Tag Archives: running form

Cool, and certainly not impossible

CoolImpossibleCaveat: I’ve talked before about books relevant to training plans I’ve reviewed, but I’m not big on book reviews. I’ll talk about my thoughts on reading this book, but this is not totally a review of the book. If interested, look up reviews of the book or browse a copy separately on your own. And of course, if you disagree with any of the following… cool.


A few weeks back at a local bookstore I stumbled upon and bought a book by Eric Orton called The Cool Impossible. Orton gained fame in Christopher MacDougal’s book Born To Run, about Christopher’s journey to run the Copper Canyon ultra with the uncanny endurance-running Tarahumara natives of northwest Mexico.

Eric Orton coached Chris through training for the ultra, and his personally developed methods (derived in no small part from what he learned with the Tarahumara) find their way into this book I found a few weeks ago.

I read this book and unlike other running books it doesn’t map out a training plan to prepare for a goal race. Instead, what training plan the book has intends to rebuild your running ability through balance and strength exercises using slant/wobble boards and a balance ball, and later through perfecting your running form and cadence through drills and then shorter bouts of running that grow gradually longer over 26 weeks (including the initial strength building phase) of general training.

Orton details how the Tarahumara run on custom-made minimalist shoes made from old tires on uneven, rocky trails that constantly require stepping on and pushing off from uneven terrain. Most runners in civlization run on cleaner, flatter surfaces, and don’t develop the nuanced lower body strength from running on rocky terrain that the Tarahumara do.

Reading through these anecdotes and Orton’s breakdown of the subsequent exercises, two ideas jumped out at me.

1) Virtually no one else who coaches or writes about running even talks about this, let alone works on or teaches how to do this.

In fact, most running coaches probably have no idea how to run on truly uneven terrain, even if they run trails or trail races. Such runners probably stick to paths and then just tiptoe through these sections that Orton and the Tarahumara have the nuanced strength to run straight through.

2) Hey wait, I already do this.

Growing up in dry hot Vegas, what grass we had in the schoolyard and parks was largely unmaintained. It was mowed and occasionally weedwacked, sure. But we played soccer and ran laps over lumpy, rugged grass whose random bumps and divots you perhaps got used to over time.

Add in running over dusty desert dirt, the random consistency of what pavement there was, and I got a lot of practice growing up in running over uneven terrain. I wasn’t even a distance runner.

Once I got seriously into distance running so many years later, I was among the few who had no problem taking my run onto the dirt fringes of the Lakefront Trail, or even onto the similarly rugged, inconsistent grass terrain.

Whenever I slip in icy terrain during winter, I have the proprioception to stay balanced and continue forward without falling or getting hurt. Even when I do trip or slip and begin to fall, I have the awareness, balance and strength to often stay on my feet, or at least land safely without injury.

Over my life I’ve been in a few messy homes, workplaces, classrooms, and got used to stepping through and over a variety of mess, stepping accidentally on all sorts of random things, and staying balanced when that happened.

That certainly helped when I got into theatre and dance, and that sort of dynamic balance came in handy. Add in the deep movement training of both disciplines, and having that now-natural perception helped a lot when I later got into distance running.

I realize I’m not a typical case, that most other people won’t have this ability or awareness if they don’t discover and work on it. Sure, they may have some, but a lot of them tiptoe through tough spots, or hurt something as soon as they step off-balance on something. A book like this might actually be really useful for a large number of such runners.

Meanwhile, while I might get some value out of some of the exercises or the renovative training plan (probably after the Chicago Marathon in October, though)… the idea of, say, balancing on one foot on a slanted surface isn’t new territory for me. In fact, I had to do stuff like that in George Lewis’ Meyerhold Biomechanics theatre class every week.

A few weeks ago, I had to run through large swaths of terrain during my last 17 miler. Weather, people and conditions forced me onto bumpy grass and dirt for a good portion of it. Not only have I not forgotten how, but I still need and utilize those abilities today.

