2011-06-05

Form, Form, Form

I don't want to beat a dead horse, but today I'd like to talk about running form. But before I do, I need to reiterate a couple of important things so that no one gets the wrong message. Keep the following in mind at all times:
  • Running with bad form is risky and will result in injury, I can assure you.
  • Running faster is easier on your body because it subjects your bones and joints to fewer impacts.
  • Running faster is a lot more fun.
I'd like to ask you to keep these things in mind so that you understand that what I'm talking about isn't about winning a gold medal or setting a world record. It's about running safely, it's about treating your body right, and it's about getting the most out of your daily exercise. If you could run with better form, you'd be better off. You'd be healthier and happier, even if you didn't shave a second off of your time. Don't just ignore this; it's really important.

Remember, we work out to get the most out of life. You cannot make the most of your time on this planet if you're constantly nursing injuries and grimacing through your workouts. Running is supposed to make you smile! With great running form, it's possible.

But Is It Really About Form?
In my opinion, the difference between a 45-minute 10K runner and a 35-minute 10K runner is almost entirely a function of technique. I say this for a couple of reasons. 

First, no one has ever "trained their way" out of a 45-minute 10K. For the most part, people who run 35-minute 10Ks (or better) have always run 35-minute 10Ks (or better); people who run 45-minute 10Ks (or worse) have always run 45-minute 10Ks (or worse). At this point, many would chime in to say that some people are just "naturally gifted runners" and can run faster than everyone else. I have many friends (L, I'm looking at you) who insist that some people just can't run faster than about 45 minutes for a 10K. This brings me to the second reason I think the problem is their lack of technique.

Have you ever seen a 45-minute 10K runner with really fantastic running form? I haven't. I have seen thousands of slow runners, but I've never met a single slow runner with good technique. Why do you suppose that is? 

Remember John Stanton from The Running Room? This guy has been a slow runner right from the beginning. He is the king of the Perpetual Beginners. Here's a picture of what he looks like when he runs:
john_history1.jpg
Just look at him with his elbows poked out and his chest puffed up. Notice his little baby-sized, short, stunted stride. In John Stanton's world, everyone runs like this, and everyone needs a pair of stability shoes. (Of course, here at Stationary Waves, our readers are intelligent, and they know that there is no scientific basis for the belief that motion control shoes prevent injury.) But you don't need stability shoes, and all John Stanton wants to do is profit off of the ignorance of those who buy into the Idea of the Perpetual Beginner.

Compare Stanton's kludgey running form to that of marathon great Khalid Khannouchi:

Picture updated April 29, 2013
Folks, this is what a real runner looks like. Notice the incredibly long stride, the shoulders pushed back to draw speed from the motion of the arms, the slight forward-tilting posture of a man charging forward. It is everything the Running Room will advise you not to do. 

It is no surprise at all that Running Room groups continue to churn out hundreds of new 45-minute 10K runners every year. But if you want to learn how to run, you shouldn't be asking people who run 10Ks in 45 minutes, anyway.

So It Really Does Come Down to Form
Improving your technique will save you. But enough prose, let's get to work. How do you move from the 45-minute category to the 35-minute category? It takes a little enlightened practice. First you need to know what to do, then you need to know how to train yourself to do it. So here are a few guidelines.

Tip #1: Long Strides
Forget what you've read about short strides lessening impact. You don't need to lessen impact if you already have good form. Part of good running technique is taking long strides. I used to practice this by running on sidewalks and trying to keep to about 2 strides per 3 sections of sidewalk. You can try this out yourself on your next run.

Another option is to pace off about 50 meters and do "long stride" drills, in which you bound from foot to foot like the creature from the movie Predator. Don't over-do it, though. Once or twice before your run will do just fine, if you make it a daily habit.

Tip #2: Butt-Kicks
Good runners kick their feet out so far behind them that they occasionally get lower back pain and even kick themselves in the buttocks. Seriously. This, too, is a trainable motion. Now that you've paced off 50 meters for your Long Strides, do a couple of Butt-Kicks. Literally, jog 50 meters while kicking yourself in the buttocks with your heels every time you take a step forward. 

Tip #3: Arms = Speed
One of the best things I ever learned came from my high school rival, Eric G. (Where is that guy now??) He told me that the legs always move as fast as the arms. It's true! Give it a try - during your next run, suddenly start pump your arms like madman. Notice that your legs automatically match the pace set by your arms. You can use this to your advantage when sprinting or at the end of a race. In the meantime, remember to hold your shoulders back slightly (this is actually a mark of good standing posture as well). Keep your elbows low, but allow your arms to make a full, natural motion. Make sure that your elbows don't poke out to the sides like John Stanton's; they should instead move completely parallel with your body. Any energy spent moving your arms across the front of your chest is energy wasted and lost, and it just slows you down.

I'll provide some more running form tips in subsequent blog posts.