"I've always been told I have a beautiful stride.”
“Sure, your stride is pretty, but that only means it's pretty fast. Your goal is be faster, not just pretty fast," I said.
This was one of the first discussions my wife and I had after we met.
One of the most discussed, dissected, and misunderstood aspects of running is form.
Remember when running was as simple as putting one foot in front of the other? These days, we suffer from information overload about the "proper" way to run. Trying to organize all of the available information into a clear message can cause a brain cramp.
When you are discussing running form it is important to keep in mind this quote from the great running philosopher, George Sheehan: "We are all an experiment of one." There is no single perfect running form. We are all built with different lengths and strengths, so to speak. What works for one definitely does not work for all. That being said, there are some commonalities that can help us be faster, healthier athletes.
First off, running is a skill. There is more to running than simply "left, right, repeat." As is the case for any sport, we can improve our running by practicing and mastering our technique. Improving a few key aspects of our form can help alleviate doctors’ bills and stints in physical therapy. It can also help us run from point A to point B in less time.
Let's look at some of the key aspects of form:
Foot strike is the buzzword in the running form community. People use foot strike as a way to discuss overstriding, or braking, with each step. To be honest, I don't care where you land on your foot, what your shoe's heel-to-toe drop is, or if you're a proponent of Chi, Pose or Evolution running. I care about where your foot lands in relation to your center of gravity and what the resulting shin angle is. The problem with focusing on foot strike is that you can heel strike and not overstride. Conversely, you can land mid- or forefoot and overstride. By focusing on where your foot lands in your gait cycle, you can eliminate the worry about what part of your foot hits the ground first. The closer you land to directly-under-your-center-of-gravity, the less braking action you will incur.
The other geometric aspect you should consider is shin angle. When your foot hits the ground your shin should be perpendicular to the ground (i.e., have a neutral shin angle). When you overstride, your foot reaches out too far in front of your knee and your shin angle is not vertical.
How often did your mom pester you about your posture? Guess who else will get on your case about bad posture? Your coach, that's who. Slouching or bending at the waist puts your body in an inefficient position. You don't want your lungs to be pinched or not opened up fully. Slouching causes you to rotate around your spine, which can lead to the infamous side stitch. It also causes you to lose the propulsive energy you put to the ground. Basically, it's the old analogy, “You can't fire a cannon from a rowboat.” Improving your core and upper back strength can help you maintain proper posture throughout your run and hold a more efficient running position.
To go faster you need to work harder, right? Not necessarily. The key is to turn off muscles that aren't needed. Here's an example. Make a fist. Squeeze it as tight as you can for twenty seconds. Feel that? Exactly. When you’re racing, you don’t want that energy going there. Did you notice that when your hand got tighter, your arm, and shoulder, and back followed suit? When we try to run harder, we tend to turn on every light in the house rather than just the lights we need. Go through a checklist on your run. Make sure your hands are relaxed. Shake out your shoulders. Let your arms swing loosely, naturally, and in a relaxed manner. By keeping your upper body relaxed, you will save energy for when it's needed.
Cadence is another big topic of discussion in the running community when it comes to efficient running. Generally speaking, most of us would be more efficient with a higher cadence. But how you improve your cadence is more important than just increasing your cadence any way possible. Shortening your stride to achieve a higher cadence is a band-aid that does not hit the heart of the matter. Since speed comes from stride length and stride frequency, cutting back on one to increase the other negates much of your gains. So how do you figure out the cadence conundrum?
Cadence is such a popular topic because elite runners have a high cadence. But elites have a fantastic cadence because their strides are wicked efficient and their glutes fire properly. The glutes of the non-elite masses don’t fire—at least, they don’t fire as quickly and as powerfully as they need them to. To properly improve cadence, you want to get your glutes to work more efficiently. When your glutes improve, your stride length and stride frequency will improve, which means you will go faster and use less energy.
My uncle's First Rule of Carpentry is, "If it don't fit, force it. If it breaks, it wasn't meant to be, anyway." Unfortunately, that's not the best way to successfully build a cabinet—or a running career. The goal shouldn't be to force change, but rather teach our bodies how to develop a more efficient stride. Fleet Feet Speed School is designed to do just that through a series of dynamic drills and proprioceptive exercises. By teaching the proper muscles to fire at the right time and throughout the gait cycle, we can develop the most efficient running stride for our lengths and strengths. The goal is to develop an individual form that keeps you efficient, healthy, and happy.
Tim Cary is Fleet Feet's Assistant Training Manager and coach of the Fleet Feet-sponsored Runnababez Elite team. Over his more than two decades of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors. Click here to receive Tim's weekly article via email.