Incredible Running Technique Breakthroughs

What’s behind all of these radical stride overhaul success stories?

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Trevor Jackson is a serious age-group runner—not exactly world class, but faster than most people. He ran track in high school, got away from running in college, and took it up again in his mid-20s. After a few months of training he set a 10K PR of 36:03. He was proud of, but not satisfied with, the accomplishment, fully expecting to improve his time as he accumulated miles in his legs. Fifteen months and seven 10K’s later, however, he had only lowered his best mark by 19 seconds.

A frustrated search for answers led Trevor to try changing his stride. Specifically, he traded in his heel strike for the forefoot landing that several credible experts recommended. To say that it worked would make me guilty of a serious understatement. Trevor experienced an incredible breakthrough, lowering his 10K PR to 32:44 in his next race and eventually getting it all the way down to 30:51. The top local runners in his area, accustomed to beating Trevor handily, couldn’t help but suspect the pharmaceutical rep of doping.

The story of Trevor Jackson is untrue. And not only is it untrue, but it’s completely farfetched. The idea that a runner could improve as dramatically as Trevor did is not farfetched. Runners experience incredible performance breakthroughs all the time. What’s farfetched is the idea that a consciously made change in running technique could precipitate such a breakthrough.

Runners are encouraged to change their strides for two reasons: to reduce injury risk and to improve performance. There exists some fairly reliable scientific evidence and an abundance of credible anecdotal evidence (from the physical therapy realm especially) that appropriate stride modifications may reduce the risk for recurrence of particular types of injuries. However, there is no legitimate evidence that consciously effected technique tweaks can meaningfully improve running performance.

In fact, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever. As for anecdotal evidence, given the current mania for running technique schooling—much of which has a cultish quality—you’d have no trouble finding runners who will swear up and down that some special method utterly transformed their running for the better, but these testimonials are about as credible as your average diet pill success story.

Stephen McGregor, PhD, an exercise scientist at Eastern Michigan University who also coaches runners and triathletes, has heard his share of these testimonials. Several years ago he coached a triathlete who was an above-average runner—roughly a 40-minute 10K guy. This fellow decided to seek improvement by adopting the popular POSE method of running. When he came out the other side, he raved to McGregor about how much the stride transformation had improved his running. But McGregor himself couldn’t help but notice that the athlete’s performances in test workouts showed no improvement whatsoever. The athlete also competed in the same race two years in a row, once before the stride change and again afterward. His times were almost identical. Yet these facts did not dampen the athlete’s conviction that POSE had made him a better runner.

“Some people are like that,” McGregor says. “When they buy a product, they love it—not necessarily because the product is good, but because they bought it.”

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