No matter what kind of runner you are, it's a good bet you want to run further, run faster, and run with less chance of injury. Or just to run again with childlike joy and abandon. To these ends, some think that running success lies in buying expensive, medicating shoes. Others, however, know less is more. The latter camp reasons that by learning correct running form, they can dispense with the hype of empty product and promise. And they're right.
But what is correct running form?
Running is controlled falling. Every run begins with a lean in the desired direction where the body tips forward like a felled tree. Then, we let go of the ground with one foot, re-catch it with the other and repeat over and over, on down the road. What may appear as unique personal style, runner to runner, is still fundamentally identical for everybody. Correct running form starts at mid stance, with the running pose.
The running pose is something we already do. It's common to all runners -- you; me; the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt; and those joggers we run past in our neighborhoods. This singular point in space and time separates the previous stride from the next, and becomes a standard by which we differentiate good technique from bad. Correct running form is distinguished, simply, by getting in and out of the Pose at the right time. (We'll get to timing in a moment.)
Notice at mid-stance, in the running pose, how the ankle, knee, and hip of the support leg are bent. When bent just so, these joints become a magnificent musculo-skeletal spring. This spring stores elastic energy gathered from the previous stride and releases it in the next. The spring is fully compressed at one point, precisely when bodyweight, or the general center of mass (GCM) -- think of the GCM as a marble lying roughly behind and below the navel -- is directly above support on the ground.
Obviously, it's the foot. But is there a preferred place on the foot to land when running? Could it be the small, hard, bony heel, as sellers of cushioned running shoes would have you believe? Or is it the wide, malleable ball of the foot where sensory receptors lie, where athletic balance resides, and which allows the foot to become a lever that activates our biomechanical spring? Find out for yourself by taking off your shoes and socks and jumping rope. Or just imagine you're jumping rope. You're bouncing, bouncing, bouncing on the balls of the feet. Now, land on your heels. Ouch! Right? So, instead of creating a potentially injurious impact transient that wouldn't normally exist without crashing down onto a heel strike, doesn't it make sense to let the ball of the foot just drop to the ground beneath the hips first so that bodyweight can instantly begin loading the spring?
So, from this running pose -- remember, it's mid-stance -- we stand on the precipice with our biomechanical spring coiled and ready to lift us up so we can again give ourselves to gravity and fall forward, accelerating at 9.8 meters per second, per second (9.8m/s2) into the next stride, and the next. And this is where the magic happens.
Our bodies can be described as a falling rod by drawing a line from the ball of the foot up to the center of mass at mid stance. As the GCM passes over its support, sequential video frames show the rotation of the falling rod during ground contact in a runner's stride and the resultant points A to B as horizontal movement. (Beyond point B, support is lost.) It's here where running speed begins, where the musculo-skeletal system redirects gravity, and where the illusory idea of "push off" is dispelled. Clearly, any push can only be upward. Think of an analog clock face displaying 12:04. Between the hands, within this cone of support is our range of fall. A push here is far more vertical than horizontal, and where our biomechanical spring does its job. Ultimately, no one runs until they fall.
But, while we normally pose and fall just fine, most of us pull each foot from the ground a little too late. Once past support we've accelerated, we're unweighted, and we're ready to release the ground. Yet, we tend to hang on. Correct running form requires that we pick up the foot "on time" to change support. "On time" means an instant after the body has passed ahead of mid-stance and has fallen through its speed-appropriate range. Since no one rings a punctuality bell, we must find ways of discerning whether we're late or on time with the pull.
Here's what works for my clients and for myself. By holding the mental image of pose running, comparing video clips of ourselves and others in motion, training in synch with a metronome, and by practicing a handful of specific exercises -- including rope-jumping, skipping, and hopping -- and by training in bare feet we can at once improve our running mechanics, and begin rekindling our sensitivity to the point where any errant step registers immediately, and is adjusted automatically. Success -- remember, to run farther, run faster, and run with less chance of injury, and otherwise savor the joy of running -- asks only for attention, practice, and patience.
A decade ago, even while wearing shoes the "Pose Method" skill set was easy for me to grasp. Shin splints and ilio-tibial band issues evaporated, and running became more enjoyable. Perception, though, remained elusive -- that is, until 2005 when I began "runnin' nekkid." Since then I've learned to feel, because without shoes I can feel correct running form. But, unshod or not the prescription remains no more and no less: "Pose, Fall, Pull."
- YouTube: Christopher Runnin' Nekkid in 2006.
- YouTube: (Mostly) Heel Striking, 2010 Boston Marathon.
- Full text of "Correct Running Form."
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