Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot…. You’d think it would be straightforward enough, this running lark, but take a look at other runners when you are out pounding the pavements or jogging around the track at your local athletics club and you will soon realise that, like dancing, everyone has their own individual style (or lack of, in some cases).
Your running style is called your ‘gait’ and although there are a number of things you can try to help you move one step closer to ‘heaven’s gait’ (sorry), you shouldn’t become too obsessed about trying to alter the way you run, or you may end up creating problems for yourself.
Why? Because the body ‘compensates’ for its biomechanical imperfections and inadequacies, and your subsequent revised movement patterns may have been your natural way of moving for many years. Besides, many of the top runners in the world are far from textbook versions of perfection, but they still pull off amazing athletic achievements.
Having said that, if you do have obvious gait abnormalities, or recurring injury problems, there is no substitute for a professional ‘gait analysis’ in which an expert will watch and record you running to analyse your technique and suggest ways of eliminating errors, such as wearing orthotics or strengthening and stretching. Universities that have sport science departments often offer gait analysis, or search for a local podiatrist, biomechanist or physiotherapist who offers the service.
Many minor faults are simply bad habits that need to be broken – read the ten tips for better technique, below, and try focusing on one or two at a time to allow the information to become ‘hardwired’ into your brain and replace old movement patterns.
First, though, a word about those oft-bandied around words, pronation and supination. People say ‘I pronate,’ to explain the fact that they wear orthotics, or have a specific pair of shoes on, but the truth is, we all pronate and supinate, it’s all part of the gait cycle, and it’s only when the pronation or supination phase is in some way dysfunctional that problems may arise.
Top 10 tips for better technique
Relax – it’s impossible to run well if you aren’t relaxed. Pay attention to common tension sites, including the hands (unclench those fists), the jaw and forehead, and the shoulders. Research shows that when we clench the jaw, neural signals are sent along the spinal cord, causing us to ‘brace’ our posture and tense up.
Let the knees, not the feet, lead the legs. Imagine your limbs moving in a circular motion, so that your foot lands under your knee rather than in front of it, where it will act as a ‘brake’.
Don’t grip with the front of your ankles, particularly on hills. Many of us have a tendency to run with rigid ankles, which doesn’t help with shock dissipation or a smooth stride. Consciously think about letting your lower legs ‘dangle’ when your feet are in the air, as suggested by Danny Dreyer, author of ChiRunning. Swimming, or kicking your legs in water, can also help loosen inflexible ankles.
Visualise growing taller with every step – this should help you avoid slumping on to the pelvis, a position in which your core stability is compromised. Granted, this does require some core stability.
Don’t try too hard. Running isn’t a battle against the ground or the air. Imagine it as a controlled ‘topple’ forwards – all you need do is put your legs and arms out and you’re on your way!
You only need try running with your hands in your pockets to realise how much your arms count in running. Imagine your arms as pistons, propelling you forward, with elbows bent to around 90º. Don’t allow the arms to swing across the body, and keep the wrists and hands relaxed but not floppy.
Your head weighs approximately 7-10 lbs (depending on how clever you are!), so be smart and look ahead, not down, otherwise the weight of it will throw your upper spine forward and make your lower back jut out, putting a lot of stress on the skeleton. Focus on the ground ten to 15 metres ahead. The other thing to be aware of is allowing your head to jut out on your neck, a position many of us adopt sitting in front of a computer or TV, which worsens as we get tired.
Run light – think of running over the ground rather than into it. Don’t bounce from foot to foot. Imagine you are trying not to leave footprints.
Don’t deliberately ‘flick’ off the toes as your foot leaves the ground or clench them inside your shoes. Just allow the foot to roll smoothly off the ground.
Monitor yourself as you run. Practise running through a ‘body scan’ from top to toe. Are you gritting your teeth, or are your arms coming across your body? Take note of any tension, tightness or pain. A ten-second body scan every ten minutes or so can help you keep tabs on your technique, make you aware of any niggles that, if ignored may eventually become full blown injuries, give you an opportunity to stretch any tight areas and generally help you ‘regroup’ – time well spent.
Taking to the hills
When running on a nice flat, even terrain it is easier to perfect your running motion – but things get a little trickier when you throw in a few hills.
The most common mistake runners make when climbing hills is to look down, taking the hefty weight of the head forward and throwing the spine out of alignment. Leaning forward also reduces the involvement of the hamstrings, giving you less propulsion.
Instead, look ahead, shorten your stride a little and use your arms to help propel you upwards. Don’t try to maintain the same pace you had on flat ground, the golden rule is ‘even effort, not even pace’.
Running downhill might sound a lot easier than running uphill, but the knees and quads can take a real pounding, not just because of the increased impact but because the thigh muscles are contracting eccentrically (to decelerate you), which causes more microscopic damage in the muscle.
To descend less painfully, relax, particularly in the thighs and at the front of the ankles, and don’t ‘brake’ or lean backwards. Take your arms wider for balance, but ensure you don’t inadvertently take legs wider, too.
Don’t look down – it’s tempting to do so if you are running on rough trail but try to pick your route a few metres ahead and then keep your eyes focused on the next bit of trail instead of on your feet. If the path is wide enough, try zig-zagging down the slope, rather than running straight down – this enables you to maintain more control.
There are lots of ‘theories’ on the best way to breathe during running. I believe the best way to breathe when you’re running is the way that comes most naturally. I am not a proponent of all these ‘breathe in for two strides, out for two strides’ patterns, or of advising runners to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth (although you won’t swallow quite so many flies).
In fact, a study from Liverpool John Moores University showed that once exercise is just moderately hard, the most efficient way of breathing in and out is through the mouth, not the nose.
Upping the pace
Surprisingly, one of the best ways of improving your running technique is to practise running faster. Just occasionally. When you speed up, your arm and leg movements are bigger, improving your range of motion. But don’t try to get faster simply by taking bigger strides. Research shows that getting a runner to increase or decrease their instinctive stride length forces them to work harder and use more oxygen.
Rather than striving for giant steps, focus on keeping your feet ‘fast and light’. You will find that speeding up your arm movement will help quicken the legs. It’s also a great idea to practise some ‘strides’ or ‘pickups’. Strides are a slightly slower version of a sprint, and will help improve your running form. The greater ‘drive’ required by the supporting leg as it pushes off also puts more emphasis on the hamstrings, while the forefoot landing strengthens the calves eccentrically (while lengthening). From a standing start, start to run and gradually speed up to a pace just below your sprint speed. Go for 5x20 metres.