Lateral Oscillation: The Running Form Problem Good Runners Have
This morning, I was
scrolling through my Instagram feed, and I came across a video of a team of
runners somewhere in Colorado, running together during a workout.
That's not unusual.
I come across similar videos all the time, and have been doing so ever since I
started following elite distance runners such as Mo Farah and Eliud Kipchoge on
Instagram. What caught my attention, however, was the running form of these
American distance runners in Colorado as compared to African-native
professional runners I follow.
While there are many
small differences I could discuss between the two running forms, there was one
huge difference: lateral oscillation.
"Lateral oscillation" isn't something you'll find in running
physiology books, because it isn't generally a factor worth discussing
scientifically. This is because most everyone already understands that bounding
from one side and then to the next is a bad and inefficient way to run. A
runner should always be stepping forward, never sideways. A runner's torso will
naturally twist as his or her center of gravity moves to support one leg's
stride and then the next leg's stride. But sideways
motion in the body should be as minimal as possible. To the extent that runners
do it at all, it shouldn't be noticeable; and it shouldn't be so pronounced
that a casual social media observer would take notice of it.
Perhaps one reason I
reacted so strongly to seeing the video is that I recently took a slow-motion
video of myself doing a few strides
after a long run, and caught myself engaging in a surprising amount of lateral
oscillation. Mine wasn't nearly as bad as what I saw in these Colorado runners,
but it was enough that I had to do a bit of a double-take. "Huh," I
thought to myself, "that doesn't look quite right." I chalked it up
to the fact that I had just run fifteen miles, my farthest run in a decade.
Surely diminished running form is partially excusable after a two-hour slog. I
don't think these Colorado runners had the same excuse, but at the same time, I
can't dismiss the fact that both they and I were caught on video making the
Mistakes like these
are often more psychological than they are biomechanical. The major reason I
tell people to run, not jog is because
the very concept of "jogging" calls to mind an unnatural running
gait, slow and lumbering, shoulders too high and tense, legs too low to the
ground. This "jogging" form is unlike anything you'd use to escape
from a man-eating tiger and unlike anything you'd observe in "the
wild," if you somehow managed to see "wild" humans. A running gait, by contrast, defined to be the
motion that comes most naturally to you, the gait you'd use to flee from a
man-eating tiger, is safe and efficient. It is the motion that human beings
evolved to perform, no different than the fact that cheetahs evolved to run the
way they run. It's what nature demanded
of our species, and it's what we'll have the most success with if we choose to
embrace it as our running form for exercise.
oscillation, though, is a bit more complicated. It's not something a jogger
would do. Instead, it's a kind of swagger; it's something that someone would do
if they got it in their head that they were running fast and being awesome.
It's conceited and performative, exactly what you'd expect from a glamorous
social media video clip of a group of tough-guy runners being awesome on Instagram. In a way, it represents the opposite
of the "jogging" problem. Where a jogger jogs because he's often a
bit self-conscious and wants to look like what he thinks a fit person looks
like, a lateral oscillator moves side-to-side because he's feeling confident
and wants to project an air of speed and ability. Ironically, the result is a lot of energy wasted through inefficient
motion, a corresponding reduction in running economy, and, ultimately, a slower
and less-capable runner.
The moral of the
story is that good runners aren't immune to form problems. The solution is to
somehow find your zen. When running is done right, it feels magical, like
flying. One hardly has to think about it. It's a comfortable and efficient
glide. The more you get into your head when you run, either due to too much or
too little confidence, the greater your risk that your attitude will adversely
impact your running form.