I’m glad I got this book, and there’s useful material in here, even if it turns out I already have some of this knowledge. Sometimes it’s cool (and certainly not impossible) to learn that what you innately knew isn’t foreign to others.

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Tip: Your first step has already been taken

I’ve talked before about how effective running steps push back rather than reach forward.

From my view, over-striding is to run by reaching forward with your front leg and having it pull you forward, instead of propelling your body by landing the front leg directly under your hips and pushing back. Whether or not your foot lands in front of your body is secondary to using your leg to reach instead of letting it land naturally beneath you.

Reaching your leg forward and pulling your body towards it once it lands is of course inefficient: It doesn’t allow you to fully utilize the power of your glutes, and forces your quads, hams, calves, etc. to do a lot more work that they’re designed for to keep you running. It also forces your hips and core to do a lot more work because your balance constantly shifts due to what’s essentially a bounding lunge posing as a running motion.

One of the reasons this is hard to internalize for many is because most think of the first step being the foot that reaches forward from where you stand or walk.

In reality, your first step is already on the ground. Since effective running form pushes back rather than reaches forward, your run begins when you push off from one foot on the ground to move your body forward.

The foot that first moves forward is actually the second step. And of course that second step should comfortably touch the ground and push back to propel you forward… rather than reach forward.

Start your run with this thought process, and you are well on your way to running comfortably and effectively.

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The Best Running Technique for Speed

So you want to run fast? Can’t blame you. We all do. I’ve talked about this before but I’ll make a point of it again:

The mistake most people make when they try to run faster than usual, such as in speedwork and in races, is to a) run physically harder, as in put forth more effort, and b) to reach farther with their steps and try to cover more ground with each step.

All the above serves to do is tire you out more quickly, and while this may be great for sprinters who need only maintain this effort for a few seconds… this is not a good way to run a race farther than, say, 400 meters. And pretty much every race you pay to run is a lot farther than 400 meters.

What you want is to maintain efficiency, while repeating your most efficient running motion faster than usual.

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Three Valuable Tips for Beginning Runners

1. You should run as slow as you can

You absolutely need to run slow. Slower than you think. Run as slow as you need to in order to keep running. As a newcomer to running, you will struggle to run for any amount of distance, and chances are likely you will quit early unless you first focus on running far as slowly as you can get away with.

A parallel: Competitive walking has a rigid set of rules that constitute what exactly constitutes a walk, and it’s a good guide for the minimum of what you need to do for your movement to qualify as a run.

A key point in race walking is that your back foot must be on the ground until your front foot plants on the ground.

Conversely, if your back foot comes up before your front foot impacts the ground, then you are technically running. See how slowly you can get away with safely doing this, and you may be surprised how slowly you are allowed to run.

2. Take each step as soft and easy as you can

Another key reason you want to run slow is to make it easier for you to run without having to hit the ground hard.

A telltale sign that a runner is outrunning his/her normal capabilities is that their feet hit the ground hard and loud. This isn’t just aesthetically displeasing, but it’s not healthy. You’re jarring your joints, muscles and ligaments all the way up the chain from your feet up into your core, and risking long term injury. In fact, this is largely where common runner ailments like shin splints and IT band pain come from. You basically just stress those parts of your body until they hurt.

In dance and some theatre circles, performers get taught how to step as softly as they can. There’s usually no real method taught to this, but performers often work at it until they develop the locus of control to step softly. I guess it incidentally helped that I studied theatre and dance before becoming a serious runner, as learning this inadvertently, eventually helped me develop better running form.

But you don’t need to dance or do theatre to learn to run soft and easy. Stand up. Find some open space. Take a step forward as softly as you can. Take another step forward as softly as you can. Repeat. Take your time and relax while repeating this. You may find that your body naturally moves and adjusts with you. Eventually your body just knows how to move to comfortably make it work. It also probably feels silly to do, but work with it.

