Characteristics of good running technique
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Poor running technique doesn't always equate into a slow runner.
There have been many runners over the years that have achieved success with not-so-perfect strides.
However, there are characteristics that are commonly seen amongst the best distance runners - those that tend to run the fastest with the least amount of injury.
The five typical characteristics of a "world-class" stride are stiffness, ballistic action, compactness, stability, and symmetry.
When you observe some of the elite Kenyans on the running circuit, the last word you would use to describe their style would be "stiff." Rather, you would likely describe it as smooth and fluid.
This type of stiffness actually refers to how the human body functions as a spring during running.
Just as a spring with adequate stiffness will bounce more efficiently than one that is loose, a runner who utilizes a certain amount of muscular stiffness when the foot strikes the ground will run more efficiently than one whose muscles are too loose upon impact.
A spring works by reusing energy with an exchange of kinetic energy into potential energy.
The same effect happens when we run.
With each foot strike, tendons and elastic components of muscles stretch beyond their natural length, capturing and storing energy from impact.
As these tendons and tissues return to their natural length, energy is released, sending the runner's body upward and forward.
Stride "stiffness" is somewhat due to the elastic properties of the muscles and tendons themselves, but these properties can be improved through training.
The other component that contributes to stride "stiffness" is the runner using technique to coordinating his or her muscle actions.
Stride length and stride rate both affect running speed.
The best runners tend to make shorter strides with a higher stride rate at any given speed than average runners.
The stride is considered "compact".
When identifying if someone has a compact stride or not, observe foot placement when the supporting leg becomes fully weighted.
If the foot is directly underneath the hips, the stride is considered to be compact. If the foot falls out if front of the hips, the runner is overstriding.
Overstriding can cause instablity and a braking effect that hinders forward momentum. It also causes more impact to overstride, which could lead to injury.
When landing with the foot beneath the body, one is able to generate thrust immediately.
Ballistic muscle actions are short and fast instead of sustained and gentle.
Many distance runners assume a sustained and gentle stride is best, avoiding peaks and valleys in muscle work.
However, runners who use a ballistic style of running - contracting muscles with more force - tend to dominate.
They tend to use more energy during the part of the stride when muscles are working their hardest, but, overall, these runners use less energy.
A stiffening occurs just before foot strike with a bounce-like stride following and a noticeable relaxation of muscles just after impact.
While running, joints and tendons are subjected to enormous downward-pulling forces.
A good part of the energy utilized during running comes in trying to help prevent the body from just dropping to the ground.
Better runners tend to stablilize - preventing joint collapse - their bodies better than less efficient runners.
In less efficient runners, the knee bends more upon impact and the unsupported leg dips toward the ground. Also, these runners tend to allow their pelvis to tip forward.
Excessive joint movements waste unnecessary energy and put extra stress on the joints that can lead to injury.
The best runners tend to run more symmetrically than the average runner. This means there is less dropping of one shoulder over the other and minimal pronation with near similar impact of the left and right side.
There is likely always going to be some discrepancies from one side to the other, but when there are large differences, energy is wasted and injury risk is increased.
One of the most problematic issues in symmetry is twisting of the spine.
This occurs due to a late thrust or push off during the stride. When the foot is kept on the ground too long, it forces the spine and pelvis to rotate to allow for the trailing leg.
Top runners tend to keep their hips and shoulders squared - without rotational movement - and maintain a neutral pelvis by quicker turnover and thrust of the foot.
Technique drills can help improve some facets of running stride.
Typically, I give these to my clients at the beginning or end of a regualr running workout.
I recommend doing two sets of approximately twenty to thirty yards of each drill.
Here are a few to incorporate into your training program.
Run with a fast cadence and highly exaggerated knee lift, bringing your thighs to a 90 degree angle to the ground.
This drill teaches you to drive your swing leg with movement of the thighs to strike the ground with greater force. It also allows for good arm and torso form.
Run with long, leaping strides, similar to an exaggerated skip.
This drill enhances push-off power and stability on impact.
Hop on one leg as fast as possible for 20 seconds and then switch.
This drill teaches push-off power and enhances stability of the hips, pelvis, lower spine, and knees by challenging the muscles and tendons that stabilize these joints through applying hard impact forces for a short period of time.
Missy Janzow owns Fit4U, a personalized training and nutrition service. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.fit4uvictoria.com