I own two of your books, The Cutting-Edge Runner and Brain Training for Runners. I have learned a lot and am still learning. Over the weekend I read few articles about Chi Running and POSE running. I didn’t see anything about those topics in your books and never in Runner’s World. Could you comment on these techniques? Do they have anything that you didn’t cover in Brain Training?
Once all but ignored, running technique is now the topic of countless magazine and Web site articles, is taught by a growing number of running coaches, and is intensively discussed on Internet chat forums and actual training runs. Underlying all of this discussion is a gradually spreading consensus that running technique can in fact be effectively taught—that there is an identifiably correct way to run that every runner can learn and use to run faster and with fewer injuries. This belief represents quite a departure from the old-school view of running technique from past decades, which held that good running technique was essentially something that you were either born with or not, and that the only way to improve running technique was to simply run and let the process happen naturally.
However, new research suggests there is no such thing as an ideal running form for all runners and the very worst way to improve your own stride is to consciously emulate some universal ideal. Recent findings in running biomechanics have shown that the development of better running form in each individual runner appears to happen on an entirely subconscious level. In other words, according to the latest science, if you want to ruin your running form, try to make it better. If you want to make it better, stop thinking about it and just run.
Well, it’s not quite that simple, but pretty close.
Science has never been kind to the idea that runners can improve their running form by consciously fiddling with it. For example, a 2005 study by researchers at Colorado State University found that 12 weeks of learning the popular POSE method of running actually worsened the running economy of triathletes. And a more recent study found that runners ran more economically when they concentrated on the environment around them than when they concentrated on their running form.
That’s right: thinking about their stride made them waste energy.
For a long time the so-called experts ignored such evidence that forcing runners to run a certain way or to over-think their stride makes things worse, not better. Within the past few years, however, exercise scientists have become increasingly able to study the running stride from the inside, as it were, and the emerging result is a radically new conception of what skillful running truly is. Among these scientists is Eastern Michigan University’s Stephen McGregor, who studies the running stride using accelerometers, the same technology used in some speed and distance devices, but his are much fancier.
These fancy accelerometers measure the movement of a runner’s center of gravity in three planes: up and down, side to side, and forward. As you might expect, McGregor has found that fitter and more experienced runners exhibit less wasteful up-and-down and side-to-side movement than less fit and experienced runners, and they also show less forward acceleration and deceleration, which indicates that they experience less of a braking effect when their feet hit the ground.
When looking exclusively at fit and experienced runners, McGregor has found that the fastest athletes exhibit the least forward acceleration and deceleration. That’s no surprise either. But what might surprise you is that McGregor has been unable to identify a single specific running technique that accounts for the greater efficiency of the best runners. “It doesn’t appear that there is any particular running approach, or form, that is common,” he says. “If you take 10 different good runners and look at them compared to 10 different poor runners, there is really no single common theme that distinguishes the form of the good runners from that of the poor runners.”
In fact, McGregor admits that on several occasions he has watched athletes run in his lab and decided they had terrible form, only to discover later from the data that they were in fact exceptionally efficient. Any effort on the part of such a runner to change his form to make it look more “correct” would probably make him or her less efficient.
Without exception, the most efficient runners McGregor has studied have never made any conscious efforts to reduce their up-and-down and side-to-side movement or their braking. “Running is so complex that it’s difficult to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together consciously,” he explains. The only thing you have to do consciously is try to run fast, and then the pieces of technique required to do that fall into place unconsciously.”
McGregor has found clues to suggest that runners who push themselves in training have more efficient strides than runners who train just as much and have equal experience, but don’t push themselves. So the pursuit of better running form is not quite as simple a matter as going out and running every day. You also have to push yourself. Here are four specific ways to do that:
1. Open up the throttle
Although he has not formally studied the effect of speed training on stride efficiency, McGregor has observed a connection. He believes that fast running forces the stride to confront its limits, which leads to innovation. “Adding in faster running with caution will probably challenge your body to learn to run more skillfully,” he says. In other words, he adds, “Running faster is a good way to run faster!”
2. Mix it up
According to McGregor, our strides become more efficient as our brains unconsciously discover new and better ways to activate the muscles. And our brains are most likely to make these discoveries when presented with unfamiliar challenges. If you run at the same pace on the same flat, smooth stretch of road every day, there is not much stimulus for innovation in your stride.
Your stride will improve much faster if you incorporate lots of variety into your running. In addition to running at different speeds, you should also mix up the surfaces and terrains you run on. Asphalt, dirt, grass, uphill, flat, downhill—the more variety, the better.
3. Run tired
Stephen McGregor can actually predict when a runner is about to bonk by monitoring accelerometer data. He knows exhaustion is imminent when there is a sudden drop in the amount of entropy in the runner’s stride, which basically means that the subtle variations in the stride pattern disappear and each stride starts to look exactly like the preceding. This loss of entropy indicates that the runner’s body has hit a functional limit.
It is when your body encounters such limits that it has the greatest opportunity to discover more efficient ways of running. For this reason, it’s important that you regularly do some running in a fatigued state. You don’t want to do too much, of course, but each week you should perform some kind of fast interval workout, moderately fast “tempo” workout, or moderately-paced long run that leaves you good and tired.
4. Try to keep up
Intriguingly, McGregor’s research has also uncovered some evidence that runners who train in groups are more efficient than runners who train alone. What’s more, it appears that less gifted runners with smaller “aerobic engines” get the biggest boost from a group environment.
“If you run a lot against other people,” he explains, “and you have a smaller engine, you have to make up the deficit you have with respect to the people who have bigger engines. So, if you’re going to compete with them, you’ve got to figure out a way to run fast, and the only way to do that is to learn to run more skillfully, thus more economically.”
You want a running technique drill? Here’s one: Find a training partner who’s just a little bit faster than you and try to keep up with him or her!
Running technique is a fascinating and controversial topic about which the last word has not been written. For a fuller discussion of the ideas I’ve presented here, check out my latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.
Note: This answer was adapted from the article, “Run Unconscious”, published in the September issue of Competitor.