Now try to do it quickly, but stay as relaxed as possible. Do it consistently and quickly enough, and all of a sudden you’re running that way. It may not be fast or intense, but it works.

The home run trot that I previously advocated is basically just this. It’s exactly what baseball players are doing. They’re just running as easy and comfortable as possible. Their feet are definitely not slamming into the ground.

3. Eat something with protein within an hour after every run

Recovery is something even experienced runners aren’t great at doing. Most don’t think at all about taking in nutrition within two hours of running, or realize that the half hour after running is a valuable window for refueling the body.

While carbohydrates may be valuable for glycogen restoration, what you do need for sure is protein. You just did a bit of damage to your muscles, and they need protein to rebuild. Consume at least 15-30g of protein.

I’m not saying you should pig out. Just eat a protein bar, some nuts or seeds, or drink a glass of milk, if nothing else. If you are in fact planning to eat a meal like breakfast or dinner right after running, great. Mission accomplished.

I can get into all the science as to why processed junk doesn’t help you as much as whole food, but in a nutshell you’re better off eating something healthy. If you’re in a bind and options are limited, then eat what you must. But given the option, try to eat whole foods in as close to their natural form as you can.

How well you bounce back between workouts is largely a function of how you recover. What you eat or drink soon after the run matters.

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Quick thoughts on how to find comfortable, fast, efficient running form

Think quick. Think low. Think short, swift movements.

If you’re trying to run fast, I’ve talked about how most fall into the trap of longer, lunging strides… instead of shortening up enough to where they can turn their feet over more quickly. The latter will cover more ground in the long run, and is a much more comfortable way to run faster than usual.

When starting your run, begin with a trot, and gradually accelerate the turnover of steps in that trot.

Many also fall into the trap of swinging their arms far too much, extraneous movement that wastes energy and not only tires you out more quickly but slows you down.

The only directions your arms should drive is back. Your arms should naturally repel back forward, allowing you to drive them back once again. In fact, and this is admittedly from various running form texts, your arms should ideally not swing in front of you at all. The farthest forward your elbows should come is right beside your obliques.

And your arms ought to be low, and stay low. Yes, I’ve seen (and know) plenty of runners who run comfortably with their arms high in front of them. Like a baseball pitcher with a high leg kick, it’s a quirk that works well for some and their style. For most, the most efficient form for your arms is low and driving back while not propeling far forward.

A good way to think about running is to run with the feel a hovercraft… or like a plane taxi-ing along the runway. The latter glides along the pavement, occasionally firing the engines just a little bit, enough to move itself forward.

If you’re not sprinting, look to find a rhythm that feels like you’re briskly gliding low along the pavement. Your legs aren’t lifting too high with each step. Your arms are low to the ground. Your steps are smooth, swift, so short and imperceptible that if you didn’t know any better you’d swear you had no legs and were in fact gliding like a hovercraft.

This smooth rhythm also making slowing down or stopping for obstacles easy and seamless, as well as gliding back into your desired pace once you’re running again.

At the very least, it feels a lot better than grunting and pushing out hard steps to try and run fast. You may find smooth is faster anyway.

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An Idiot’s Guide To Safe, Effective Running Form

One of my keys to reducing, even (fingers crossed, knock on wood, ban all black cats) eliminating injuries, has been ongoing work on my running form.

In March 2017 I had to pull up and back out of a speed workout before it began due to knee pain when I ran, a recurring issue. Having plenty of subsequent time to think about it (since I was obviously not running much while it healed up), I read various sources on running form and took a good long look at the details of my own running form.

Gradually I adjusted the way I ran in workouts until I was able to run regularly, pain or not, without aggravating the condition.

In fact, not only did my recurring knee issues pretty much disappear over the following months, but residual discomfort from a 2008 ankle injury (which remained a come-and-go issue during my recent time running) disappeared and never came back either.

Over the past year I’ve built up my running volume from 20-30 miles per week to around 35-50 miles a week during focused training, without any injury problems or nagging pain. And I train harder and longer in key workouts, more often, than I ever have before.

