Incredible Running Technique Breakthroughs: Are They Legit?

Changing your stride is not the only way to lower your times on the road. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

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

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 10Ks 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 (especially from the physical therapy realm) that appropriate stride modifications may reduce the risk for recurrence of particular types of injuries. However, there is no legitimate evidence that consciously made 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.

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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.”

More recently McGregor coached a pretty decent runner capable of finishing his 10Ks in 32 minutes and change. While shopping at his local running specialty shop, this guy fell under the influence of a “stride expert” who analyzed his stride and recommended some changes. The runner deemed the expert credible and went all-in on making the changes. He was extremely enthusiastic about the results and raved about his improved running to his coach.

Now, it so happens that Stephen McGregor’s primary research focus is running stride analysis. He tests runners in his lab constantly. And it so happened that McGregor had tested this particular runner before he changed his stride, and he tested him again afterward. McGregor found that the runner was less economical with his “new and improved” stride than he had been with his old stride. Yet, despite clear evidence that tinkering with his stride had made him a worse runner, this fellow continued to cling to the belief that his new stride was better.

McGregor’s research on the running stride has taught him that there is no single correct way to run. Rather, each runner’s optimal stride is as unique as his body. Therefore, each runner has to find his optimal stride on his own. “Running performance doesn’t fit any one model of the ideal running stride,” he says. “I can’t predict how economical a runner is simply by watching him run. For that reason, I know it would not be a good idea to try to make a runner more economical by making his stride look a certain way.”

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This is different from arguing that every runner already runs with the best stride he or she can possibly achieve. To the contrary, McGregor’s research findings suggest that improvements in running form are at least as important as gains in aerobic capacity in relation to a runner’s long-term performance advancement. But these improvements cannot come all at once through consciously forced technique changes. Instead, they must be earned over time through an unconscious evolution that is stimulated by simply running hard, often.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that no conscious stride modification could ever result in better performance,” McGregor says, “but even in the best case, the improvement would be minimal, and it’s far more likely to result in a negative effect on economy.”

Another athlete client of McGregor’s improved his 10K time by two minutes under McGregor’s guidance. He did so without attempting any overt fiddling with his stride or doing any drills or technique work of any sort. McGregor simply pushed him with challenging training. And, McGregor notes, “This was a guy who knew how to push himself.”

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Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.

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