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 same mistake.

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.

This lateral 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.

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