Anyone who knows me can see I’m no Adonis with magnificent body structure. I have at best an ordinary-looking physique for a guy in reasonable shape. I’m not avoiding injury by being physically gifted. In fact, once again, I dealt with nagging injuries until I fixed my form.

Regardless of what shape a runner is in, even the best and hardest training athletes seem to get injured a lot, even with far more resources available to them for recovery and training.

Meanwhile, I’m an idiot who runs home in his work clothes. What exactly am I doing that works? Do I think I have an idea?

You bet I do.

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My running workout principles

Here’s how I approach a run in general, my tactics and mindset before I head out on any run, how I plan a run and subsequently carry it out, etc.

Since this encompasses just about every facet of a variety of running workouts, this is going to go a bit across the board.

When possible, multi-task a run

Most of my runs are destination runs rather than round trips, meaning it starts in one location and ends at a different location I wanted to go to for unassociated reasons. For example, most days I run home from work. This is a destination run intended to commute me home from work, and the commute isn’t necessarily the primary purpose for the run.

I’ll warm up for speed workouts by taking an easy run to the workout site from home, and then I’ll cool down by running back home from the workout.

I have season tickets to Loyola Chicago basketball. I’ll often run to the campus for games, then possibly run home after the games.

None of this is breakthrough science. A lot of people do this sort of thing, I’m sure. But I make a practice of it, rather than do it incidentally.

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On foot pronation, and why I (mostly) don’t worry about foot support

When I decided to get serious about running a couple years ago, I went to a Roadrunner Sports store to get a good pair of shoes. I didn’t know nearly as much as I do now, but I knew the cheap worn out Avias I had run in for years were due for replacement.

I decided I would blow a good chunk of change on a legit pair of shoes. Knowing I didn’t know much I decided to get upsold: Sometimes I’ll let a salesperson take control of the transaction and sell me, knowing that if at any point I smell a rat I can quickly extract myself and leave.

And Roadrunner definitely tries to sell (it’s actually a key reason I avoid going to one these days; it’s like the Best Buy of running shoe stores). They have a stride test they do in part to upsell you some pricey insoles, and I went ahead and did it. They discovered that, while my left foot landed just fine, my right foot had a tendency to pronate (collapse inward) quite a bit.

I didn’t tell them this, but I knew that was in part to a bad right ankle injury I suffered in 2008. I’m fairly sure I didn’t break it because I was able to walk on it (albeit with great difficulty after it happened), but there had been lingering pain for years afterward, and I imagine that the excess pronation was compensation I had built it while recovering from it.

They offered to make me a set of $70 insoles that would address the issue, and knowing little at the time I took them up on it.

They brought out a trio of standard issue shoes and I settled on what felt the most comfortable to run in: The Saucony Ride 9’s. I still have those shoes and while they’ve piled up over 300 miles I do run in them from time to time.

The insoles felt better to run in at first. But when I developed come-and-go knee issues a few months later, I arbitrarily ditched them and tried running with just my shoes’ standard insoles. That ended up feeling better, and I’ve never worn insoles since.

——–

Over time I improved my running form, often in response to my recurring pain and injury issues. I suspect that played a role in why that pair of insoles, which helped me feel better when I originally used to, became a source of discomfort over time. They were designed to address a problem that I gradually shed over time.

That said, virtually everyone’s feet pronates in some way, and my right foot does still pronate to some degree. Since fixing my form I have had no problems regardless of what footwear I’ve used… with two notable exceptions. And they led me to retire two pairs of shoes I bought. Both were New Balance Fresh Foam model shoes.

A few months after that Roadrunner visit, I mail-ordered several pairs of New Balance shoes to suit varying running needs. Most of them I still run in today, but one of those pairs were a set of Fresh Foam Zantes. I not only noticed discomfort running in the Zantes that I didn’t experience in other shoes, insoles or not (I hadn’t yet ditched the insoles), but eventually I saw that my right foot naturally collapsed inward while walking or running in them. The shoes provided no side support, to the point where they formed around your stepping pattern.

