VISIONRUNUSA Series (5): Efficient Running Form
There has been so much written on running technique, stride and gait. Some folks will tell you their way is the only way. Some will suggest that there are different techniques for different body types. I am not here to suggest a specific form is correct over another form. In fact, I have seen many different types of running forms that are successful. Take for example, the amazing Emil Zatopek ("The Czech Locomotive") who won 3 gold medals in the 1952 Olympics. when he ran he looked like he was is severe pain, with arms and legs flailing wildly. According to Chi running, Evolution running, or any other popular running form philosophy, Zatopek's form was atrocious; however, it obviously worked for this amazing runner earning him gold in the 5,000 meter, 10,000 meter and the marathon (his first ever marathon!).
In order to run long distances, you want your movement to be efficient - meaning use as little energy as possible for each stride. For example, you don't want to be "bouncing" as you run. We've all seen those runners who look like they're hopping. Their heads and bodies seem to be moving a lot in the vertical plane....more so than the horizontal plane. You want your efforts to be used to propel you forward, not up into the air. If you've a "bouncer", you're losing valuable energy that could be used more effectively to move you forward. In short, if you have a finite amount of energy to use for a run (your internal glycogen supplies, fat and consumed fuel), you want to distribute that energy over your run as effectively as possible . . . that means you should be as efficient as possible with your energy consumption & not "waste" energy with unnecessary movement.
This is probably the biggest opportunity for new ultra-runners and asset of accomplished ultra-runners. You need to have quick feet and turnover. I aim for 180-200 steps per minute. In practice that looks like you're running on hot coals. Real quick steps, and constant contraction of the hip flexors. It takes awhile to develop this skill, especially if you've been a "lumbering runner" taking long strides. If you're sprinting, you will stretch out your stride to get to the finish line quicker. As the distance gets longer, your stride naturally shortens. When you're going "real long" (ultra-land), you'll end of with small steps because that will prevent injury to your body. Your body knows exactly what it can handle without getting injured. Think real quick feet when you're running. If you have the choice to take 1 or 2 steps, take 3 steps.
I aim to be at just under a meter for stride length. Throughout VISIONRUN, my stride length was usually 0.8-0.9 meters each day. A good miler has a stride length of 2 meters. My stride length was less than half of that. I think if you made that miler run an extra 49 miles in the same day, his/her stride length would be similar to mine. As you go into longer distances, it doesn't make sense to stretch out your stride. That causes overstraining, heal striking and incorrect impact to the body's natural shock absorption system. That brings us to Gait.
You want to be a mid-foot striker for long distance running. The ankle should be lined up directly under the knee when the foot hits the ground. That ensures that your entire shock absorption system is used during the impact phase - your foot, ankle, knee and back all work together to absorb the impact and disperse it over your entire body. This prevents injury. We as a species are made to run. Our bodies are mechanical marvels for the engineering we have to enable us to run without injury. Perhaps if you're a sprinter, you might run on your toes. However, the longer distances you run, the less you will be able to run on your toes. The muscles that support this type of running simply are not large enough, nor do they have the endurance to support the human body for distances in the ultra world. Regarding heal striking - it's bad news for your natural shock absorption system. When you heel strike, you do not efficiently engage your shock absorption system, and injury "could" result. NOTE I say "could result". The human body is AMAZING and it can adapt to protect itself. I've seen great runners who are heel strikers that run injury free. Their bodies have adapted to heel striking, and somehow the impact of their running is dispersed over their body to prevent injury.
ARMS & HANDS
Assuming you are on flat land or slight elevation, arms should be relaxed. Your legs are doing the work. I try to have my arms hang at a 45 degree angle - so the elbows are slightly bent. My hands and fingers are limp and could brush my thighs as they swing back and forth. In my mind, this enables me to conserve energy and calories. I use that energy and calories to fuel my legs and hip flexors - as those muscle groups are firing 180-200 times per minute. If you're running up a hill, arms can be used to help you climb the hill; however, in most ultras I suggest walking any significant hill.
Your body will follow your gaze. If you look forward, that is where you will go. If you look down, that is where you will go. I also notice that when my eyes wander, I am getting fatigued and my form is deteriorating. Keep those eyes looking forward, and you will continue your relentless forward progress.
Look like a runway model! Run erect, not bent at the waist. I've heard some people say that you should lean slightly forward, and that running is "controlled falling". I'm not sure I buy into that. I do know that the more stabilized your core is, the more erect you can run. I also know that core strength enables you to run longer without injury. The discs in your spine are made to disperse shock. If you are standing erect, you engage all your discs to disperse shock over the entire spine. If you are not erect, that same shock is dispersed over a smaller number of discs and injury becomes more possible. I always try to run as if there is a string attached to my hair, pulling me directly upward. When we fatigue, we all start to bend and slouch our shoulders. At this point, you are not efficient and you are getting diminishing returns from you running. When it gets to this point, I try to walk until I can rest long enough to regain my good posture. It is important to do core exercises to help your running, and anything athletic. Some good exercises can be found in "Ab Ripper X", planks, Supermans, Clams, Firehydrants, Bicycles, etc.
I notice that the longer I run, the more my neck and traps hurt. I usually do 3 shoulder shrugs every mile when I get to this point. What causes this is a gradual contraction of those muscle groups over a long period of time. Also, poor posture can let the head lean forward a bit, then the traps and shoulders become engaged to keep the head upright. Good posture eliminates the need for these muscles to be engaged. However, sometimes "stuff happens". When you get to this point, try to run upright and do 3 shoulder shrugs every mile until you get to the finish line. The shoulder shrugs will "remind" you to relax the shoulders and traps to let them "hang" in an un-contracted state.
This is the best measure to determine how you are doing. If your breathing is rhythmic and shallow, you're in a good place and very efficient. When your breathing becomes inconsistent and erratic, something is off in your running - at least when you're running ultra distances. Focus on that breathing and get it back to a steady, rhythmic pattern. Usually, this requires slowing down. Be patient while you make adjustments to your Gait, Posture, Arms & Hands, Turnover, Stride Length, etc. You will get back to equilibrium, as long as you focus and go through your checklist. Knowing your body well is critical to being able to make micro-adjustments that increase efficiency.
Some people are talkers when they run. That's OK.
I am the type of runner that wants to conserve as much energy as possible if I'm racing. That means, I don't talk when I run races. If I'm out for a "fun run" - killing time and just dinking around, then I'll talk and banter. These runs are not "training runs". Generally speaking I'm chalking these runs up to "base mileage buildup" - - - I'm just trying to log as many miles as possible to help my body adapt biologically to the demands of many, many miles. Bones, tendons, ligaments, respiratory, pulmonary, cellular energy conversion, fat consumption, etc. all adjust and improve when we run. The more we run, the more our body learns that it must make these systems efficient. The more we sit and are inactive, the more our bodies learn it can be less efficient. I'll talk more about that in a later blog.
Hope this one helps, and just to reiterate . . . everybody has their own running form that works well for them. I'm not preaching that one running form is correct for everybody. What I have tried to describe here is what I have used and learned during my running life and VISIONRUNUSA. I hope some of these thoughts can help you.
Jason Romero is a highly sought after inspirational speaker and the 1st and only blind person to run across America. Jason is a member of the US Paralympic Team, holds 11 world records in ultra-running, a former attorney and business executive, and a single father of 3 children. More information can be found on Jason at www.relentlessromero.com.