Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 18 Sep 2005 08:34:41 -0400

Watch Yourself

RUNNING COMMENTARY 589

(Continued from RC 588.)

To see what good running form is, first notice at what it is not. Even before analyzing your own mannerisms, you can see -- and sometimes hear -- the flaws in other runners. Here are five major mistakes, all correctable, from heel to head:

1. Slapping. This is the sound of feet meeting the ground too forcefully. It happens for two major reasons of faulty form: (1) landing too far back on the heel as a result of reaching out too far with the lead foot, which is overstriding; and (2) landing with a locked knee, rigid ankle or both. The "slap" is the sound of shock inadequately absorbed. Keep the foot under the knee on touch-down, and the knee slightly flexed (more so while running downhill, where impact force is greater). Use the flexing ankle first to cushion the blow, then to toe-off quickly. Picture yourself gliding OVER the ground rather than stomping ON it.

2. Leaning. Runners -- especially newer, older or more timid ones -- run as if afraid of falling. They look down at their feet below, watching each step. This causes poor posture, running in the shape of a "9" with the head and shoulders thrust forward and the butt sticking out in back. Running this way throws extra force onto the lower body and constricts breathing up top. The antidote: straighten up. Run like an inverted exclamation point. Run tall, in line from head to toes, gazing ahead at the horizon and not down at the feet.

3. Flapping. The hands and arms don't just go along for the ride. They provide power and control balance. They can't do this important work when the hands flap loosely as if trying to fan yourself, or the arms seem not to know where they belong. The next section will put the arms in their place. As for the hands, hold them as you would while gripping a hammer. Brush the fingertips lightly against the lower palm, with the thumb folded gently over the first finger. Keep the wrist fixed, not floppy. Now try the opposite -- fingers extended, wrist flapping. You feel the extra tension and muscle fatigue even while sitting, and it climbs far up your arm.

4. Boxing. You'd think some runners were protecting their face against imminent attack, so high and tight do they carry their arms. The problems here are tense shoulders and tightly locked elbows. This tightens the torso, and it causes wasteful side-to-side and up-and-down motion of the shoulders. Relax the arms. Let them hang loosely from the shoulders, to swing pendulum-like. Unlock the elbows so they can pump, which lets the hands move through their normal running range: between the lower chest and beltline. Put several inches of space between the elbows and sides, allowing the hands to swing slightly inward but not to cross your center line.

5. Grimacing. If you haven't already heard this line, you will. "I never see a happy-looking runner," non-runners will tell you. "Most of them look like they're in agony." Don't try to smile while running, but do try not to grimace. Locked jaw, squinting eyes and wrinkled forehead are all tension-producers. Let go of the tension at these three trigger points. Smooth the brow, open the eyes and unclench the teeth. If your cheeks and lower lip bounce while you run, you've achieved the best look for a runner: neither mirth nor pain, but relaxed concentration on the road ahead.

Now it's your turn to be judged. You might grimace while seeing yourself run as others see you. A video image of yourself might not match the mental picture you'd held. Set your ego aside and submit to an exam-on-tape as a way to make yourself a better runner.

Page for page, the best advice on analyzing and improving a runner's form appears in a slim booklet titled Efficient Running. Its author is Jack Cady, a physical therapist and marathon runner from the Kansas City area. (You can find his work on the Web at: www.stridemechanics.com.)

"I feel passionately that efficient running form is not restricted to only talented 'naturals,' says Cady. "Every runner has the ability to learn the secrets of elite runners and to make them their own."

He adds, "If you doubt the importance of efficient running form, think about the fact that a typical run consists of thousands of steps. Then think about the cumulative effect of improving each of those steps even marginally."

Ideally you would find an expert such as Jack Cady to capture you on tape and make recommendations from what he saw. Failing that, here is what Cady recommends for self-analysis:

-- Ask a friend to tape you in action. Warm up first so your movements are as they would be in mid-run. Run on a flat, smooth surface where the foot plant is clearly visible (not in deep grass, for instance) and the steps are consistent. Stay close enough to the camera to view all motions clearly, but far enough away so your whole body is visible. Take footage from the front, back and both sides, and at a variety of paces.

-- Review the video, says Cady, "at full speed, slow motion and in single-frame advance so that every aspect of the gait cycle may be analyzed. Pay close attention to the overall posture, the relationship between the arms and legs, and how and where the foot contacts the ground." Spot the form faults that can be changed, then set about changing them.

Ken Doherty, a biomechanics expert from an earlier era, gave great advice on running form that bears repeating in any era: "Do what comes naturally, as long as 'naturally' is mechanically sound. If it isn't, do what is mechanically sound until it comes naturally."

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