Technical aspects of running
by Dan Empfield 9.16-25.01
(www.slowtwitch.com)

PART ONE––GENERAL APPROACH
PART TWO––UPPER BODY
PART THREE––LOWER BODY


PART ONE––GENERAL APPROACH

Today I did a double run. I don't get to do that much these days, but when I was "runner" I used to do it a lot. My second run is always of a higher quality than my first because the morning run serves to warm me up, and I'm just physiologically stronger in the afternoon and evening––always have been.

Today I ran on a new (for me) trail system, and my sundown run in the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve––between Temecula/Murrieta and Camp Pendleton in Southern California––was spectacular. I saw a pair of well-fed, full-grown tarantulas on the way out, and three fat and healthy coyotes crossed just in front of me on my return. I rate this area very highly, and it wouldn't take a lot to move me out here permanently.

Perhaps (I thought as I ran) it would be good to write about the technical side of running. I've always resisted doing so because there are so many disparate, yet effective, ways to run that endeavoring to change someone's technique can sometimes do as much harm as good. Running is like sex: You don't want to be thinking about your technique. Somehow that ruins it. Besides, running (like sex) requires only primal skills. Everybody's circuits are prewired with all the essential info.

On the other hand there are a few stylistic habits most good runners share––although even at the world-class level there are some exceptions. I'm going to list the things a non-runner may want to consider, and the impetus for this came last week. I was visited by one of America's best Olympic-distance pro racers, an athlete who comes from a non-running background. It wasn't until we spent time together and talked about how one approaches running that it dawned on me that I take some of this information for granted.

Before I get to specific points of technique and habits, I'll mention a general approach that I suppose might seem exceedingly simplistic to some, but it really is a foreign concept to others––even to certain extremely acccomplished athletes.

In swimming, one is used to the concept of exertion, of the specific attempt at muscle recruitment and contraction. Your constant question is, "How can I get this muscle to work as hard as it can through its fullest range of motion?" The idea is to make as big a pulling surface as possible, and to pull it as far and as hard as is possible while reproducing the effort with the other arm with no or minimal delay in one's forward propulsion. In running, the approach is the converse. One's mindset is not set on work and contraction, but upon relaxation. You're not "thinking" your muscles into working, you're thinking them into relaxing. Furthermore, you're not interested in keeping that muscle working through its fullest range of motion. The bane of swimmers is the premature interruption of the pull. The bane of runners is the overextension of the stride. Overstriding is probably the single biggest and most common technical problem in running.

Relaxation and economy are therefore first on the list for a runner. This is tough, though, because it's qualitative. It isn't a measure, but a state of mind. Empirical it is not, but it is still the item a runner must keep on the top of his or her brain. The art of relaxation becomes crucial in a race when you are challenged by a runner who's performing slightly above your ability. The monologue one has with oneself is, "I can't hold this pace. But if I can find a way to relax a little––to 'think' my pulse, or effort, or exertion, just a bit lower––perhaps I can hold it." A smart, alert, sensitive runner can adapt and recruit a more efficient technique even during a race.

Right on the heels of relaxation is the concept of cadence. This actually is quantitative, but I never precisely count my cadence in running as I do in cycling. Still, cadence is a key to relaxation and efficiency in running, just like it is on the bike (and maybe more so). One thing I believe is that running cadence should never change. When you slow down, just do so with a shorter stride or with lesser effort.

If you were to pick up your cadence––say, go from 80 cycles per minute to 90 cycles––it is axiomatic that your stride would be less full, less long, than it was at the slower cadence. Which part of your stride are you "losing" in such an exercise? Ideally, it is everything above and beyond that point where the ball of your foot is in front of your knee. At this point it may begin to dawn on certain triathletes how much running and cycling are parallel. A relatively high, constant cadence of, say 90 revolutions or cycles per minute is a pretty good number in both sports. Also, the concept of "knee over pedal axle" is much like it is in running. The idea in cycling is that––in road riding, i.e., with your road race bike, not your tri bike––you should more or less be set up so that when your foot is most forward in the pedal cycle (the 3 o'clock position) the pedal axle is directly underneath your knee. In other words, the ball of your foot––which is about where the pedal axle is––is directly below your knee. In running it's precisely the same. Your foot need not ever really plant itself in front of your knee. To do so is to overstride.

