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The Running Gait Debate

  • By T.J. Murphy
  • Published Sep 25, 2013
Illustration by Oliver Baker.

Where the Rubber Hits the Road

Since the conceptual debate isn’t close to being settled, what should we be doing in the interim?

Longtime triathlon coach Cliff English has considered the on-the-ground practicalities of solving the challenge of running in an Ironman. English, who currently coaches pro long-course triathletes Heather Jackson, T.J. Tollakson and Tim O’Donnell, consults with coach Bobby McGee on mechanics.

“Our sport is about taking care of business on the run,” says English. “You want to be efficient.” English sticks to a set of fundamentals when teaching running form. “High cadence, minimal vertical oscillation, arms compact, a good [slightly forward leaning] body position with the energy moving forward.”

When watching his athletes race, English keeps an eye on the head position. He wants to see that level head with the eyes fixed 30 yards down the road. “Everything follows from the head. If I see an athlete’s gaze wander up and they’re looking above the horizon, I know that everything will start to fall apart.”

English says the secret boils down to looking at the great runners in the sport, like Mirinda Carfrae and Craig Alexander, and observing the consistency of their form. “Their running form looks exactly the same whether it’s mile 1 or mile 23. This is a matter of preparation. Be attentive to your form. If you fall apart in your training, you’ll fall apart in your racing.”

English has his athletes prepare with specific workouts, like 3×30 minutes at Ironman race pace, with 4-minute breaks in between, the goal being to make a habit of retaining form despite fatigue. “Another way to do this is to break up the long run,” he adds. “Do a two-hour run in the morning and then at night do a fartlek run, where you can run with higher speed, faster cadence and better form.”

What English is getting at is you need to master your running form and build the stamina—both physical and psychological—to keep that form intact as long as possible. Brian Rosetti, founder of the Run Smart Project and formerly a national class track runner, applies the same line of thinking in his coaching. One of his athletes might be training for a marathon, but within the program will be short interval speed training. Why? “It helps improve your economy and efficiency,” he says.

“There’s a misconception that speedwork injures people.” Rosetti says the danger of injury grows when you’re running long and your form is bad. Running sprints, says Rosetti’s fellow Run Smart coach, Malinda Elmore—who ran the 1,500 meters for Canada in the 2004 Olympics—is a great way to teach your body how to run well. “Typical track drills are fine and dandy, but the science behind them is mixed. One of the best strength and drill training sessions for runners is pure sprinting.” Elmore says to do this by adding striders to the end of your regular runs or in track workouts where you focus on really fast 100s. “You become a better and smoother runner by practicing running faster than you would in a race.”

Unlimited Power: The Glutes

One of the interesting things that came out of a 2012 University of Nevada study was that in having heel strikers change to a forefoot strike, the subjects reported feeling uncomfortable impact stress in their lower spines. Did this mean that they should revert back to heel striking? Perhaps, but there’s another possibility: You can strengthen the muscles around the spine and use them.

When you talk about the lower back in triathlon, it leads to a discussion on the importance of trunk strength. In Chi Running, a strong and engaged core is essential to the technique. A strong posterior chain has also been something that six-time Hawaii Ironman champion Dave Scott has long emphasized—and was key in the programming he created for both Chrissie Wellington and Craig Alexander. “Weight training—in particular the muscles in your back, hips, hamstrings and calves—is crucial to the bike-to-run transition,” he once told me. The discussion came up because Scott was watching top American triathletes pile on monstrous bike ride after monstrous bike ride, but still struggled when it came to racing the Ironman.

Trunk strength, aka midline stability, is a principal feature of the approach encouraged by Brian MacKenzie, author of Power, Speed, Endurance: A Skill-Based Approach to Endurance, and is related directly to the bike-to-run transition in an Ironman.

“Think about how you feel after sitting on a plane for four hours or longer,” MacKenzie says. “You’re sitting in that position the whole time.” He says this is not so different from sitting on a bike for 112 miles. “It’s impossible to stabilize your spine for that length of time. There’s a core-to-extremity violation happening no matter how much you try to have good posture, and you have to make up for the lack of integrity in the hip.” The result is that you exhaust the muscles of your extremities because you can’t fully access the more powerful muscles of the hips and the core. “And now you need to run.”

“This is where strength and conditioning work comes in,” MacKenzie says. “The stronger you are, the better you’re able to hold up in an Ironman.”

