Lean, Fit And Fast

One sim­ple tweak could se­ri­ously im­prove your form, says gym­nast-turned-run­ner Ash­ley Ma­teo

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

The sim­ple tweak that could trans­form your run­ning. You’ll be amazed

BE­FORE I STARTED RUN­NING, a few years ago, the fur­thest I had ever re­ally run was pre­cisely 13 full-pelt steps down a vault run­way. I was a gym­nast for 17 years and as far as run­ning went, all I cared about was gen­er­at­ing enough speed and power to flip over some­thing while still hav­ing enough con­trol to stop – if nec­es­sary – within a nanosec­ond of plow­ing into the vault.

I didn’t re­alise how much my gym­nast back­ground had af­fected my run­ning form un­til I started train­ing for half and full marathons. Some of the coaches I worked with told me I run tall, while oth­ers just bluntly told me I run like a gym­nast – which, to be hon­est, I took as a com­pli­ment at the time. I do in­deed run tall: chest up­right, my chin tilted slightly up, spine al­most per­pen­dic­u­lar to the ground. And it has never both­ered me; I have fin­ished 12 half marathons and three marathons, gen­er­ally im­prov­ing my time with each race.

It wasn’t un­til I was do­ing a few ses­sions to im­prove my speed dur­ing a half-marathon train­ing block that a friend and run­ning coach said to me, ‘Wow, you run re­ally tall. Aren’t your quads ex­hausted?’ It was only then that I re­alised my run­ning form might not be an amus­ing quirk, but that it might ac­tu­ally be hold­ing me back. This coach sug­gested I try lean­ing for­ward a bit when I run, be­cause shift­ing my weight could make run­ning a lit­tle eas­ier for me. Be­cause I was train­ing for a per­sonal best, I de­cided I’d take any ad­vice that could get me to that fin­ish line even a lit­tle faster, so I spoke with some ex­perts on the topic.

Why you shouldn’t run tall ‘Run tall’ is a com­mon coach­ing cue, but it’s a some­what vague direc­tion and so can be eas­ily mis­con­strued. I al­ways took ‘run tall’ to lit­er­ally mean run up­right, which is why I never thought my form was that bad. Af­ter tall, the more up­right you are, the taller you are, right?

But here’s why that in­ter­pre­ta­tion is not do­ing you any favours: run­ning is a two-part mo­tion. ‘You want a lit­tle bit of brak­ing force to catch your bal­ance, and then you want to be able to gen­er­ate force to pro­pel you for­ward,’ ex­plains Reed Fer­ber, pro­fes­sor of biocme­chan­ics at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary, Canada, and direc­tor of the univer­sity’s Run­ning In­jury Clinic. If you’re run­ning too tall, your feet will hit the ground too far in front of your pelvis and cen­tre of mass – also known as over­strid­ing – which gen­er­ates brak­ing force and slows you down.

‘Think of run­ning as a shock wave that’s go­ing to travel up your body,’ says Fer­ber. ‘Your foot passes that shock wave on to your knee, then your hips, then your spine. Your spine is sup­posed to ab­sorb most of that force, but if it’s too stiff and up­right, it can’t ab­sorb enough. So your knee un­der­goes un­nec­es­sary stress, and your ham­strings and glutes have to work over­time to ab­sorb that stress.’

Hav­ing to cre­ate that ex­tra for­ward propul­sion can also put great stress on your an­kle joints, says Danny Mackey, head coach of the mid­dle dis­tance run­ners of the Brooks Beasts Track Club, based in Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, US. ‘It’s more force than the joint is in­tended to han­dle,’ he ex­plains. Not to men­tion the un­nec­es­sary force this places on


your poor quads: ‘When your leg mus­cles have to gen­er­ate more force to pro­pel you fur­ther, it fa­tigues your quads even faster,’ says Fer­ber.

What to do in­stead Run­ning form is unique to ev­ery run­ner, but, as a gen­eral rule, Fer­ber rec­om­mends that you run with a slight for­ward lean. Imag­ine you have a string at­tached to your ster­num and some­one is stand­ing in front of you, pulling that string so your chest comes slightly for­ward. ‘What that will do is pull your shoul­der blades up­right a lit­tle bit, out of that hunched pos­ture we get from be­ing on our phones and com­put­ers all day,’ says Mackey. From that stance, your body should ap­pear as one long line from an­kle to shoul­ders, at just a slight an­gle to the ground.

Think of it as be­ing al­most like a con­trolled fall; you want to lean for­ward enough that you might tip over if you had to stop sud­denly. ‘You’re putting your­self in a slightly un­sta­ble po­si­tion to main­tain for­ward propul­sion,’ ex­plains Fer­ber.

What does that look like? When you run, imag­ine your pelvis as your cen­tre of mass. To move that mass ef­fi­ciently, you want your foot to land just un­der your hip, says Mackey. ‘That cen­tre of mass should be out in front of you so that your mo­men­tum is go­ing for­ward, then your feet grab at the ground and pull it quickly un­der­neath you with each step ver­sus your feet stretch­ing way out in front of you,’ he says.

‘Our bod­ies want to be ef­fi­cient,’ adds Mackey. ‘If you start run­ning up­right, you have got to cre­ate propul­sion – and that is re­ally metabol­i­cally costly.’ How­ever, if you lean in, you just might save your­self some en­ergy, some pain and some sec­onds at the fin­ish line.

Train­ing your­self to lean in Re­search has shown that you can change the way you run in six to eight weeks, says Fer­ber. Not so long. ‘This is not a dra­matic thing; it’s re­ally sub­tle and it needs to be done grad­u­ally,’ he adds.

Sim­ple run­ning drills – A skips [driv­ing the knee up and bring­ing it down fast], B skips [sim­i­lar but aim for a more cir­cu­lar mo­tion with the leg], an­kle, calf and knee drib­bles, high knees, bum kicks – can all re­in­force move­ment pat­terns. ‘The name of the game is rep­e­ti­tion,’ says Mackey. Two sets of 20 me­tres for all of those should take you less than six min­utes as a warm-up. Then, when you’re run­ning, he sug­gests check­ing in ev­ery time you hear your watch beep at a mile: How’s my form do­ing? What are two things I need to work on? ‘You pay at­ten­tion as long as you can and then you check in again,’ he says.

Mo­bil­ity and flex­i­bil­ity work are also key: ‘If you’re re­stricted, if you have very tight ham­strings or an­kles, you’re not go­ing to be able to get that lean all the way from your an­kles to your shoul­ders – it’s go­ing to break down some­where,’ says Mackey. And, of course, any core work that strength­ens your glu­teus medius, glu­teus max­imus and trans­verse ab­dom­i­nals is go­ing to help strengthen your spine and help your body bet­ter han­dle the force gen­er­ated by run­ning.

It takes time, but your body does ad­just to these changes. As I kept train­ing for that half-marathon PB, I started be­ing more aware of my body and where my feet were land­ing. Ev­ery time I caught my­self run­ning ‘too tall’, I made mi­nor tweaks and car­ried on. Soon enough, my speed picked up and my legs felt less tired on longer runs. On race day, a few weeks later, the miles felt eas­ier and I clocked some of my faster splits to­ward the end of the race. As I crossed the fin­ish line, I re­alised I had run a PB not by sec­onds, which was my goal, but by five whole min­utes. If that’s not proof that one tiny change can bring big re­sults, I don’t know what is.

FORM FIT­TING Im­prov­ing your run­ning form will help over those long dis­tances

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