Before the inevitable emails start pouring in, I'll take a brief time out and say that the "knee over pedal axle" doctrine in cycling does not apply to steep seat-angle tri bike setups. The whole body and bike complex is rotated forward, and the "clock" that your crank makes is likewise rotated forward as well. Also, realize that when I'm talking about running here it's distance running I'm discussing. If you want to know how this relates to running a 44-second quarter mile, I'll refer you to John Smith or Tom Tellez.

Overstriding––which for the purposes of this discussion I'll limit to the practice of a footfall which lands in front of one's knee––has a lot of bad consequences. First, it's just a plain slower way to run. Beyond that, it's a recipe for injury. The longer the stride the more pressure one's skeleton must absorb. Knees, arches, hips—they're all going to take a bigger beating. Unless you've got a perfect footfall––and really, even if you do––there's an anatomical weak link that's going to be exploited. Perhaps it's your patellar tendon, or your iliotibial band, or plantar fascia, whatever—something is going to "complain" if you're an overstrider.

There is a remedy for this: a drill. It requires a willing participant or the stealthy use of a clueless partner. Either way, you need another person for this. The drill is to run either directly behind another person or right on this person's "shoulder." Run as close as you can without a collision. You'll find that when you do this on a regular basis you'll end up chopping your stride, and it's a great way to get used to running with a technique that is altered only insofar as an overstride is concerned.

I used to like to practice this during track sessions––during, say, quarter-mile repeats or mile repeats, really anything where I was running at or above race pace. You can practice it under any circumstances, but since you're most likely to lapse into an overstriding habit when forced to run faster than comfortable or customary, this is a good time to practice this.

This sort of drill is also an excellent opportunity to practice relaxing while running relatively fast. Giving somebody the job of setting the pace gives you the chance to concentrate only on relaxing. If I might be forgiven for overusing the same metaphor (but it just seems so handy for the illustration), holding a pace while running takes tremendous concentration. Like sex, you can't have another thought rolling around in your head when so engaged. That is why runners are employed as rabbits in big footraces where a fast finish time is desirable. It isn't primarily wind resistance that makes a rabbit necessary. Rather, it is almost impossible to concentrate on holding a pace while also concentrating on relaxation. A rabbit takes the pressure of holding the pace and the follower can focus on relaxing. In that sense, the world-class runner is asking himelf the same questions during his world-record attempt that you will ask yourself: Am I relaxed? How do I feel? Can I relax more? Am I running as relaxed as I can? Are there muscle groups that are unnecessarily tensed?

This may sound like a lot of stuff to keep in your head, but if you take a step back and consider it as all of a theme, you'll see that they're all connected. A good footfall that is not subject to an overstride will serve to shorten a stride and, in so doing, increase your cadence. That saved effort will help to make one relaxed and will save energy.

PART TWO––UPPER BODY

The more precisely I describe the textbook way to run, the more I risk ruining your otherwise quite adequate technique. This always gives me pause. I'll go forward anyway, though, realizing that for every ten or twenty of you who gain something positive from the words I write, one will discombobulate himself trying to incorporate the rules I write below. To that unfortunate one in twenty: oh well.

I have three rules that govern upper body positioning and movement while running.

The first is that the hands should not cross the centerline of the body. If you draw a line from your belly button to your nose, neither hand should cross over that line and into the other hand's hemisphere. What comes to mind is the admonition you'd get from a downhill ski instructor, when he tells you to keep your shoulders squarely pointed downhill. Square shoulders make for a well-positioned upper body while running.

I do not mean that your hands must stay straight in line with your shoulders––although if your event was the 100-meter dash I might say that. It's this: One of the sins that accompany overstriding is the exaggerated movement of other parts of the body. If your stride is too long, and your cadence too slow, your arms and hands will continue their momentum and will cross the body's centerline. A shorter, more compact, more efficient stride is one in which your foot lands below your knee and your hands––while relaxed––stop short of crossing your body's center.

