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The Running Gait Debate

  • By T.J. Murphy
  • Published Sep 25, 2013

Is there a right way for triathletes to run?

This article was originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Let’s imagine, as some believe, that high-mileage training is the required path to elite performance in long-distance running. To make the elite level, one needs not only the motivation to run high mileage, but the body that can endure lots of miles with little in the way of injury. So either you need to be blessed with near-perfect mechanics so you can handle the volume without injury, or you need to somehow eliminate or work around the biomechanical flaws, somehow, some way.

Whether this type of efficient stride is a gift or a skill that can be taught has become a furious debate in the past five years. As a triathlete and runner who has been among the 70 percent of runners who get injured every year, this is the question I hoped would shed light on preventing injury and enabling higher performance, no matter what hand of cards you’ve been dealt genetically.

This is what leads us to the idea of treating running the way we do swimming—as a trainable skill. It’s universally accepted that becoming a good swimmer means spending huge amounts of time in the pool with a coach watching and teaching you, drill by drill and set by set, swim technique. The same could be said of a golf swing. We aren’t born with flawless freestyle technique and surely don’t come into this world with a perfect five-iron shot. In swimming and golf, skill development and practice are the price of success. However, there is not a similar universally accepted doctrine when it comes to running—although that conversation has, as mentioned, heated up in recent years.

In fact, there’s a real scorcher of a fight going on among coaches, biomechanists and physicists about whether running should be developed like a skill, what forces are actually at play when we run and whether or not running style is a mystery of nature that depends on a combination of your genes and running mileage.

Two of the best runners in the Ironman, both Australians, help personify each side of the discussion: 2010 Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae and 2012 Ironman world champion Pete Jacobs. Carfrae owns the women’s Kona run course record of 2:52:09, which she set in 2011. In 2010 Jacobs ran a 2:41 marathon, the third fastest run split in the history of the race (behind the increasingly mind-blowing top two times of Mark Allen and Dave Scott in 1989 of 2:40:04 and 2:41:03, respectively).

The Natural

First consider Mirinda Carfrae. How did she develop such enviable running form? She says that in her years working with her former coach, Siri Lindley, she regularly did workouts on a treadmill with the specific intention of zeroing in on a fast stride rate. “Siri helped me dial in my run pace. I tended to over-stride, which ends up fatiguing you a lot in an Ironman race. She helped me develop higher turnover.” But as far as how she became such a magical runner, she shrugged. “I don’t worry about it all that much.”

“I grew up on a farm,” she says, advancing a theory. “I had a very outdoorsy childhood. I was one of six kids, and we ran around a lot barefoot. We climbed trees. If you fell, you got hurt, you got back up and went at it more.” Her path into triathlon started when a coach spotted her during a basketball practice and suggested she give running a shot.

In addition to rambling on her Australian farm, Carfrae spent some time studying kung fu. Was that perhaps some sort of cornerstone of her ability to run fast in an Ironman? She laughs. “Maybe, maybe not. I can neither confirm nor deny.”

The Tinkerer

Now consider Pete Jacobs. In 2011, he ran a 2:42 marathon after a 4:31 bike to finish second in 8:09, no doubt giving him the jolt of inner knowledge that the top of the podium was calling to him, and it turned out it was. But in looking at how Jacobs has progressed over the years, his 2010 run split of 2:41 for ninth place came one year after he ran 2:57 for eighth place. Was Jacobs born to run or did he make himself a runner?

According to Jacobs, there’s something to be said for painstakingly developing the skill of running.

“It’s only when I read Born to Run [by Christopher MacDougall] that I realized there was a more efficient way of running,” Jacobs says. “It didn’t really say how. It just offered tips and sneak peeks.” Jacobs then developed his own approach to the skill of running, isolating feature elements like a tall posture supported by switched-on core muscles, a foot strike where his full foot lands on the pavement but with the weight more on the forefoot, and increasing his turnover rate by using his arms. When Jacobs runs, he’s constantly checking all the signals coming in from the body, tweaking his form and his use of muscular energy like an obsessive-compulsive engineer.

“It took about a year to start developing,” Jacobs says of the technique. “There was a lot of trial and error.”

So that’s the essence of the debate: the mysteriously gifted farm girl versus the tinkering mechanic.

RELATED: Chasing The 2:40 Hawaii Ironman Marathon

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