Monday, November 21, 2011

Running Form: Where i'm At

Eric posted a great summary of his thoughts about running form. As someone who has adapted my form a bit based on what I read in Born to Run, I thought i'd also share my anecdotal thoughts.

After reading McDougall's book, I experimented with forfoot striking but soon settled into attempting to "run tall" - essentially, avoiding my old loping strides that I fear used to lead to my knee and shin problems in favor of shorter strides and front-to-mid foot striking. It required some adjustment in that I needed to work to increase the speed of my legs and am still working on loosening up my calves (this stride makes them extremely tight), but the benefit is that I haven't had any major injuries and I'm running as fast as I have since I was a teenager.

However, Bernd Heinrich's argues against the "run tall" notion in p.226-7 of Why We Run:
"The primary way to increase running efficency would be to minimize leg lift while maximizing stride length; and of course, using the lightest shoes possible.I practiced running using gravity and momentum as much as possible to swing my feet. A sprinter expends an exorbitant amounts of energy with each step, which is essentially a leap. I needed to train a stride that would be a compromise between an energy-efficient short step, where the feed are barely lifted, and a long stride, which necessitates more knee lift. By running as much as possible at race pace during training, I hoped to cultivate that specific optimum stride for the distance I intended to run.
What a long-distance runner can least afford to do is lift his whole body up and down on successive steps. he must glide. An ostrich or any other elite marathoner exhibits almost no up-and-down motion of the head or the shoulders. Suppose a 150-pound runner goes up and down only 3 inches with each step; then over the course of a 100-k run he will have lifted his 150-pound body mass a distance of about two miles. That's a lot of work, and it must be strenuously avoided in favor of horizontal motion."
Now, i'm not looking to optimize anything here - I'm really looking for a comfortable way to run down the road that makes me fast but mainly one that doesn't hurt me. And it's important to note that Heinrich needed to explore to to find his perfect stride; he had back problems so severe that he was deemed unfit for active military service, and by all accounts had an ungainly form in high school. Once he found something that worked, however, he went on to run some extremely fast times, and even set the American record for the 100 km. As I mentioned in my review of the book, what he describes really should be described "Why He Runs, since it's not for everyone, but the basic principles behind this thinking are sound and have given me a lot to ponder as I work may way through my longer runs.

To me, however, the salient point is what Eric calls "running softly." I try to minimize the impact my feet have with the ground, trying to roll the feet so that the impact is like a perfect curve. Heinrich talks about this a bit as well, so i'll close with a scene from his record setting race:
"For a quarter mile or so, I feel the rhythm and switch my conscious editing to concentrate on the opposite limbs. Once and a while, I vary the length of my stride, to contract my leg muscles for slightly different durations, like frogs varying the length of their calls. The rhythm of my footsteps is steady, unvarying, and like my heartbeat, it is unconsciously timed with my breathing. ... The rhythm preserves synchronicity,  synchronicity translates to smoothness, and smoothness means energy efficiency. p. 248
Related Posts:
Runnign Form: Active vs. Passive
Improve your running form


  1. I've always thought of "running tall" as being about posture - or in other words, it's about putting the pelvis and the back in a position to transfer energy efficiently. It does not imply any up-and-down motion. Thus, a person can "run tall" but also follow Heinrich's practice of "gliding" with no up and down motion of the head and shoulders.

    It's also interesting to be reminded of his thoughts on stride length, and in particular, that he would vary it mid-run.

    For me, I've been working about not reaching out so far in front of my body with my lead foot. Because, if the front foot is in front of the body when it lands, it creates an inefficient braking effect and puts a lot of shock on the leg.

    All things being equal, this would be expected to shorten my stride. At the same time, though, I've been working on generating more energy - a greater push - with my foot after it touches the ground. This stronger push tends to lengthen the stride.

    So, I'd say my stride has perhaps stayed about the same length since I started running - but hopefully it is a stronger, more efficient stride.

  2. It's true that "running tall" does involve posture work, but my mother's work in my teen years made sure that I didn't really need to worry about that. ;) I'm going to have to pay more attention about the up-and-down part though; it certainly feels like i've got more vertical in my form now, but it may just be that i'm lifting my legs up a bit more. I'll let you know. But you're also right in that not reaching out so far with your lead foot is key - i've noticed that myself and have found it’s what makes it easier to avoid the heel strike. Personally, i've found that smaller, faster strides with no significant increase in the push have been the trick for me.

  3. Just paid close attention to this in my lunchtime run. Head stays relatively stable, it's my legs that are moving up and down more than before. For now, I have no problem with this because my legs feel better than they have in some time, but my tight calves do concern me. Eric says that "forefoot striking becomes much less stressful on the calves without the big heel in traditional running shoes" but i'm hesitant to change shoes now that i've found a technique that promotes my speed and health. Perhaps I'll experiment around next summer after the marathon.