“You have to learn how to use the glutes,” says Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a medical doctor (who, it’s worth noting, was capable of sub-2:40 marathon racing in his 40s) whose advocacy for minimalist running is archived on the website Naturalrunningcenter.com. “Riding a bike—it’s all hip flexor,” he told me. “You’re not using the glutes that much. You have this whole other engine, the gluteus maximus. It’s the most powerful red meat you have. You can’t tire it out. Look at how Craig Alexander uses his glutes when he runs—I think it’s because he was a soccer player. You need to cue it throughout the race: push, push, push, lightly, like in cross-country skiing.”

Running Form Checklist

Running expert and triathlon coach Bobby McGee believes that everyone has different needs and a different set of problems to work on when it comes to running form. “Anyone who tells you that one size fits all for running form is out of it,” says McGee, who has coached running technique for three decades and worked with top Americans training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Here are his six main tips to make yourself a better runner:

Keep a quick stride rate. Nature gave us a stride rate of around 90–100 steps per minute, McGee says. If we haven’t developed that rating or don’t use it, we “lose height, posture, and alignment” in such a way that we delay ground reaction and gravitational forces get more of a hold on us. We have to exert more energy to reestablish the height, posture and alignment. “We are trying to bounce a flat basketball, and it needs more force,” McGee says. Brian Hickey, a kinesiology professor at Florida State University and top masters duathlete, agrees with this principle. “You want to run like a tack hammer,” he says. “If you lumber along at 80 strides per foot per minute, it’s just constant start and stop.”

Maintain good posture with a slight forward lean. If you run with a fast stride rate, good posture and strong muscles supporting the trunk—the air in the inflated basketball—you profit from velocity. McGee defines good posture as running tall with a slight forward lean (from the ankles, not the hips), minimal-to-zero arch in the lower back (a testament to core strength), where you maintain a straight line from the ankle to the ear, with your eyes looking about 35 feet down the road.

Avoid too much forward lean. Leaning too far forward, McGee says, can lead to over-rotation and injury. You can also end up running too fast for your cardiovascular system.

Apply proper power. Your leg does not just fall to the surface of the ground, McGee says. Rather, you want to “pop” the foot downward and with forward motion, “under oneself,” and then stiffen the arch/ankle/knee and hip while in contact with the surface. This allows the tendons and fascia to load, and friction with the surface to release energy—forward and upward. The leg, McGee says, “is applied and loaded like a pogo stick.” This popping downward power comes from the glute and hamstring, McGee says, and ideally starts when the knee reaches its lift apogee.

Land the foot underneath your pelvis. Or as close to this as possible, McGee says. Doing so will minimize the amount of braking you do while running.

Forget heel versus mid-foot. As far as whether you strike with one part of your foot or another, McGee says this is secondary to diverting the shock and loading elastically. If you’re a heel striker, trying to change to a forefoot strike has a high risk of injury to it, and unless you’re out to make an Olympic team, it might be best to stick with a heel strike. To dissipate the shock and load correctly with a heel strike, keep the angle between the forefoot and rear foot as meager as possible. Think of your foot as a “partial wheel” and start “rolling” the foot to your forefoot as soon as you touch down.

Should you change your running form?

Running is a very primal activity. When viewed as an evolutionary trait, the assumption might be to leave form alone because our bodies are already very well adapted to the task. Form fits function, right? However the voluntary decision to run for longer distances (wearing shoes and covering artificial surfaces) for purely self-actualization reasons complicates things.

If you are struggling to perform to your capabilities, have reached a speed plateau despite improvements in training or are regularly injured, your stride might need a tune-up. My approach to improving run technique is based on ascertaining which parts of an individual’s gait are functions of limitations from lack of strength, power, range of motion, balance/skill or lack of repetition. Then, I determine what running style will be left after these are addressed. This process runs the gamut of PT assessments of movement skills, strength and conditioning, drills and immersion.

I attempt to allow the best runner an individual could possibly be, if all relevant factors are addressed, to come to the fore. I do not teach a specific form. Applying generic run technique leads to injury and inefficiency for many individuals, and while someone who runs with a completely manufactured style may look good, they will never ultimately achieve to their capability. Address what hurts you, what holds you back and what has been “unnaturally” acquired for whatever reason—that’s the most that I can strive for when working on run form. —Bobby McGee

RELATED: Build Power For Better Form

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