Actors playing runners: excellent drama or ridiculous farce?
Being an actor is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. But when they happen to be running shoes, getting into character presents an additional physical challenge. Some excel: for example, Stephan James, who played Jesse Owens in Race (below), a biopic about the legendary sprinter (out now on DVD), trained for five months and achieved a 12-second 100m. Dr Jessica Bruce (above), a biomechanics expert and founder of the Run3d Clinic (run3d.co.uk), says his hard work shows. ‘James displays good posture and accurate sprinting mechanics, including a forefoot strike, good range of hip flexion and extension, and strong knee drive at toe-off.’ We asked Dr Bruce to turn her critical eye on some other movies about runners (good and bad).
Tom Hanks plays the slow-witted but kindhearted and surprisingly fleet-of-foot Gump, who goes for a run one day, and is still going three years, two months, 14 days and 16 hours later. ’Hanks does a good job of showing the progression from non-runner to ultra marathoner,’ says Bruce. ‘When he’s fleeing bullies in the film’s early scenes his form is upright and controlled, with quick turnover, good hip extension and kickback. Later, he depicts a more relaxed, economical style, with a shorter stride length, less hip extension and increased knee flexion – a common way of conserving energy when fatigued.’
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
In this bleak, atmospheric black-and-white 1962 classic, based on the short story by Alan Sillitoe, Tom Courtenay plays Colin Smith, a young rebel whose talent for running is his route to redemption, at least in the eyes of the governor of the borstal where he has been sent. ‘Courtenay’s running style – especially his exaggerated arm swing – is uncontrolled,’ says Bruce. ‘There is excessive movement in all three planes, even at slower speeds. This is costly in terms of energy expenditure and would be inefficient over long distances.’
Lenora Crichlow suffered two stress fractures in her ankles while preparing for the role of Shania in this feel-good film about two runners fighting for a place in the GB women’s 4x100m relay squad (it was released in the buildup to the 2012 London Olympics). Bruce isn’t surprised Crichlow became injured. ‘She lacks the strength and stability needed to produce sprint power and speed, and shows excessive hip rotation, knee collapse and rear-foot pronation.’ Sprinter Asha Philip, who won bronze in the 4x100m relay at the Rio Olympics, liked the film but admits she laughed ‘quite a lot’ at the running scenes.
Chariots of Fire
Director David Puttnam recruited Olympic coach Tom Mcnab to ‘make sure the athletics look real’ in his 1981 film about two British runners competing at the 1924 Paris Olympics, devout Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson, above left) and Jewish Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross). Charleson may not have won one of the film’s four Academy Awards for his portrayal of Liddell, but Bruce says ‘he shows good hip extension, kickback and generally good upright posture. It’s only towards the end that the extra effort is betrayed by excessive arm swinging and his pelvis tilting forward’.
Run Fatboy Run
Simon Pegg plays out-of-shape, commitment-shy slacker Dennis Doyle, who unwisely takes on a marathon in London in an attempt to win back the affections of his former fiancée (Thandie Newton), whom he left at the altar five years earlier, literally running away from his wedding. ‘His running style is that of the archetypal inexperienced distance runner heading for injury,’ says Bruce. ‘He has too much hip movement, indicating weak glutes, and as he picks up speed his stride length increases without his step rate changing, which will result in over-striding.”