In the last installment of this post, we covered a few of the basics of having good running form. Let’s take a look back at what we discussed. There were 3 main things that I said could cover the major bases, standing up erect, avoiding over striding, and keeping your foot under your butt (under your center of gravity). Today, we’ll take a look at a couple of the finer, more technical points of good form such as the arm swing, footfall, and launch/gait.
Let’s start with the simplest of the 3 today, the arm swing! Now you might be thinking, what is there to say about arm swing? You just swing them opposite to your legs, right? Well, yes that is true, but what you do with your arms can have drastic effects on your legs and your body’s level of effort. So as an example, stand up and try to run without your arms moving at all, just hanging by your side. Then try running but with exaggerated arm movements. It’s hard, and you seem to feel off balance both times. So there’s point number one, your arms keep you balanced while the lower half of your body is in constant motion. So that being said, your arm movement should fall in line with your stride. If you’re taking small strides and running slower, your arms can stay more relaxed but if you’re running at a fast clip taking longer strides, your arms need to have a little bit more motion in order to keep your balance with a longer, quicker stride.
Now let’s look at something a bit more complicated, and a hot topic of debate in the running world for years (which could probably be turned into a book, but will be kept to this blog post for the sake of all of our sanity and simplicity). So to begin, I’ll come right out and say it, mechanically speaking, a forefoot strike done properly is the most energy efficient footfall. Now before I explain this, if you remember from the previous post, your foot should land pretty close to underneath your center of gravity. With that coupled with a forefoot strike, your foot, calf, and quad all act as a sort of spring board. When your foot strikes, it extends the arch of your foot as contact with the ground extends all the way back to the heel. As this happens, the foot comes from a plantar flexed position to a neutral position parallel to the ground which extends the calf. Then at the same time, the upper portion of your leg bends at the knee in order to absorb some of the impact of the landing, which stretches the quad. Then, as you push off the ground, all those systems come together to release all of the stretched tension to launch you forward. First, the quads start to extend the knee, then the calf pushes the foot into the ground, and lastly, the arch of your foot starts to come back up as your foot rolls from the heel to the forefoot and finally off the ground. Think of it as a big spring. As you compress the spring, it naturally wants to push back up. Your legs act in the same way. When your foot makes first contact with the ground by the heel, it takes away that natural springing effect of your entire leg system, causing your forward launch to be caused exclusively by muscle contraction from a stationary position and not by stretch reflex release of stored energy.
The last thing I want to cover today is the importance of running gate as it relates to speed. For endurance running, athletes usually rely on taking longer steps to gain speed as opposed to taking faster steps. Most elite and competitive runners will have the same number of strides per minute whether they are running an 8 minute mile or a 5 minute mile. This way, running faster does not cause the athlete to take extra steps that put extra impact stress on the legs. The difference lies in the distance they cover in those individual steps. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not achieved by over striding, but by doing things like shifting your body weight just a little bit forward and having a stronger push off the ground with your trailing foot. These things will allow you to seemingly glide through the air and cover more distance with each step while still keeping that foot under the butt and not over striding. By doing this, you can maintain mechanical efficiency, increase speed, and not subject your legs to more repeated impact than is necessary.
Now it is important to note that these changes in your form can not happen over night. Just like in learning any other movement, your body is going to want to move the way it has been for however long you’ve been running. Overriding your muscle movement can take months to take effect, so it is important to not get in a hurry. So if you’re trying to better your running form, use these tips, but do it slowly!