Friday, November 18, 2011

improve your running form

first a disclaimer:  this post is anecdotal and not scientific, based on my experiences and observations.

now to the heart of the matter.  back when the run was only as important as the bike and the swim, i used to think i ran fast enough and so didn't need to focus much on form.  i also was relatively uninjured back then.  it hasn't been until recent years that i've focused more on the run and, seemingly as a by-product, spent more time injured.  like a large number of others, i sank my teeth more deeply into the question of form after reading Born to Run.  as Joel indicated in his great post on Foot Strike Fads, there is more to the story than simply becoming a forefoot striker, though.  in fact, i personally believe the whole barefoot running fad is an attempt to create the symptoms of better running form rather than a method of obtaining that form itself.  not that it's a bad approach...  muscle memory is what it is, but it's good to understand what it is you're trying to achieve.

what i think we all agree upon here at rrrs is that you listen to many and extract from that what works for YOU, and that no better listening can be done than the listening you do to your own body when you run.

the principles i've applied to moderate success that seem to have stuck are few.  one of them is the idea of running tall.  i sit at a desk all day at work, and don't have great posture to begin with.  it's no wonder that my back gets compressed, causing nerve pain from my hips, to my knees, down into my lower legs and feet.  everything is tied together in that lower back area.  stretching your frame out by running tall frees up those impulse pathways and helps to build a muscle/tendon memory better suited towards running (longer distances). a good friend of mine once told me you should run as if there is a rope tied around your waist and attached to a car which is pulling you.  i use this mental imagery to help myself run tall.

another principle that has worked really well for me is a short stride.  short is obviously a relative term, but you could add to it the concept of more strides per minute to help frame in what i'm getting at.  at first, the shorter stride felt really unnatural.  i was used to stretching my stride out, really pushing the envelope when it came to pace.  as i went out for a run struggling to keep my stride short, i realized i was going uncomfortably slow.  the next thing i noticed was that i was really not feeling better in my running form, because my feet were slapping around, my ankles were locked in a tight angle and i just plain didn't feel relaxed at all.  

this all changed for me one night when i went for a run in the dark.  it was light a light bulb went off, albeit one that did not shed any light on the ground under foot.  running at night without clear sight of the running path causes you to run somewhat tentatively.  some of the characteristics of this tentative running are:  short strides, softened footstrike/impact with the ground and a bit higher leg lift (to avoid unforseen obstacles, slight changes in elevation, sidewalk lips).  in short, sharing a lot of characteristics with what barefoot runners are going for. 

so, running at night taught me that adding the soft ground impact and the slightly higher leg lift to the shorter strides help me "put it all together" in a bit more of a natural way.

one final piece i needed to put all this together what the concept of relaxing my body while keeping my core engaged.  this means my abs are engaged as if i were letting out a soft breath, but no more than that.  my back and shoulders are loose (and i constantly shake them out to ensure they are).  my legs are not tensed up or locked, but loose enough to respond to the ground below me.

as of now, it's still slower...  but the impact to my body is much less, allowing me to run longer and with less pain.  as someone who is looking to run marathons and possibly ultra-marathons, i would consider this a very good thing!!

of course, i'm still learning and still continuing to evolve my form to suit myself.  but, to summarize my current thoughts, here is the short list of principles i am trumpeting:

1. run tall!!  think of a rope tied around your waist attached to a car which is pulling you
2. shorten your stride
3. run softly, no foot slapping, minimize the impact of your foot on the ground
4. lift your legs up
5. RELAX, especially your arms, shoulders, back and, believe it or not, your legs.

take off your shoes, or maybe just try running at night.  regardless, the more you learn, the more you can apply it no matter what shoes you are wearing, how long you're running.

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  1. For me, the one item on your list where there is the most room to play is leg lift.

    Lifting your legs higher allows you to generate more power, and hence, to run faster. But on the other hand, it's also an inefficient use of energy, because you burn a lot of calories on the upstroke. Which is fine for a short race, but may or may not be fine for a long race, depending on your fitness level.

    For me, I am only able to get through a long run by keeping my legs low. But then, I'm also slow.

    Since you are naturally a much faster runner, I'm not surprised that a little more leg lift feels more natural, and may give you the power you want, even with a shorter stride.

    Of course, there are other reasons for sometimes adopting a higher leg lift as well: running on the street in daylight is one thing, while running on a trail, or running in the dark, is another thing. There are times when a little leg lift is necessary, just to avoid a face plant. Lifting my legs in these situations is something I have to focus on, especially toward the end of longer runs.

  2. i haven't really figure out what it is exactly about the leg lift that makes it important for me, but i've narrowed it down to a few things:

    1. while my stride is shortened by placing my foot underneath me, instead of in front of me, i would say it stays on the ground longer than before. this is because i don't do a forceful PUSH with the foot/calf anymore
    2. because i don't do a forceful push, i can relax my ankle a bit more, which eases the pressure on my calves (a must in the condition my left leg is in). to avoid scraping my toes though, i need to life my knee after the backward "kick" to turn the leg over properly.

    who knows if it's right or not, but that's where i'm at right now. it's definitely less efficient, but definitely drives me faster.

  3. I don't believe there's a right, other than what's right for you. I really get a lot from reading and thinking about your adjustments though.