I quickly retired the Zantes after less than 100 miles, and experienced no problems with the other shoes going forward.

Somewhat more recently, I purchased an inexpensive pair of New Balance Fresh Foam Cruzs after having read some good reviews, and seeing how stylishly the all-black shoes fit with work attire. They felt soft and okay to run in at first, but after a few runs I felt my right foot rolling inward more often than any of my other shoes. Soon after I began to notice the shoe’s form giving in the direction my foot was rolling, just like the Zantes.

Even though I still have the Cruzs, they’ve essentially been de-commissioned: I don’t do any serious running in them anymore. They may get used for an easy run here or there, or be worn with the right clothes in a non-running setting.

Basically, the New Balance Fresh Foam model clearly exacerbates any issues with my right foot, and could pose a great risk for injury. So it’s best for me to not wear them on runs.

——

A lot of runners, shoe salespeople, doctors, etc., fixate on pronation and how to fix it, even though everyone walks and runs with some sort of natural pronation. It’s a natural flexibility built into our feet, and it’s similar to common illnesses like colds: While in some cases it may become a problem to where you need to treat it… most of the time it doesn’t require treatment, and many actually tend to overtreat it.

The body moves as a system, and any issues one may think a product of pronation may be a collective product of other fundamental issues: Running stride, lack of core mobility, overreliance on leg muscles like the hamstrings and quads, a lacking usage of the glutes, a lack of upper body and overall balance, etc., not to mention dynamic issues like overstriding, pushing harder than is necessary on runs, etc.

My pronation issue was, unbeknownst to me, a byproduct of other fundamental issues up the chain, with my stride, my muscle usage, my overall balance and so on. Fixing those helped fix any problems that contributed to any pronation problems… even if my right foot still tends to naturally give inward.

I don’t concern myself with foot support in shoes, because I realize the important thing is to improve how your body moves. The way you move can contribute to problems up and down your body, and supports are little more than a bandage or a pain medication for a greater problem. Insoles and supportive shoes would not eliminate the problem leading to my excessive pronation or ankle/knee pain. Improving my stride, however, would fix the problem while eliminating the need for the bells and whistles.

The last couple years in fact are the first time since my 2008 injury that I’ve felt no random or occasional pain in that right ankle. I imagine that lingering pain was in part due to form problems that once I ran seriously I worked on fixing. By fixing the stride issues, it eliminated the key contributing factor to that recurring problem… much like figuring out the source of an insect problem in your home and eliminating the source.

Now that I compared human kinesthetics to pest control, I will break this post off and move along.

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The home run trot: How learning to run easy finally got me into serious running

When I got into running years ago in Seattle (and this was a couple years before I got more serious about it), I did some research on training since I wanted to do more than just go out, run and see what happened. At the time, all of my running was either of the “chase after that bus that’s about to take off” variety, of playing pickup sports with friends.

I had (what I didn’t yet know was called) anaerobic speed, but I had little aerobic endurance. Growing up presumably with asthma, I grew up thinking I just didn’t have the lung capacity of others and thus I probably just wasn’t built to run too far (attempt to run track be damned).

However, having not had anything resembling an asthma attack in decades, and having proven since then that I could run a few city blocks without stopping, I had an intuitive suspicion that I could run a couple miles without stopping. And though I couldn’t really run more than a few blocks without doing so at the time, I felt I could find a way to bridge the gap.

I had previously dabbled with the classic Couch to 5K program, and could see the logic in the stop and go approach. But I wasn’t too fond of it, I still had a hard time running more than a few blocks without stopping, and so I went looking for perhaps something a little more directly applicable.

