Running form is a hot topic. Is it something you should worry about? Probably not, especially for rugged trail course like the Ridge Run. Nevertheless, I promised in a previous blog post I would chime in on this topic so here it is.
Is all the Attention on Running Form Warranted?
Running is a natural and simple activity, right? Does it really deserve all the scrutiny it is getting? Can you actually change your running form and run faster, farther and injury free?
A lot of people sure seem to think so. There is no lack of opinions on running form and there are many self-proclaimed experts and Gurus that want to sell you knowledge on how to run with better form.
They make claims of eliminating injuries, less effort and faster, longer running. Is there any truth to these claims? The only way to answer that is in the laboratory of your own being.
What is Good Form?
Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart in a 1960’s court ruling on free speech, declined to define pornography instead simply stating in now famous simplicity, “I know it when I see it”.
I can say the same for good form. It is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It looks good, smooth, effortless, graceful, light, fast and natural.
Click Here for a workable definition of good form. It is from the Science of Running blog and offers a detailed description of correct running form.
Many of the concepts and claims are the same across the form improvement programs such as Chi Running or POSE. POSE was developed by a coach and sports scientist and may appeal to the more science minded. Chi Running was developed by someone schooled in the ultra-running cult of Divine Madness and has been infused with the concepts of Tai Chi. It may appeal to those more interested in ultra-running or ‘eastern’ wisdom.
Advice Common to all the Running Form Self Help Gurus and Experts
After looking at the all the schools of thought on running form, is it possible to see the big picture and cut through all the intricate details? Yes, you can distill proper running form down to a few basic concepts. Focusing on these while running will lead to more efficient running.
Stand tall and straight looking forward instead of at your feet. This allows your back, neck and shoulders to relax and keeps your chest open for ease of breathing. Swing your arms freely forward and back (not side to side). Your hands should reach nipples at high point and hip at low point.
Slight Forward Whole Body Lean
The idea here is to use gravity to your advantage. As you lean slightly forward from the ankles (not bending at the waist) you tend to fall forward. All you have to do is lift your knee, then put your foot down to keep from falling completely over and you have taken a step. Repeat over and over again and you are running. The lean is slight and increases with speed. Lift the knees in front. Lift the heels behind.
Although the lean idea is common to the self-help gurus, exercise scientists are split on its usefulness. Their opinion is that lean is important for acceleration, but interferes with steady state fast running. Go find a video of Michael Johnson’s Gold Medal 200 Meter run in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The start and acceleration phase is done with a dramatic forward lean, but once Johnson reaches top speed he runs totally erect.
Short High Frequency Stride
The intention is to prevent over-striding. Put your foot down directly underneath you and to leave it on the ground (contact time) for as short as duration as possible. And do this at the rate of at least 180 steps per minute. If you are doing the most common 2 – 2 breathing, taking 2 steps during the in-breath and 2 steps during the out-breath then your breath or respiration rate is 45 per minute when you are taking 180 steps per minute.
Change is Not Always a Good Thing
If you have been running for more than a couple years, you are probably already running a particular way out repetition and habit. Changing habits requires dedication and time. The way to replace an old habit is with a new habit.
The process of changing how one runs is disruptive and not necessarily productive – especially in the short term. The latest high profile victim of running form modification is Dathan Ritzenhein.
As recently as a couple years ago, he was the US 5K record holder. His coach Alberto Salazar thought he wasn’t running enough like an East African and set out to change his running form. The results have led to poor performances and injuries. Let us hope that he just needs more time to adjust and he will be back faster than ever. Time will tell.
To Run Like an East African it Helps to Grow Up Like an East African
So why is it that East Africans run so fast and efficiently with good form? It is not water. In my opinion, it is because they grew up running as children. And most of their running, walking and playing was done barefoot or in worn out minimal shoes. Form follows function. The body adapts to what you do with it and the childhood formative years where the body is most mutable is the most important for setting lifetime habits and form.
Most of us in America grew up like Dathan Ritzenhein. We did our running, walking and playing in clunky thick soled high heeled shoes or soccer shoes. Many of the best current American runners (Wheating, Rupp, Rtizenhein, etc.) grew up playing soccer. I guess I am totally screwed because my childhood shoes of choice were cowboy boots and army boots!
For most of us, our running form habits are adapted and habituated for running in clunky shoes. This means, heel pounding, over striding, and slow cadence or turn over. Can this form be changed? Of course it can. But if you continue to run in clunky shoes it requires a huge amount of dedication, concentration and effort. In essence, it is not easy to run with good form in clunky shoes.
