Running Form: Is there a single correct way to run?

Hello everyone! Boy, are we getting slammed with winter weather this week! Here in west Michigan most areas have over a foot on the ground, and we had school closed Tuesday and yesterday. Not ready for this winter weather yet, that’s for sure.

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, I had the opportunity to attend an RRCA course to become a certified running coach this past weekend. All I have to do now is pass the multiple question exam and become CPR certified and then I get to officially begin coaching people! Or just continue to tell my friends how to train for races, but in a more informed manner. Either way, fingers crossed.

Anyway, I learned a lot over the course of the weekend, but by far the most interesting topic for me was running form. We had a guest lecturer named Owen Anderson come, and he was fantastic! He is the author of the book, Running Science, and plans to publish another book in February of 2016 all about form and research done to support this claims about what is best. He also coaches elite Kenyan athletes, including several olympians and world champions, so obviously he knows a thing or two about running fast.

The first thing he said is that there is most definitely an optimal way to run. If someone tells you that everyone is different and therefore many different running forms and styles can be “best”, that is a myth.

When you talk about improving form, Owen said you are generally trying to accomplish three things:

1) Improve performance

2) Improve your oxygen cost of running (i.e. as you use less oxygen, you don’t have to work as to sustain a particular pace).

3) Lower your risk of injury

With better form, we will reduce impact forces on our lower limbs (or spread them out better) and dramatically decrease the rate of injury, which is quite high for endurance athletes like marathon trainers.

Owen talked about how so many runners have been training for endurance races by training their heart and leg muscles, when actually, he believes that our nervous system is what most often fails us. He pointed out how, often, when running intervals, it’s often our second to last 400 that is our slowest. And our last one is usually one of our fastest. This would not be the case if our fatigue was truly a muscular crises of some form. He also gave a great example of a fancy rolls royce car trying to run on square wheels. It doesn’t matter how great that engine is, with square wheels, it’s not going to get very far and will break down pretty quickly. Therefore, in addition to paying attention to our “machine” (heart + lungs) we should also be mindful of our feet and how they land take off and land, etc.

Owen said that up to 90% of runners are heel strikers (sadly, I fall into this category) but when we land on our heel, we are actually naturally slowing our body down. Again, he gave a great example of how Fred Flinstone used to try and stop his car, or how kids try and slow down their swing. What do they use? Not their midfoot, but their heel, which provides more friction. He estimates we lose 1/100th of a second every time we land with out heel instead of our midfoot. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but for someone trying to take five minutes off a marathon time, that alone could make the difference.

Additionally, our running cadence (how many foot strikes we have per minute) should be at, or very close to, 180. And for the average runner, it’s normally between 155 to 165. With a lower cadence, we are over-striding, and therefore reaching our planted leg out too far. When we do this, we don’t allow our bodies to use our leg to push off or propel us forward as much as we could, and we are increasing our risk of injury.

So how do we fix it? The short answer is practice. We do drills spending 30 seconds (then 60 seconds, etc) running in place with a metronome while we focus on what it feels like to land with our midfoot. And then we incorporate short, mindful bursts into our normal runs until it begins to feel routine and natural. Trying to go out and run ten miles with a midfoot strike when we’ve always been a heel striker will almost certainly get us injured, but making gradual, mindful changes will eventually lead to great success.

I totally agreed with everything Owen said, and plan to try and change my foot strike (my cadence is actually really close to what he recommends). What do you think? Is there one right way to run? Do these things really make a difference?

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