I stumbled upon the training pages of Hal Higdon, and (though his basic 5K program doesn’t include this language anymore, the 8K program does) I was drawn to his 8-week Novice 5K program. It included these simple instructions:

Run: Put one foot in front of the other and run. It sounds pretty simple, and it is. Don’t worry about how fast you run; just cover the distance–or approximately the distance suggested. Ideally, you should be able to run at a pace that allows you to converse comfortably while you do so. This isn’t always easy for beginners, so don’t push too hard or too fast.

I had a revelation. In race walking there are very specific rules for what constitutes a walk versus a run, how your feet must leave and strike the ground and so on. I realized I could follow those rules in reverse. It didn’t matter how slow I was going. As long as the way my feet moved technically constituted a run, I was technically running.

Most people intuitively believe that to run your legs must extend a certain length, you must expend a certain amount of effort, to be a true run. I felt the same way, and like most I ran with more of a bounding, lunging cadence as my regular motion. But what if I stepped as lightly, as quickly and as easily as possible in what could be defined as a run?


I gave it a shot. One evening in Seattle’s hilly Queen Anne I stepped to the end of the block, having mapped out a 1.5 mile route that matched the distance Higdon recommended in the Novice 5K plan’s first workout, and like the instructions said put one foot in front of the other.

My plan was to go as far as I could before I needed to stop. I was to go no faster than I comfortably could, to step forward no farther than I comfortably could. I didn’t stop at all until I reached the end of my 1.5 mile loop.

I was thrilled. I, having never been able to comfortably run a mile in my life, just ran 1.5 miles without needing to stop for the first time ever. I never even felt all that distressed. I didn’t have a stop watch at the time, and I’m sure the time was very slow. But that didn’t matter at all.

Part 2 is a long story short: From there I just went out every other evening and ran the prescribed workouts the exact same way. I never had to stop before the end of the workout in any of them, and by the last week I was finishing 2.5-3.0 milers in as much time as it originally took me to finish that first 1.5 mile run.

I had no goal race in mind or anything. The only final goal I had was to run 3 miles without stopping. And at the end I did.

And then… I just stopped. Thing is, I was practicing theatre at the time, and around that time (welcome) projects and classes (which involved clown and theatre movement, both very physically demanding practices) began competing more heavily for my time and energy. So running took a back seat. It wasn’t until years later, as I began detaching from the arts scene in Seattle, that I began running more. And once I got to Chicago my running practice really… uh… picked up the pace.


All this is to say that the magic key that allowed me to break through from “fast guy who can’t run far at all” to “experienced runner who can go and go and go” was to shorten up my stride to something easier and consistently attainable.

In fact, I’d say the crux of most developing runners’ struggles can be tied to the continued belief that a regular run must utilize this aggressive, lunging stride people consider a running step, in order to count as a run. I see most runners out on their “easy” runs pushing hard, still struggling to carry on conversations and breathe at the same time, even though they should be running easy enough to converse normally.

What runners do is of course their business as long as they don’t physically impede on anyone else’s. But I say if most runners shortened up their stride until running didn’t require more than a slightly deeper breathing rhythm than usual, they’d probably:

  • Avoid most injuries
  • Be able to run a lot farther and a lot more often than they currently can
  • Ironically might in the long run be able to run faster.

Despite my current typically plodding 11ish minute mile pace on easy runs, and despite approaching age 40, I’m still breaking PRs and it’s become more and more comfortable to run interval paces that even a year ago I struggled to hit. While I certainly could run a few miles in a 9-10 minute per mile pace instead, I’d also get a lot more tired a lot more quickly, and it’d limit my ability to run on subsequent days.

Why do that if it’s not necessary?

If I could provide a physical example of what this easy running style should feel or look like, the one example I come back to is a baseball player trotting around the bases after a home run. That’s what it feels like, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what it looks like when I do it.

So, if you find yourself struggling to run too far, if you keep getting hurt or always feel too burned out to run more than 2-3 times a week, or anything similar… shortening up your stride and doing your run as this sort of “home run trot” might be worth a shot. It certainly worked for me, to say the least. It’s probably the biggest contributing factor to my growth and development into what I can do today.

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