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Five Lessons Learned From Alberto Salazar

  • By Mario Fraioli
  • Published Aug. 16, 2012
  • Updated Aug. 20, 2012 at 1:54 PM UTC
Galen Rupp, left, comes off his back leg, arms relaxed, with his lead leg directly under his center of gravity. Photo: PhotoRun.net

3. Work on your running form

Some of you may remember this article in the New Yorker before the 2010 New York City Marathon which explored Alberto Salazar’s obsession with running form, in this case the stride of Dathan Ritzenhein, another member of Salazar’s Oregon Project team who has battled incessant injuries throughout his professional running career.

Salazar, who in his prime ran like an old man squatting down on the toilet, spent a lot of time tinkering with Ritzenhein’s running form after the two began working together in 2010. The reason was that Ritzenhein, a heel striker, was overstriding and essentially hitting the brakes every time his foot struck the ground, sending severe impact forces throughout his body, which contributed to multiple stress-related overuse injuries. The rationale behind getting him to become a midfoot striker was to land more under his center of gravity, thus reducing the severity of the impact forces radiating throughout his body with each stride.

Did it work? Sort of. Ritzenhein hasn’t been totally injury-free since falling under Salazar’s watchful eye, but he’s now landing noticeably lighter on his midfoot, running with a more relaxed gait and has improved his efficiency over longer distances.

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s very difficult to change one’s running form in one swift motion, particularly if that runner has become accustomed to running a certain way over the course of many years. Trying to overhaul everything at once can be a recipe for disaster, but keeping these few key points in mind – and practicing them regularly – can lead to large improvements in the long run.

* Land lightly. Avoid crashing your heel into the ground with each stride and instead “think light” and try to strike more toward your midfoot. The lighter you land with your feet underneath your center of gravity, and the less time your foot spends on the ground with each strike, the less damage you’re going to do to your body.

* Relax. Ever watch one of Salazar’s athletes run? They float effortlessly around the track or down the road, and no, it doesn’t all come naturally. Every day in practice Farah, Rupp, Ritzenhein and others in Salazar’s group work on staying relaxed from head to toe in order to run as efficiently as possible. Focus on reducing tension in your body from the head down. Relax your jaw, shoulders and arms as you’re running; you’ll waste less energy and run more efficiently.

* Move forward. Seems obvious, right? Watch nearly any elite runner run and you’ll notice there’s very little vertical motion in their strides — it’s forward propulsion all the way. Many age-group runners, however, have a tendency to “bounce,” which is a very inefficient way to cover ground. The more time you spend in the air, the slower you’re moving forward. So, next time someone tells you that there’s a lot of bounce in your step, do something about it!

A good way to practice the three points described above is to incorporate form-specific drills such as high knees, butt kicks, skips and bounding into your training two to three times per week. Also, learn how to sprint. More on this last item on the next page.

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Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli is a senior editor at Competitor magazine. A cross-country All-American at Stonehill College in 2003, he now coaches the Prado Women's Racing Team in San Diego and was the men's marathon coach for Costa Rica's 2012 Olympic team. His first book, The Official Rock 'n' Roll Guide To Marathon & Half-Marathon Training (VeloPress, 2013) is available in bookstores, running shops and online.

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