Running Mechanics, Part I
By Lauren Evans
Note: This is the first in a series of articles addressing proper form and running mechanics.
Proper running mechanics are vital to improving speed while simultaneously reducing effort. An efficient runner can cover the same amount of distance at the same speed as a less efficient runner with extra energy to spare. The good news here is that running economy is the most trainable part of running if you take to it quickly. Contrarily, other aspects such as VO2 Max and lactate threshold will take a considerable amount of training and time. The entire body should be considered when addressing running mechanics, including the head and shoulders, arms and hands, back and core, hips, legs and foot strike. By improving running mechanics, a runner can lower heart rate, reduce perceived effort, and of utmost importance to most runners--run faster!
The first step in addressing running mechanics is to be evaluated by a knowledgeable professional coach. A coach can evaluate running mechanics by observing you run and through video stride analysis. There are several individuals that offer the full deal of video-taping, gait analysis, and coaching to improve running economy. Once you have identified what needs to be improved, be sure to focus on one correction at a time to reduce confusion. Once one is corrected, move on to the next improvement in efficiency.
Body Alignment, Arms, and Hands
A few major points can be covered with former Coastal Carolina Coach Andrew Alden’s phrase “head up, hips up, knee up”. ‘Head up’ means looking forward because the eyes control the head. ‘Hips up’ mean keeping the glutes under the body rather than leaning forward in the classic but terrible ‘butt out’ position. ‘Knee up’ should then follow naturally from keeping the hips under the body.
Several smaller focuses will help you attain the “head up, hips up, knee up” position. By focusing on keeping your shoulders back, your back will keep from rounding and your hips will remain under your body. By keeping a slight arch in the lower back, speed will be maximized.
Hold the hands in a relaxed but not loose position. By staying relaxed you reduce tension stored in the arms and shoulders. By keeping the hands relaxed but not loose, you will increase forward movement as opposed to the swinging of your hands side to side which promotes unnecessary rotation. The arm should always have a 90 degree bend in the elbow at all times to reduce tension and increase efficiency. Another consideration for the hand is that it should never cross the midpoint of the body. If it does, you are rotating too much and reducing forward momentum. During the swing of the arms, the hand also should not rise above chest level. By pulling an arm above your chest and shoulders, you are promoting upward movement (vertical oscillation). In running, the focus is on moving forward, not upward.
An important and recently popular focus of running mechanics is the foot strike. Contrary to popular belief, heel striking is not entirely incorrect. For example, foot strike was studied at the 15km mark in the Japanese Half-Marathon Championships (Hasewage 2007). Out of the 283 elite Japanese runners, 74.9% were heel strikers with the remainder being midfoot and forefoot strikers. However, when separating the top 50 of the 283 elites, those who had a midfoot / forefoot strike jumped from 25% to 38%. The conclusion can be that the faster the runner, the less time spent on the ground. In another study (Payne 1983), it was found that in a group of 18 international sprinters, only one did not touch the heel to the track. Basically, do not deliberately avoid the heel from making contact on the ground; the runner should run in a way that feels natural with the goal being striking the foot underneath the body.
Most runners strike with the outside of their foot. The foot naturally rolls from outside to inside, while still remaining in the neutral position. (Neutral as opposed to supination or overpronation. A local running store that offers a gait analysis will be able to decipher into which category you fall. This is an important part of the running process and not to be overlooked.)
Do not reach with your front leg when you run. By over-extending your leg, you block forward movement, creating a breaking effect along with pushing you upwards increasing vertical oscillation. Heel striking is not always bad, but ideally you should strike midfoot, at a point right in front of the heel of your foot. Flex your ankle as you push off and keep your ankle flexed in mid-air. Running drills such as the ‘B-drill’ and ‘B-skip’ can help teach you to do this. Finally, it is most efficient if your feet point forward while running. ‘Donald duck’ (running with the feet pointed outward) or ‘pigeon-toed’ (feet pointed inward) running, will reduce forward speed of any runner.
The recent craze of barefoot running following the “Born to Run” phenomenon has increased awareness of proper running mechanics. There are several benefits to barefoot running, and I would promote this in any runners’ program in the method described here. One to two days per week, performing drills on soft grass barefoot can help teach your body proper running mechanics. By following the drills with five to fifteen minutes of barefoot running on soft, safe grass, you will find that you can help teach your body to run have more of a midfoot strike.
See you on the roads!
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