Thursday, April 30, 2015

Does Running Form Matter?

Last year's NJM - courtesy Christine McDevitt
Hey all you Regular Guy runners out there: Have you ever really given serious thought about your running form?

I volunteered at the New Jersey Marathon this past weekend, and stayed a few hours after my shift to cheer on the runners. Two minor digressions:
  • This was my first time volunteering for a race, and it was a great experience. If you have the opportunity, do it.
  • If you go to cheer at a race, cheer everyone -- and be loud! Your friend or loved one isn't the only person who needs encouragement. It really helps -- trust me.
One thing I noticed while I was watching and shouting and clapping is that there's so much variety in people's running forms -- stride length, foot strike, arm swing, posture, etc.

But that's only part of the story. As the race wore on, and the slower runners came through, I started seeing more and more awkward form. Yes, there were some quick runners with strange strides. And yes, there were some five-hour marathoners who looked picture-perfect. But an aggregate pattern was definitely evident.

In the Regular Guy spirit, I've long held that you should run the way that feels natural and that works for you. But now I'm re-thinking that.

I should acknowledge up front that correlation is not the same as causality. More to the point, which is the cause and which is the effect? Does poor form cause you to run slower? Or was the awkwardness a result of their slowness?

My guess: It's the former.

So What Is Good Running Form?
You could fill a whole section at the library with articles and even books about running form. One of the most popular fitness books of the last decade, Born to Run, ultimately hinges on it. There are plenty of disagreements on the finer points, but all of the coaches, authors and experts agree on one basic idea: Your form should propel you forward as efficiently as possible. And when it doesn't:
  • You tire more quickly, which limits the amount of cardiovascular gains you'll make.
  • You may not be able to reach your ultimate goals.
  • You put yourself at increased risk for injury.
A few caveats here: 1) I'm not a running coach, and I'm basing these thoughts on my reading and on what works for me. I can't guarantee anything. 2) Every human body is different, and even if we all strive for "perfect" running form, there will be differences. 3) Better running form is not going to lop 30 minutes off your marathon time -- at least, not by itself.

One morning this week, I was able to slip out the door before the dog had gotten up, so it was a good run to focus on form. And here are the things that I was paying attention to. It's worth noting that a lot of these concepts are interrelated -- for example, cadence, stride length and foot strike.

Running Cadence: Running coaches say you should shoot for approximately 180 steps per minute. There are some variables at play here, not the least of which is your fitness level. I included a few pickups in my run, and I found myself increasing cadence to achieve speed. 

Stride Length: As I mentioned, stride length is related to cadence. The longer your stride, the fewer steps per minute you'll be able to take. There are two issues here: It's less efficient, and it makes you more susceptible to getting hurt. It's less efficient because you're not engaging as many muscles as fully as possible -- in other words, you're asking your calves to do more of the work. And you're more prone to injury because your weight is not directly over your feet. Gravity is pulling away from your support structure, and that jars your joints.

Overstriding, heel-striking
Foot strike: There is an absolute avalanche of reading material about foot strike -- about what part of your foot you land on when you run. Some people insist on a midfoot strike. Some people say a heel strike is OK. I think the debate actually puts the cart before the horse. If you're not overstriding and keeping your weight above your feet, there's a good chance you'll land on your midfoot naturally. Or, conversely, if you find yourself heel-striking, there's a good shot you're overstriding, too. So on my run, I paid attention to my landing not as a goal, but as a means to ensuring that I was keeping my weight above my feet.

Launch: Tangentially related to stride length and foot strike is the launch. I think many beginning runners don't realize that this is where you do most of your work. If your weight is over your feet, you're in the best position to use the most muscles -- and the biggest ones, your glutes. And if you're looking to increase speed, this is where it's at. This is logic: The more you're able to propel yourself with each step, the farther each one will carry you in the same amount of time. When I was out on my run, I focused first on my landing, but then on rolling through the step strong, engaging my glutes, quads and even abdominal muscles.

Posture: This is also tangentially related to foot strike, in that you want to keep all of your weight above your feet -- not just your legs. The big key here is that you should not slouch or bend at the waist. I always think of two concepts: Run through your gut, and imagine someone is pulling your head toward the sky with a string attached at the top

That's some poor arm swing, Andrew! Courtesy Mark Stalford
Arm swing: So many runners swing their arms across their bodies when they're running. Is this a dealbeaker? No. but you are twisting your body a bit instead of moving it forward. I like to pretend I'm pulling myself along with guide ropes -- shoulders relaxed and swinging my arms forward and back. And relax your hands, too.

Breathing: Some coaches advocate a set breathing pattern that goes along with your footfalls. Many also suggest breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. But for my money, running guru Hal Higdon has the best advice: However you can get the most air -- and thus the most oxygen into your bloodstream -- is what you should do.

The Bottom Line Is Propulsion
Ultimately, what all of this really comes down to is moving yourself forward in the most efficient way you can. 

What I've found is that when my systems are working well, I feel like I'm really moving. And when things aren't working properly, I feel like something is literally holding me back as if it were a stiff headwind. When that latter issue comes up, I check in with myself. Am I overstriding and feeling it in my heels? How is my launch? What am I doing with my arms? Usually, the answer is somewhere in there.

What about you? How much thought have you given to your form? Does it feel good when you get out there on the roads and trails, or do you beat yourself up? What tips do you rely on to keep yourself moving forward and away from injury? Comment below, on Facebook or on Twitter!

No comments:

Post a Comment