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The Running Gait Debate

  • By T.J. Murphy
  • Published Sep 25, 2013
Pete Jacobs at the 2011 Ironman World Championship. Photo: Kurt Hoy

Philosophical Debate

This dichotomy between philosophies is evident whenever Nicholas Romanov, Ph.D., gives a talk on his method of running and method of teaching running, called the Pose Method. Romanov’s work began in the late 1970s within the Soviet Union superpower sports machine, when he was a teacher and coach at the Pedagogical University in Cheboksary, about a nine-hour drive east of Moscow. Although he remains a polarizing voice when it comes to biomechanics and running, there’s no denying that he has had an impact on triathlon. Elite triathletes like Tim Don, Hunter Kemper and Andrew Johns have endorsed the method as well as coaches like Joe Friel, George Dallum and Graham Fletcher. Romanov (who is a now a U.S. citizen) is currently working with the Russian ITU triathletes. But his critics tend to focus their complaints on how the laws of physics work within Romanov’s model.

This model, Romanov says, was created because of a “paradox.” As Romanov details in his book, The Pose Method of Running, he felt despite the thoroughness of his Soviet postgrad education in the sports sciences, he had little to offer his athletes when it came to running. “I realized that all of my university education had not equipped me to teach my students such a seemingly simple exercise as running. … I didn’t know what running [was], from a biological and physiological standpoint.” Romanov then set out to establish a model of running and a method of teaching it, essentially studying human movement as well as animal movement through the cold, clear prism of physics.

The Pose Method was the model of running that Romanov produced, a method now taught through clinics around the world. When Romanov speaks before an audience to introduce the Method, he starts off by reading a quote by Ken Doherty, one of the dominant thinkers in track and field technique in the 20th century and author of The Track and Field Omnibook: “Running technique is primarily an individual matter. A sound rule of thumb when it comes to running technique is to leave it alone. Do what comes naturally, as long as ‘naturally’ is mechanically sound.”

Romanov points to the paradox within Doherty’s last sentence: Without a standard of what “natural” means to running, and what he means by mechanically sound, there is really nowhere to go with this advice.

For a thorough understanding of Romanov’s standard of running and the approach he advises triathletes and runners to follow in learning it, it’s best to read his book cover to cover, but here’s a synopsis: The use of the word “pose” refers to the position of the body when a supporting leg and foot are in balance and in contact with the ground. Motion occurs when the supporting leg is lifted and the body falls forward, both feet off the ground. Eventually the other foot makes contact with the ground and another supporting position, or pose, is established, and ground has been covered. This moving from position, to position, to position—and pulled forward by gravity—is essentially the Pose definition of running and how Romanov looks at it. Like ballet, t’ai chi or any other form of human movement, it’s all about the path from one position of support to another position of support.

The Pose Method, Romanov says, intends to find and teach the best way to move between these positions of stability: The ideal way to move between each of these positions should make the best use of gravity, involve the least amount of impact stress and be efficient in terms of speed and use of energy.

To cut to the chase, there is more agreement than disagreement when it comes to the fundamentals involved in the gait debate. Pose Running and Chi Running, a form of teaching run technique based on movement principles of t’ai chi, for example, encourage an engaged core, a forward lean from the ankle (not the hip), a shorter, more compact stride, a faster stride rate and striking underneath your body weight as opposed to reaching out with your foot and driving your heel into the ground.

So while there’s some consensus on how to run well, the gait debate burns hot when you talk about gravity. It’s Romanov’s emphasis that gravitational torque should be the main source of power—an assertion that sounds too much like a perpetual motion machine to some of his fellow scientists. It all seems to boil down to an argument about what powers running: Is it by a bolt of energy from the muscles and tendons of the legs and hips? Or is the best power achieved by understanding how a human runner covers ground like an inverted pendulum? That through proper forward lean and proper mechanics a runner can be swept through a run by repeatedly falling, over and over?

Critics of Romanov point to research like a 2000 Journal of Applied Physiology study, which concluded that faster running speeds were achieved with more force poured into the ground as opposed to how fast you can move your legs. But that’s just one study. There is no shortage of studies on locomotion to get swallowed up by, most of the brain-melting variety for the laymen biomechanist, ridden with terms like “spring-mass system,” “elastic recoil,” “ballistic running,” “minimum swing time,” “stationary pivot points,” “dynamic similarity theory,” “ground reaction forces” and “gravitational wave velocity.”

Human movement is far more complex than most people think, remarks Jim Gourley, an aeronautical engineer, Ironman, and author of the book Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed (VeloPress, released in July). Gourley has written his book with the hopes of making some of the hard science involved in triathlon accessible to the non-physicist triathlete.

As far as running goes, he suggests that while Christopher MacDougall’s Born to Run may have helped ignite the argument between “natural” running, Pose Running, Chi Running, barefoot running and whatever else is in the fray, it didn’t do much to help solve the problem of how we run. “I think MacDougall had the right answer; he just didn’t provide any of the underlying science.”

Gourley summarizes the science of how we run this way: It’s like we have two pogo sticks attached to the hips. “Everything sort of works off of that model.”

With the image of the pogo stick in mind, think about short hops versus long hops. “It’s easy to stay on the pogo stick with short hops. But when you make huge leaps on the pogo stick, the stick is too far out front of your center of gravity, and you can fall backward. A lot of things happen when we lengthen our stride to cover more horizontal distance. Your vertical displacement is high, which is a waste of energy for the runner. You come down at a steeper angle, with more vertical impact force.”

