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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