Clunky High Heel Running Shoes Force You to Heel Strike
My opinion is that it is folly to try to adapt your running form to the ideas espoused by Chi Running or POSE or whatever when using shoes that are stiff, thick and high heeled. I’m not sure if the advocates of these running form schools emphasize enough or at all the requirement of correct foot ware when attempting to alter one’s running form.
Definition of Correct Running Footwear
By correct footwear, I mean shoe that flexes easily and naturally at the ball of the foot – exactly where the foot flexes. The shoe should be nearly level with the sole thickness the same under the ball of the foot as the heel. Correct does not necessarily mean minimal! The shoe should offer appropriate protection for the type of surface you are running on. A shoe for a hard road or rocky trail needs way more cushion and protection than a shoe for a cushy track or soft smooth dirt trail.
The shoe industry appears to be finally starting to offer a range of shoes that conform to this definition. The biggest change is the lowering of the heel height to make them more level. Look for more and more level shoes coming out in the next few years – even level shoes that offer plenty of cushion and protection.
Proven Ways to Improve Your Form
There are three simple things you can do to improve your running form without worring about some theory such as Chi Running or POSE. Listed in order of importance (in my humble opinion) they are:
Running up a hill, forces you to run efficiently and correctly. Find a short moderately steep hill and run uphill at near maximum speed for 20 to 30 seconds. Trot back down to recover and repeat 10 to 20 times. This is not a workout taxing your energy systems and endurance, but a form drill.
There are many form drills such as high knees, butt kicks, skipping, lunges, etc. that build coordination, strength, explosive speed and result in better form. In between each drill, do a stride (short fast run of 20 seconds or so) to help anchor the drill form into actual running motion. Search the online videos at Runners World or Running Times for suggested drills and workouts.
When you run barefoot or in minimalist shoes, the pain feedback you get with every step, forces you to run lighter with less impact forces. Your stride rate will naturally increase and your stride length will naturally shorten. You also tend to land midfoot directly underneath you. These are all characteristics of good form.
A good place to do some barefoot strides is on a track or the grassy infield inside the track. If your feet are not conditioned to barefoot running be very careful at first. Don’t overdo it.
Does Chi Running or POSE Really Lead to Faster More Efficient Running?
Jim Walker claims that there have been studies measuring energy expenditure when conforming to the POSE running form practices as compared to I guess just plain running. Supposedly those engaged in POSE running used more energy when running at the same pace as compared to not doing POSE techniques. In other words POSE and by extrapolation those other nearly identical theories such as Chi Running are actually less efficient taking more energy to conform to the form. Contact Jim at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital Sports Science Division for links to the data of these studies.
This may seem like a surprising conclusion, but one must remember, that one of the benefits of POSE or Chi Running is becoming a gentler, softer runner.
- Fast, efficient running is not necessarily low impact.
- And visa-versa, low impact running is not necessarily fast or efficient.
So How Did Chi Running Techniques Lead to the Ultra Running Success of Divine Madness?
This is my opinion and theory and I have no way to prove this, but here goes. The Chi Running techniques utilized by Divine Madness lead to gentle low impact running. For ultra-running one of the main limiting factors is the muscle damage that occurs as the event unfolds. If you run to minimize muscle damage even if it takes more energy you will last longer in an ultra-distance event. So for ultra-distance events the gentle running techniques of Chi Running or POSE may lead to better performance.
It is hard to separate other factors that may have led to the success of ultra-running that Divine Madness experienced under the leadership of Marc Tizer. For example: their utilizing weekly 50 mile training runs with no refueling other than plain water that may have heightened Divine Madness runners’ ability to utilize fat as a fuel – a physiological adaption very important for ultra-running.
Despite their low impact Chi Running style form, Divine Madness runners were not immune from injuries and many suffered severe running related injuries. For example: Janet Runyan former national champion at various ultra-distances suffered femoral stress fractures that led to a complete break (a very serious injury) not just once, but twice. And she was not unique. One Divine Madness runner actually died the night after a 48 hour ultra. Poor nutrition in Divine Madness members’ diet restrictions along with chronic sleep deprivation may be contributory to some of the health and injury problems they suffered. All this is so complex that it is hard to say with certainty what actually led to the success Divine Madness achieved.
The form techniques of Chi Running, POSE, Cross-Fit, Evolution Running are very similar and differ only in minor details, philosophy and nomenclature. They do not necessarily lead to faster or more efficient running. They do seem to lead to gentler lower impact running. They are probably useful practices for recreational runners or ultra-distance runners seeking to minimize injuries or impact. Employing the form techniques espoused in Chi Running probably results in less muscle damage sustained in ultra-running and results in improved performances in ultra-distance events.
Doing simple form drills, hill repeats and shoe changes will lead to improvements in speed, efficiency, form and minimize impact.