There are notable exceptions. Any number of Kenyan runners have arms which flail up and across and over and around their bodies while they're ticking off 4:30 miles one after another. Former world 1500-meter track champion Carla Sacramento of Portugal has flailing hands and rolling shoulders which accompany her marked overstride––and she's still one of the world's best milers. Triathlon's Kenny Glah runs like he's triple jumping, and yet he's an extremely effective athlete. Kenny is an anomoly. He's nothing if not consistent. He rides at a considerably slower cadence than I and others would advocate, and he runs the same way. While it's hard to argue with success––and I wouldn't want Kenny to change his technique––his success with his technique is probably due to personal anomolies and efficiencies not available to the rest of us, and he is therefore probably not a model to emulate.

My second rule is another of those curious parallels with cycling. As one's upper and lower arm should form a right angle while laid out one the aero bars, an elbow forming more or less a right angle is the appropriate technique while running.

Third: relax. Run with fingers and wrist stable––not flopping––but relaxed and certainly not clenched in a fist. It's easy to backslide to a tensed upper body during a run. It's worthwhile to remind oneself of the need to relax shoulders and hands several times during a run.

I reckon Frank Shorter was the best exemplar of a perfect running style from the waist up: square shoulders, hands never crossing the centerline, right angle formed at the elbow, and a fluid, relaxed style.

PART THREE––LOWER BODY

Paying a bit of attention to the points already mentioned will get you most of the way there. But there are one or two things I can mention.

I should warn you in advance that I’m going to be very conservative in what I write. I could easily cause more problems than I solve in a discussion of proper running technique from the waist down. In fact, an article will accompany this segment (Run injury free) in the hope that for every problem I cause with this article, I mitigate the damage with a remedial measure in that article.

Bottom line, everybody’s got a different anatomy, and your natural stride will acknowledge and compensate for your knock knees and splay feet and leg-length discrepanies.

It should follow, though––shouldn’t it?––that if you’re clipping back your overstride, and your footfall occurs below your knee instead of in front of it, you’ll be less likely to strike first with your heel. I think you have to ask yourself whether you’re overstriding if you’re a heel striker. In other words, if you run heel-to-toe, how can you do that unless the ball of your foot strikes well in front of your knee?

The best way I can describe a “normal” foot plant is to say it almost seems like your ball and heel strike at the same time, but they don’t. There is no “clomp.” I suspect what happens in most instances is the ball of the foot strikes first, followed almost immediately by the heel. The time gap is imperceptable to you.

Where knees go, where feet go, during this whole process I’m not prepared to say. Most of that depends on how God made you. Some people are pretty runners, and others aren’t. I suspect I’m not. I sense that I’ve got limbs all akimbo due to arm and leg parts that were haphazardly joined in way that are by no means straight and true.

Neither should you be concerned whether or not your feet come off the ground much during your back kick, or whether your’e a “shuffler.” Alberto Salazar never looked especially fast when you watched him run. Neither did Lasse Viren, the great Finnish runner of the 70s. My wife runs the same way. Very little back kick. Their feet never make it far off the ground behind them. It finally dawned in me that this was a morphological anomoly. They all have long femurs relative to their tibias, which makes them run the way they do. I would be willing to bet that Kenyans tend toward the opposite––long tibias.

Obvioiusly, all these runners are fast, and al their techniques are proper––for their morphologies.

Then there are runners who look like they shuffle. They run upright, and almost appear to run legs-in-front, with the rest of their body struggling to catch up. What makes a person a shuffler? I don’t know. My guess is, their knees never make it to full extension relative to he way the rest of us run.

I’ve known some very fast shufflers. They often, through sheer coincidence or for reasons I don’t grasp, come from Commonwealth countries. I’’ve seen a fair number of English shufflers, and a lot of white South Africans. Maybe someone will explain this phenomenon to me someday.

I've been fortunate to see a lot of very good runners come up. I've known many of them while they were in high school, and so have watched them change as they grew older, stronger, faster. On my high school team alone were several who became sub-2:20 marathoners.

While attending high school on the south shore of Lake Tahoe in the early 70s I was surrounded by world class runners. Lake Tahoe was at that time the endurance mecca Boulder is now. The one common feature among all the good and great runners I've seen in my Lake Tahoe years and since was that they simply refined their existing technique. Their basic styles of running did not change. Strides got crisper, perhaps shortened. Upper body movement may've diminished a bit, but also became more relaxed.

In other words, I've seen a lot of running styles get cleaned up––like going to the barber for a trim––but never have I seen a very good runner whose running style needed to fundamentally change.

BACK TO THE LONG RUN