(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from September 2005.)
How do you run? This isn’t a question of how far or how fast, or of what types of training and racing you do, or of where and when you run. This question asks about the physical act of running.
How do you look compared to other runners? Is your running form efficient or wasteful, safe or risky?
Most runners don’t know the answer because they never clearly see themselves in action. At most they catch fleeting, fuzzy glimpses reflected in store windows, or they see still photos taken late in races (often with an awkward twist while stopping time on their wristwatch). Very few runners ever self-analyze their form from a videot or, better yet, submit to an expert’s critique.
Before looking closely at yourself running, and seeing how you can look and feel better, you need to hear a few facts about form. For instance:
– Form is largely predetermined. Thank or blame your parents for the genes and the early training given. Running started in your second year, and how you’ve learned to move after decades of practice isn’t likely to change quickly or dramatically. At most you’ll smooth some rough edges.
– Form is as individual as a fingerprint. While you might not know how you look while running, you can identify runner friends from a distance. Think about a runner a quarter-mile away, backlit by the sun. Long before you can see a face, you know who’s coming by how he or she moves. If there were one “right” way to run, everyone would run alike. “Right” covers a wide range of possibilities.
– Form follows function. Erase most of your mental pictures of athletes in action. Runners seen on television usually are sprinting or nearly so. They run up on the toes, with powerful arm action, long strides, high knee-lift and back-kick. This is the exact opposite of how to run at half their pace or less. The slower you go, the less you can look like a sprinter.
– Form scores no points in competitive running. If it did, several world-beaters would been non-starters. One of the greatest Olympic heroes of the 20th century, Emil Zatopek, wasn’t pretty to watch. His head lolled and his face grimaced, but he got where he was going faster than anyone else in his era. That’s the point in this sport: to move well.
We can ignore the benign individual quirks, focusing instead on identifying correctable faults in running form. Fixing them might not make you a better-looking runner, but it could help you run better.
Stripped to its basics, the act of running is a long series of collisions with the ground. These prevent you from falling on your face after you’ve launched yourself forward into the air.
You return to earth 500 to 700 times per foot, per mile. While running, you impact with a force about triple your body weight (and even more on downhills). The stresses on your feet and legs add up enormously over multiple miles and days.
This doesn’t mean that running, by its nature, must shake you to pieces. The body is built to run, with the joints acting as shock-absorbers to ease the pounding. Your choice of shoes and surface also control the impact, and training helps you adapt to it.
Attention to running form helps as well. Taking those collision-steps sloppily increases the jarring – and the risk of injuries that can result from repetitive stress. Smooth, quiet, economical, balanced running can minimize or eliminate the damage.
(More specific tips on refining your form appear in the next chapter.)
UPDATE FROM 2015
In 15 years of teaching running classes and 10 of coaching training groups, I’ve never yet offered a lecture on form. Few runners have ever asked for individual lessons on this subject. If they do, I point them to better advisers than myself. I’ll name some of in the next chapter.
[Hundreds of previous articles, dating back to 1998, can be found at joehenderson.com/archive/. Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Going Far. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]