The Science of Running
By Alex Hutchinson Can You “Feel” Good Form?; Staying Caffeinated; Stressing About the Runs; Damage-Resistant Muscles
The quest for perfect running form isn’t quite as frenzied as it was a few years ago. For a while, after runners discovered that switching (or ditching) shoes wouldn’t automatically make them immune to running injuries, stride training was all the rage. Still, as the debates at this year’s American College of Sports Medicine conference in Denver showed, there’s plenty of interest in figuring out the best way to run.
What does “best” mean? That depends. You might be looking to reduce your injury risk, or increase your speed, or improve your efficiency so that it takes less energy to run at a given pace. That last one is the easiest to measure in a lab, and most studies over the years have shown that we’re pretty good at self-selecting an efficient stride. Make a change to your stride length, posture, or arm carriage and you’ll most likely get less efficient in the short term. In the long term, over the course of months, you may adapt to the new stride and eventually get more efficient, though that claim is hard to test in the lab and assumes your changes were well-chosen.
One study presented in Denver offers a cautionary note to would-be form-changers. Researchers at Utah Valley University coached runners to improve their arm mechanics and increase cadence (the number of steps per minute). After a week, 3d stride analysis showed that the runners had successfully reduced their upper-body movement, and they reported working less intensely to run at a given pace. The problem? Analysis of their oxygen consumption showed that they were actually burning more energy at the same pace.
This doesn’t prove or disprove the possible long-term benefits of improving your stride. But it does offer a reminder that your subjective impression of whether you’re running more smoothly isn’t necessarily an accurate gauge. Your best bet is to work with a knowledgeable coach, or to use one of the new wearable technology devices like the Lumo Run that measure various aspects of running form and track changes over time. And if you’re relatively new to running, remember the one intervention that everyone agrees will improve your form is lots and lots of running.