2013-04-29

An Overdue Post On Running Form

Way back in June 2011, I blogged about running form. At the end of that blog post, I promised subsequent comments and tips on running form. Those subsequent comments and tips never really came, and here I am nearly two years later finding that I have sorely neglected commentary on running form.

True to my general approach to running-related posts, I would like to write this one in the following format: Theory first, then practicality. First, you'll get a dose of "concepts," and then you'll get a dose of actual tips. The reason I do this is because for me, running is like anything else: there is an underlying logic to it that must be understood in order for a successful execution to occur. Bear with me while I highlight the logic in the first section, and you will benefit more from the mechanics of the second section.

Run Fast, No Matter How Fast
As I wrote previously, the key to running safely is running fast. I know what you're thinking: "So if I can't run fast, I shouldn't even bother? I am just learning how to run; how can I expect to become a fast runner if I'm just going to injure myself in the process?"

There are two key points here:
  1. "Fast" is a relative concept. Whatever your running level, you have a "fast mode," a "slow mode," and perhaps even a few "in-between modes." My point is that only "fast mode" is safe. For you, "fast mode" might be 8-minute miles; for someone else, it might be 5-minute miles. Whatever. The point is not the absolute speed you're running, but the speed relative to your overall running ability. 
  2. While you can train, practice, and develop the skill required to be a very fast runner, running itself is an ability that we are all born with. It's instinctual. Even people who are born unable to walk have the neurological mechanisms required to run. All species with legs are born with the running instinct. Human beings forget how to run over the course of their lives.
If you doubt this last point, I invite you to go to any playground or public park in the world. There, you will find dozens of children running around. Pay close attention to their running form. While they are often flailing their arms and otherwise giggling and acting crazy, their core running form is very often superb. If not superb, it is at least much better than the running form of the average adult jogger. Why do you suppose that is?

My explanation for this phenomenon is that when children run, they're just moving as fast as possible from point A to point B, which is the whole purpose of running to begin with. On the other hand, when adults run, they're "engaging in fitness behavior." Getting from points A to B does not carry any implication with it, so kids have excellent running form because they're not thinking about it. They are engaging in as close to the instinctual running motion as they can be without being chased by a man-eating tiger. Meanwhile, when adults run, they're doing something that comes with a whole slew of prior implications: they have to jog, they have to control their pace, they have to lose weight, they have to avoid injury, and so on.

These peripheral thoughts enter the adult mind when we set out to run and interfere with thoughtless, or instinctual running. We stop running altogether. Instead, we jog. Jogging is what causes injury.

So, to recap: It's not about being a star athlete, it's about tapping into the ability that lies dormant in the dark corners of your brain that we humans like to pretend doesn't exist: the instincts. Running by instinct will keep you safe and injury-free. It will also make you a faster runner. Hence, fast = safe.

Some Practical Tips For Improving Running Form
My old post provided some wind-sprint drills that are designed to help runners develop better running form: Long-Strides and Butt-Kicks. I also recommended that you focus on your arms' movement while you run to help understand the connection between arm effort and running speed. Let's take a look at some more ideas for developing form.

Running Downhill
An easy way to force your body into a more instinctual running motion is to run down a long, steep hill. Your first reaction will be to lean backward to slow yourself down and maintain "control." This is the exact opposite of what your body wants to do. Rather than "control" your movements, you should embrace your body's natural reaction to downhill running. 

Try this: lean forward! In doing so, you will force your legs to compensate for the location of your center of gravity. Just as pumping your arms will demand that your legs follow suit, throwing your center of gravity ahead of your hips on a downhill run will force your legs to work harder to keep yourself from falling forward. Your arms will also naturally compensate.

If the hill is sufficiently long (say, a quarter-mile or so), then you will have enough space to develop some familiarity with what your legs are doing as you lean forward. Note that the goal here is not to lean forward every time you run, but rather to gain an understanding of what your legs and arms feel like when slow isn't an option. You want to understand that motion, because that's the instinctual one, i.e. the safe one.

Running down a long hill a few times per week is a great way to gain a better understanding of the natural running motion.

Track Workouts
The great enemy of the casual or beginning runner is track work. Most people erroneously believe that, unless they intend to win a formal running competition, track workouts are irrelevant. This simply isn't true.

First of all, interval workouts on a track are a simple, effective, and typically free way to engage in HIIT. In fact, the second "I" in HIIT is interval, and interval training was first developed by competitive runners. I don't need to tell you that HIIT training is highly in vogue among fitness enthusiasts everywhere. Some studies have even shown that senior citizens and morbidly obese people benefit more from HIIT than from traditional cardiovascular training. If you are interested in HIIT at all - and most people are - then track workouts are one of the best types of HIIT available to you.

Track workouts can also be a great way to get a quick run in. With a five-minute warm-up and another five-minute cool-down, you can get through a strenuous speed workout at the track in just 30 minutes. That is a great option if you don't have a lot of time on your hands. More importantly, even if you do have plenty of time to workout, speed work packs a lot of punch into a shorter period of time, freeing you up for other fitness activities.

Of course, the other major benefit of speed work is what I'm writing about today: improving your running form. When you demand that your body run as fast as it can, then you once again force your body to adopt more efficient, i.e. more natural/instinctual, form and posture. Always going as hard as you can is a little extreme, of course. The idea here is to introduce more natural running postures into your existing running regimen. Setting aside one day of the week to engage in that other running activity, sprinting, is a great way to keep in touch with running fast. As time goes on, you'll find that your body begins to import some of your sprinting habits into your other runs. This is your body in the process of developing better running form. Embrace it!

Distant Objects
Here's an easy one you can try out today: While you run, focus deep into the distance. Don't look down at the ground or at the scenery around you. Instead, focus on a single, distant object and run toward it. Ideally, this would be something on the horizon, or a distant skyscraper ahead of you. Perhaps it's a mountain or a radio tower in the distance.

There is something about focusing in the distance that changes a runner's mindset. I am not exactly sure what it is. All I know is that when a runner focuses on the distance instead of on peripheral objects, she finds herself running faster, smoother, and more efficiently.

Conclusion
I hope you find these tips useful as you get ready for the summer running season. Hopefully I will not put another two years between this post and my next discussion of running form. No promises, though. At any rate, please keep in mind that the key to running safely is by developing good form, and that means embracing the natural running motion that you already have locked in your head from birth.

Give it a try, I'm positive you will enjoy it.