Becoming a more efficient runner is key if you want to keep advancing in the sport.
The teaching of running technique has become popular over the past few years. The top-selling running book of the last several years is Chi Running, by Danny Dreyer, which teaches a quasi-yoga-based style of running that is purported to reduce injury risk. Dreyer has made a thriving business of Chi Running, with videos, clinics, and even a certification program that trains new instructors in the technique.
The Chi Running method is very similar to the Pose running method, created by Nicholas Romanov, which has been around for many years but has really taken off only within the present decade, most recently in CrossFit Endurance training programs as taught by founder Brian MacKenzie.
Once all but ignored, running technique is now the topic of countless magazine and website articles, is taught by a growing number of running coaches, and is intensively discussed on Internet chat forums and actual training runs. Underlying all of this discussion is a gradually spreading consensus that running technique can in fact be effectively taught-that there is an identifiable correct way to run that every run can learn and use to run faster and with fewer injuries. This belief represents quite a departure from the old-school view of running technique from past decades, which held that good running technique was essentially something that you were either born with or not, and that the only way to improve running technique was to simply run and let the process happen naturally.
There are some running experts who still believe that this is the case. Among these experts is Ross Tucker, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Tucker is not persuaded that there can be a single right way for every runner to run.
In an article on his website, Tucker explains, “My personal opinion is that if there was a way to run faster and with fewer injuries that was guaranteed to work in all people … then it would be discovered by default. It’s difficult to fathom that millions of people, with different body shapes and sizes and leg lengths and centres of gravity and joint angles could fit into one single pattern or technique. Rather, the passage of time would filter out any flaws for each person.”
Tucker believes that individual runners naturally develop the stride pattern that works best for them in the normal course of training, but that this pattern is not transferable-in other words, what works for me is unlikely to work for you.
Scientific research on the teaching of running technique tends to support Tucker’s view. For example, a 2005 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences reported that the running economy of 16 high-level triathletes was actually reduced (meaning the athletes became less efficient) after 12 weeks of practicing the Pose running method. In fact, to my knowledge no study has ever demonstrated an improvement in running economy or performance resulting from technique training.
While “global” running methods such as Chi Running and the Pose method might not help runners, there is reason to believe that runners can benefit from making narrow refinements and adjustments to their natural stride. First of all, although the training process itself is perhaps the surest path to improved running technique, not all training is equal. It stands to reason that some ways of training will improve running technique faster than others.
In addition, runners tend to run differently in shoes than they do barefoot, and it is apparent that the shod running style is less economical and more likely to cause injuries than the barefoot style. While actually running barefoot is not an option for most of us, any runner can learn to run in shoes more like he or she does without them and thereby become more efficient and less susceptible to injury.
Finally, as a consequence of all the time we spend sitting nowadays, our bodies have many muscle imbalances that negatively affect our running technique. Working to undue these imbalances will not automatically reverse their effects on your running, but it will make it a lot easier to reverse them through conscious control of your gait.
Let’s now get a little more specific. Here are some concrete tips to improve your running technique by the three means I’ve just described.
Hastening The Process
How should you train to hasten the natural process of running more efficiently as your fitness improves? Include a small amount of maximum-intensity sprinting in your training every week (something very few distance runners do). Testing the limits of your capacity to produce pure speed is a great way to stimulate neuromuscular changes that increase your speed, and by definition any stride change that increases your speed represents a technique improvement. Just 6-8 sprints of 10 seconds apiece will do the trick.
Next to running fast, running in a fatigued state is the best way to naturally stimulate stride refinements. Try to do three workouts every week than leave you moderately to severely fatigued. Two of these workouts should involve faster running (perhaps a tempo run and a session of intervals on the track) and one should be a long endurance run.
I believe you can further hasten the process of running technique improvement by simply paying close attention to how you run and making little adjustments in search of greater efficiency and power. A while back there was an interesting study done in which researchers determined that runners who scored higher on a general psychological measure of self-awareness were more economical. They speculated that more inward-looking individuals may also be more aware of their bodies when they run and thereby make more subconscious adjustments to their form that reduce energy waste. So get in the habit of really feeling your body as you run and experimenting with little adjustments. This habit alone may improve your running technique more than anything else.
Undoing Your Shoes
Roughly 80 percent of runners overstride when wearing running shoes, meaning their foot touches the ground ahead of the hips, usually on the very back of the heel. Roughly zero percent of runners overstride when running barefoot (because doing so would bruise the heel). The fact that so many of us automatically begin to overstride as soon as we lace up our sneakers is a problem because overstriding reduces running economy and increases injury risk.
You can learn to reduce or eliminate your overstriding even in running shoes. Step one is to wear the lightest shoes with the least heel cushioning that you find comfortable. Step two is to practice running with a slight forward lean of your entire body from the ankles up (not from the waist), which will naturally discourage overstriding. Step three is to develop a habit of feeling where ground impact forces are concentrated on your foot and playing around with your stride until you feel those forces move forward from the back of the heel to the front of the heel or even the midfoot.
Undoing Muscle Imbalances
In our society, particular muscles are commonly very weak due to all of the sitting we do, while other muscles are abnormally tight for the same reason. These muscle imbalances cause stride irregularities in many runners. Those who totally dismiss the notion that better running technique can be learned overlook this correctible source of stride irregularities.
For example, tight hip flexors (the hip flexors are the muscles that lift the thigh) are very common in our society. When the hip flexors are too tight, the hip cannot extend sufficiently during the push-off phase of the stride. Consequently, the hips and lower spine must rotate in the direction of the push-off leg so that the foot can stay on the ground long enough for a proper push-off. But this compensatory rotational movement is less effective-it uses more energy to generate less thrust-than the correct motion in which the hips and spine stay neutral and the hip extends fully.
Correcting such imbalances will give you a better foundation to run with better technique. It requires that you regularly perform well-selected functional strengthening exercises and joint mobility exercises. Here’s an example of a hip mobilization exercise that will open up your hip flexors so you can achieve better hip extension during the push-off phase of running:
From a standing position, take a long stride forward into a deep lunge position and lower the same-side elbow to the heel on the forward leg. From this position, drive off the forward foot, return to the upright position, and pull your trailing leg even with your forward leg. Repeat the movement with the opposite arm and leg. Continue lunging forward in a walking manner. Keep your chest up and try not to let the lower back round as you lunge.
You Can Run Better
While there is no single method of running that everyone cane learn and practice effectively, every runner can improve his or her technique. Training correctly, learning to run “barefoot,” and correcting common muscle imbalances are the surest means to a more efficient, powerful and injury-resistant stride.