I recently attended a Ben Bright triathlon-training day and a UK Athletics Running Leaders Course, from which I will gain a running coaching qualification. This experience has inspired me to share some thoughts on how to improve running technique and hopefully become a faster runner as a result…
The big picture – how to run efficiently
I once read a quote of a famous sprinter, who described sprinters like ducks – it is all controlled above the waist but from the waist down, it gets messy (like a ducks legs under water!). I suppose this is true in some respects as good, efficient runners commonly have a nice compact and controlled upper body when running.
It would be obvious to think that your running style will differ depending on the distance and speed you wish to run e.g. sprinters take long strides with big arm swings and long distance runners shorter ones. Interestingly though, studies have show that sprinters can gain speed through the same principles of efficiency as runners through a compact running style.
Our running technique is not normally something we think about – from a young age we just run as nature intended.
Technique Focal Points
You are likely to find gains if you look a bit more closely at the following when you run.
Arms – Compact is king when it comes to our arms. An efficient and coordinated arm motion that keeps your elbows bent at 90 degrees and does not take your arms down past your waist should be the aim. Concentrate on letting your arm movement flow from the shoulder.
Hands – This is definitely personal preference but I like to keep ‘soft hands’ with thumb and fingers touching but not fully clenched fists.
Head – I like to imagine that there is a ceiling not to far above my head when I run. This keeps you moving forward instead of bouncing up and down too much! Equally, if you move laterally quite a lot then imagine walls to either side of you to keep you running in a straight line.
Core stability – We all know that our running technique can fall apart when we are tired. A strong core will allow you to maintain good form for longer. It is core muscles that stabilise the pelvis to efficiently transmit our forward force and keep good efficiency. I like to lead with the chest to stop me from hunching over when I am tired and keep my shoulders relaxed. Improve your core strength with stability exercises such as the plank.
High Cadence – When you look at the Brownlee brothers in triathlon or Haile Selassie, these guys run with high cadence – that is a quick foot turnover (e.g. 180 foots strikes per minute). It is not easy to do right away and will take more energy but over time, it minimises the stress on the joints from running and can speed you up! You can put intervals into your runs where your focus on running with high cadence for a short stretch, say 3 minutes. Gradually build up this time until it becomes your natural style.
Mid-foot strike – I have covered the barefoot running movement already but our foot strike is a key element to running technique. Some of the best endurance runners are still heel strikers and it is not easy to change your natural style. From a pure efficiency viewpoint though, heel striking can act as a brake whereas striking mid-foot (i.e. foot landing under your centre of gravity) does not impeded your momentum. Adapting to a mid-foot or even fore-foot running style takes time because it relies upon different leg muscles which may be underdeveloped, so this move should only be made gradually.
Remember – any energy that is spent not helping to propel you forward is wasted energy!
Working on Technique During Runs
The off-season is the ideal time to incorporate some running technique work into your training. However – the above is quite a long list so you can only focus on one element at a time. It is effective to focus on one technique element for a few minutes, for example, asking yourself are my arms moving efficiently or wasting energy? The aim is to make your natural running habits the most efficient ones!
That said – exceptions (such as Paula Radcliff) show that we all have unique styles of running which must above all be dictated by what is comfortable.