a new thing, since my experience is much different, and that I find form focus to be a significant factor in not only the success I’ve had running races but also in keeping relatively healthy. What do you think? Do you pay attention to your form? When did you start doing so and was it worth it?


  1. i think, first and foremost, you should read the book "born to run" by chris mcdougall. for a long time i bought into the whole "gait analysis" method of curing your running woes with technology... only to find myself with completely unbalanced muscles that won't support proper running unless i'm strapped into shoes of a particular stature. of course, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but just how much, i don't know.

    the question i have personally, and another angle at the runner's world article is... what do i do if i've been running WRONG for all these years? just deciding to run with "proper form" (who defines that) isn't going to work, as the legs and leg muscles aren't accustomed to it (per the article, and more importantly, my experience, this leads to injury).

    now i run with a less structured shoe, but not a completely free moving show. i'm gradually working towards the barefoot model, though... and relish the opportunity to run barefoot (usually on a beach). i think learning proper running form is the key, as you indicate... with this i totally agree. but the process of getting there after all these years of running the "other" way... well, it's not as easy as it would have been, say, in high school.

    i AM curious to see, as they ponder in runner's world, whether this leads to more or less injury...

  2. btw, thanks for writing about this. i've been meaning to myself... and i would say no question related to running is more on my mind than that raised (or implied) in your post.

  3. The book Born to Run, which gave birth to the barefoot running trend, is almost certainly responsible for the current focus on form.

    Which is ironic. Because, at least the way that I read it, Born to Run definitely does NOT advocate paying attention to particular rules about form. It advocates running joyfully, and listening to your body to determine what is right and wrong. Indeed, MacDougall tells numerous stories of runners who had absolutely crazy form, but were still great runners.

    But then, MacDougall is also only talking about one kind of running -- long distance running. For someone who is focused on speed over relatively short distances, I imagine that form becomes critical.