Shortening the stride, Gourley says, also helps retain spring in your muscles. Gourley calls it spring, Romanov calls it elasticity and Danny Dreyer, creator of Chi Running, calls it tension in the muscles. (If you think of Pose Running as a Western-medicine, hard-science formula for running, think of Chi Running—which Dreyer based on his studies with a t’ai chi master—as an alternative medicine counterpart.)

Whatever you call it, Gourley says this spring is an invaluable commodity for the triathlete, and when you run out of spring, you’re doomed to shuffling, which is bad not just because it’s slow but because “studies indicate that it leads to an increase in both the magnitude of the load placed on the leg and the amount of time it is under load.” To preserve this spring/elasticity/tension, shorten your stride. Gourley says, “Shortening your stride length facilitates increasing your stride frequency, which leads to your legs compensating by increasing muscle stiffness. Rigid muscles in turn function as an anchor for tendons and ligaments to stretch and recoil against. Literally, you ‘put a spring in your step.’”

Studies on the Pose and Chi running methods offer a cloudy view. One of the layers of cloudiness is the fact that Pose and Chi running are in the business of selling seminars, videos and books, and some of the studies were obviously conducted by the creators. The best and most thorough review of the scientific studies on the methods was conducted in a mammoth six-part series by Ross Tucker, Ph.D., and Jonathan Dugas, Ph.D., on their website Sportsscientists.com. In the review they discuss Dr. Tim Noakes’ study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise in 2004, conducted in Cape Town, South Africa, on the Pose Method that they participated in (Tucker and Dugas consider the Pose Method and Chi Running as being basically indistinguishable). “We did drills, got taught how to run, and how not to run,” they reported on the website, noting that they received more personal instruction than a typical seminar participant would. At the end of the study the subjects had reduced vertical oscillation and lowered the impact stress on the knees. Strides were shorter and stride rates were higher. But Tucker and Dugas reported on ramifications of reducing the loading on the knee: “That loading doesn’t just disappear; it goes somewhere else.”

It goes to the ankle, they continued, and as much anecdotal evidence has suggested, in making a sweeping change to running form, there’s a risk in creating an Achilles tendon or calf muscle injury.

Discussing the study at a USA Triathlon science seminar, in a side by side Q-and-A session with Romanov, triathlon and running coach Bobby McGee expanded on a follow-up to the Cape Town study. “It was the only heavy study done of Nicholas’ work,” he says. “All were chosen from a heel-striking sample. … Anecdotally, almost everyone who went on to maintain the Pose Method—because of that short period of development—developed Achilles and soleus issues.”

McGee portrays the Pose Method as useful but idealistic—and the use of Pose thinking in his coaching is evident, but scaled back. “Every single one of [the Pose drills] is a highly skilled plyometric drill,” he says. McGee believes that only a “reasonably proficient” runner will ultimately be able to master all of the levels of the program, and that it may take not just months, but years. “In the learning of the technique, in the teaching of the technique, things get lost. I’ll see someone who has been spending a lot of time with Nicholas, and it looks like he’s using too much range of motion, too much energy, it looks like his legs are overworking. … All I can think is, he hasn’t quite got it yet.” So McGee considers the individual variation component. “I try to move away from ‘this is the system and that’s it.’ Some people don’t have the strength, the power, the flexibility and the core strength.” There are gradations, he says, and by using the Pose (and presumably Chi) tools, a runner can “enjoy being injured less and running faster.”

That said, McGee does subscribe to the critical ideas at work in Romanov’s model. Romanov says that his frustration with the naysayers is that he would prefer to have a face-to-face discussion about it. “I do understand that Pose is not free from an uncertainty,” he says. “It is a work in progress, but the primary concept of how we move is correct.”

Where to Now?

So back to Carfrae and Jacobs—the great runner that comes by great form naturally versus the runner who dedicated a year to overhauling his form and became faster because of it.

The debates funnel down to some obvious points. If you run fast and never get injured, then why mess with it? But if you’re injured a lot, and/or you’re slow, it may be worth it to spend some time studying and tinkering with your running form, in a measured and patient way like Jacobs did.

For those interested in following Jacobs’ path, the sweet spot seems to be patience. Attending a clinic may be worthwhile, but it’s just a starting point—implementing a set of new running skills takes time and attention, and likely requires a holistic approach of strength and mobility work to absorb the new skills.

As an oft-injured runner with a knee that felt like I was one heel strike away from tearing apart, I had little choice but to steer into this territory. I took on a six-week project of learning Pose drills in hopes of overhauling my form. I carried a metronome in my hand and engaged a much faster tempo, falling forward, compacting my stride, striking on the forefoot and pulling my foot up with my hamstring. The first two weeks were positively weird: While doing 200-meter repeats at an easy-to-medium pace, I was breathing as if I was running all out and my hamstrings felt on the verge of cramping. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was ridiculous.

But by the third week it all clicked. My breathing had returned to normal as my pace quickened. The new stride rate caught on. My legs felt like wheels and the pain in my knees vanished. I was surprised to see I was running faster with less effort.

In the sixth week, however, my Achilles became sore, and of course, I couldn’t help myself, I kept doing the drills until I became so sore running became impossible. Temporarily, I should say. Although I experienced a similar outcome to those in the Cape Town study, I also knew two things: Running form can be changed, and I also had hope that it could be changed—with a little more time and patience—for the better, and for good.

RELATED: Should You Invest In A Gait Analysis?

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