2014-01-15

Active.Com On Running Form

Active.com has a new article on how to improve one's form when running. The article lists four suggestions to help a person improve their form and, surprisingly, I hadn't expected to read any of them. Let's take a brief look at the suggestions they offer. I'll add my own perspective as we go.
1. Lengthen your spine and engage your core muscles: Right now, and on your next run, practice lengthening your spine up the back of your neck and through the crown of your head. Your chin will probably come down a bit. Don't overdo it; just feel a nice gentle stretch. Then, engage your abs like you're doing a tiny crunch forward. These two Form Focuses are the primary lesson in T'ai Chi and ChiRunning. Try them together or individually as you run, walk, or sit at your desk. As one client says, "Good posture in my new mantra." Good posture and a strong core are simple practices that will improve your running and, potentially, your whole life.
I found this to be an odd suggestion. Let me begin by saying that the punchline seems entirely appropriate: "Good posture and a strong core are simple practices that will improve your running" is not the kind of statement anyone would tend to disagree with.

What makes this suggestion odd, and what is conspicuously missing from the article, is any explanation of the role an elongated spine plays in running, specifically. In other words, what (specifically) do I hope to gain from elongating my spine in intervals while I run? Other than the shotgun theory, that good posture "will improve" one's running, not much.

It seems plainly true that better posture makes for better running, but it is not obvious to me why "lengthening your spine up the back of your neck and through the crown of your head" during a run is the best way - or even a uniquely good way - to improve one's posture and core strength.

On the other hand, running unnaturally is sure to put one at greater risk of injury. Conclusion: Avoid Active.com's first suggestion.
2. Gentle lean or controlled forward fall: When you want something new to focus on, practice using a very slight forward lean during your run. Play with it. If you lean too much, you'll engage your calf muscles. Play with the forward lean and let it be the control of your speed. Slow down with a little less lean. Add a little lean and feel your speed increase. Lean from your ankles and keep that good posture.
Regarding the second suggestion, let me start with the bad this time: The phrase "lean from your ankles" is utterly meaningless. If you don't get it, don't worry about it. It's impossible to "lean from your ankles." That's stupid.

I think it's a good idea to spend some time "playing with it" while you run. In order to discover the most natural, most effective running form for you, personally, you absolutely must invest some time trying out new things.

Specifically regarding a forward lean (or absence of it), Active.com is absolutely correct that it can be used to control speed. During uphill climbs, running with a forward lean is described as "charging the hill." Leaning forward while running downhill results in greater speed at the cost of lower coordination. Leaning back, or "standing up" during either of these situations tends to have the opposite effect, slowing a runner down at the benefit of gaining some control.

It's worth it to explore a variety of running situations and find out how leaning forward or backward in those situations will impact your overall pacing. Conclusion: Active.com's second suggestion is a good idea.
3. Use a metronome to regulate your cadence: Experiment using a metronome while you run. We recommend a cadence of 170 to 180. This will shorten your stride and most likely increase your cadence. This could make a significant change to how you run, so again, just play with it. Use the metronome for the first 10 minutes of your run, then turn it off. Start it up again to check in. Begin to notice what a consistent cadence does to your running form. We recommend a consistent cadence no matter your speed, and even on rolling hills (there are different metronome Form Focuses on steep hills).
I have no idea how the writers at Active.com made a determination of what is an appropriate recommendation for a runner's "cadence."

Cadence is a concept imported from the cycling world. When cycling, it's important to maintain a steady speed over long periods of time. Cadence in this context makes some sense because gears are variable, so different cadences translate into different speeds, depending on what gear one is using during the ride. This means that, if you want to cover a given distance in a given period of time, you will have to translate that into different cadences, depending on your gear selection. There is a direct relationship between the gear, the cadence, and the speed of travel.

Runners, though, don't have gears. And while stride is variable, it is impossible to know the exact length of one's stride during the run itself. Thus, focusing on cadence provides no information that isn't already provided by pace.

Furthermore, while the writers seem to imply that shorter strides are always better, stride (like forward lean) can be varied throughout a run to achieve different results. A short stride during an uphill climb saves a lot of energy, but a short stride during a downhill charge expends it needlessly. And because stride is variable, cadence must also be; nor should there ever be a dedicated "range" one's cadence should fall into.

Conclusion: Avoid Active.com's third suggestion.
4. Relax: Experiment with relaxing while you run. Eventually, you want to relax everything but your core muscles. Start with your shoulders and arms. Relaxing your lower legs and feet may be hard to do at first. Most people don't notice how much they use their calves to pull their body forward then use their feet to push off from the ground. It's just an experiment, so see what it feels like to run without using your lower leg muscles. Allow the slight lean to create movement. Feel how light on your legs and feet you can become.
Like the second suggestion, this last one can be boiled down to "experiment with how you feel as you run to discover what works." That's the kind of thing that I think is very much worthwhile.

On the other hand, relaxing for the sake of relaxing, or aspiring to a particular level of relaxation, sounds silly. Running is, after all, strenuous exercise. How relaxed should one really be when working out?

Every runner should feel that the act of running is not any more uncomfortable than the act of walking, aside from the additional physical exertion. That is, running should never feel "forced" or "uncomfortable." It should be an instinctive movement; it's baked into your brain to help you get away from man-eating lions. Somewhere in your grey matter is a set of fully functional evolutionary programming that you should be able to tap into to help you get the hell out of Dodge when you need to.

If Active.com has in mind that "relax" means "do what's natural," then I agree. If that involves a little experimentation to see whether making a small change to your form makes you feel better, then I think this is a great idea. Conclusion: Take Active.com's fourth and final suggestion to heart.