May The Form Be With You - April 2005
One of the simplest ways a runner can improve their speed and efficiency while lessening their risk of injury is by improving his or her running form. Unless you’re a natural, running form is one of the most overlooked aspects in the development of a runner.
When I’m at road races, I can pick out the people who are either new to running or have never had proper coaching. Usually near the finish line where everyone is trying to finish strong, that’s where most folks are most vulnerable and their bad form shows. Whether it’s wild, uncoordinated arm action, bobbing head or no knee lift, the blemishes of a runner’s form are exposed.
I’ve always considered myself a mechanically efficient runner. I recall the first couple of years as a developing runner how my high school coach constantly made comments and corrections regarding my running form. “Run tall! Lean slightly forward! Relax your arms and shoulders!” These were some of the commands my teammates and I would receive from my coach.
Most runners these days do not receive this kind of coaching for various reasons. But these details are important if you want to become faster. Think of yourself as a washing machine. If you have a balanced load, you can really zip through the spin cycle. But when the load is out-of-balance, the machine begins to shake and shimmy and the cycle slows to a noisy halt.
First off, running requires some rhythm. If you have “two left feet” or you are uncoordinated, you will have some issues with running form. But you can overcome it if you intently work on your form. Depending on the time of the season, we have our Clayton State runners do form work once or twice a week for about 20 minutes per session. We usually do the form work after a medium to long run.
It is best to work on your form when you are tired because you are at your most vulnerable. We’ll do drills on a grass field like high-knee march, high-knee run, high knee kick-outs, skipping, fast-feet shuffle, alternate-leg high hops, one-legged ankle hops, bunny hops, bounding, lunges, booty kicks, backward running, side crossovers and then finish up with four to eight strides covering a distance of 50 to 100 meters. I don’t like calling the last part “strides” since everyone has a tendency to run them stiff, but I don’t want to call them sprints since folks go too hard.
The idea with form work is to break down the different aspects of a runner’s turnover and arm action by over-emphasizing these actions so that when you get to your “normal” turnover it is a little more efficient. By no means will doing form work change your form overnight, unless you just started running yesterday.
The runners with the most challenges in correcting their running form are those who have been running with bad form for years. They are the “old dogs” with the difficulties of “learning new tricks.” It’s time to change! It’s like driving a car on bald tires in the rain you’re going to be all over the road. As a runner with bad form, you’re all over the road, too!
To begin correcting your form, get someone to video tape you running at different speeds. A road race is good. They can get you at the start, midway and the finish. Then watch closely at your form, note your running imperfections and begin to make corrections. Seeing yourself run has a bigger impact than having someone give you verbal feedback.
When arm carry is involved, your arms, hands and shoulders should be relaxed. I instruct folks with bad arm carry to focus on moving their arms from their elbows with the arms in a 90-degree position. The shoulders should never rotate. The arms should not drastically cross your body when in motion and the hands should not be clasped. One of my former runners said his high school coach would make them run holding potato chips. If you broke one, you were running too tense.
Body positioning is important. You need to run tall by keeping your torso over your hips. The visual I like to use is image riding a bicycle. When I was a kid, if we really wanted to get moving, we’d stand on the pedals and pump. You want to have that same feel when it comes to body position in running, except that you want to have a slight forward lean. Typically when form breaks down, many runners hunch over. Maintain posture. The key is to maintain form as much as possible.
The most common problem I see in running form is leg turnover. Some runners I label as “land lovers” because they spend too much time in contact with the ground. The reason is they do not have adequate knee lift. Some are so bad their stride is merely a shuffle. If one were to compare the stride length in folks who shuffle, I suspect that the results would indicate little difference in their running stride and walking stride.
When it comes to foot strike, I instruct my runners to run more on the balls of their feet when it comes to speed. Many runners tend to pound the pavement and that can lead to injuries. If you can hear your feet slapping the pavement, you need to lighten up. I’m 6-4 and have a size 15 shoe, but I’m a stealth runner when it comes to foot strike. Run like a Ninja!
It’s one thing for the heel-toe foot strike in distance running, but when it comes to increasing speed, you need to develop a bounce in your stride. I tell my folks to pretend to jog in their mother’s high-heeled shoes, but without the heels. It’ll take some time getting use to it but you should feel a spring in your stride.
Finally, head position. I’m not going to dwell on the space between the ears. Rather, I’ll discuss how one should hold their head while running. Just like the arms and shoulders, the head needs to be in a relaxed position. The head should maintain a stationary position. The jaw should be relaxed and the eyes fixed about 10 to 20 feet in front of you. When running hard, keep the head from bobbing from side-to-side, or from cocking back.
Just like golf, the different body parts need to be in the proper position in order to be most effective. Form work is a necessary detail that when done properly, and often, will make you a more efficient and faster runner. May the form be with you!