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When people talk about distance running training the focus is inevitably on running as much mileage as you can in the shortest possible time frame. With this thinking front of mind it’s easy to lose sight of the need to develop the skill, strength and coordination needed to run with good technique. Many runners don’t realize that their technique and strength are not well developed enough to absorb a structured running training program without developing overuse injuries. The Running Technique book shows how beginner runners can learn the basics of good technique and explains why running with better form helps prevent injuries and allows you to enjoy your running more as you train towards your goals. Learning and training to improve strength and coordination simultaneously with your cardiovascular running fitness is a key part of the book. Experienced runners can benchmark their running form and develop new strategies to enhance performance and avoid injury. Coaches can use the measures explained in the book to improve the running technique of their athletes.
Using this website. You can quickly navigate to the chapter of the book you are currently reading by clicking the content toggle headings to see the material that complements each chapter. If you have any comments, questions or suggestions please contact me using the form at the bottom of this page.
Foreword by Philo Saunders PhD
Senior Physiologist, Australian Institute of Sport
Running has been a major part of my life for the past 20 years as an elite athlete, sports scientist and coach. I have trained with, tested, observed and talked with runners of all levels of ability from developing juniors, recreational runners, elite senior athletes and Olympians. Like many runners I have been brought up with the premise of trying to increase the amount and intensity of training in order to improve performance, and for many talented runners this works well. However, just training hard is not necessarily the best option for runners with deficiencies in muscle strength, muscle activation patterns and other aspects associated with good running technique. These runners could succumb to injury by just increasing their volume of training.
The importance of building strength, gradually increasing mileage and incorporating a consistent strength and conditioning program into running training has become more evident to me as I have progressed through the years as an athlete, scientist and coach. Much of my PhD looked at improving running economy in highly trained distance runners and one of the key factors was improving the recruitment of key muscle groups such as the glute and hamstring muscles and utilising the elastic energy stored in the muscle tendon system to gain more energy for less work in each foot contact. Currently, I use weight training, muscle activation work, plyometrics, running drills, static holds and sprinting for myself and the athletes I coach. This approach has consistently allowed us to run with better technique, be more resilient to injury and get through higher volumes of quality training year in year out.
At age 34 I continue to compete in major track events in Australia and have been a consistent top 10 performer at the National Championships over the last decade. I think a major reason I have had such a long career in the sport and am still going strong is that I have rarely been injured and have managed to consistently string together good training blocks each year. Part of the reason for this is definitely related to good running technique, which has allowed me to train at a high level for a long period.
Brian approached me a few years ago to give him some guidance with his goal to improve all of his best times from when he was a junior runner and eventually build up to running a good marathon. Initially I provided ideas on how to build up his training volume and suggestions for the type of harder sessions that would improve race performance. He did improve some of his times, but unfortunately became injured before he could complete the marathon.
Brian then began something of a quest to try and reduce the amount of time spent not running due to recurrent injuries. He completed a gait analysis video and sent me a copy for feedback. There were certainly many deficiencies in his running technique compared to the elite athletes I train with and compete against. It was clearly evident that Brian was much too heavy on the ground with a pronounced heel strike at contact and his foot was landing well in front of his hip. His back lift of the foot and leg after contact was nearly nonexistent and there was no bounce in his stride. All of these factors indicated a lack of glute and hamstring muscle activation and over emphasis of the quadriceps. There were obviously severe loads going through his legs on impact with the ground and it was not surprising he had been getting many injuries.
Brian then set about improving his running mechanics and did a lot of research on what factors are associated with good running technique, which he describes very well in this book. During the Christmas period of 2010-2011, I caught up with Brian who came up to Jindabyne to spend some time with my family, get some running done and show me how far he had come with the book and his running technique. I must admit the video analysis of his new running technique was very dramatic with definite glute and hamstring activation occurring, he was much lighter on his feet with a far more neutral foot contact and was getting a bit of bounce and rhythm in his stride.
When Brian asked me to write the foreword to this book I agreed instantly as I think it covers a critical aspect of successful running. Running technique is also an area that does not have a lot of easy to understand and practical advice for regular runners. This book is easy to read, well laid out and the ideas are based on sound scientific research, and observations the author has made through his own journey in improving his running technique. The book provides practical advice on how to improve running technique for runners of all levels of ability and will be a valuable resource for distance runners.
Running Technique explains:
- What good running technique looks like.
- How bad technique can lead to many common running injuries.
- The muscles that drive good technique.
- Whether you should consider improving your technique.
- How to evaluate your technique by doing your own gait analysis.
- Why developing good coordination and strength in the running muscles is critical to better running.
- How to improve your running technique.
- Strength and coordination training for runners that helps improve technique.
- How to choose the right footwear for your technique.
- Guidance about whether you should run barefoot or in minimal shoes.
- How to train for better technique and to avoid getting injured.
The instructional video for this chapter explains each joint and part of the body used in running, how they move and the major muscles responsible for generating that movement.
Recommended reading: check out my review of Mel Cash’s easy to understand guide to human anatomy and movement. The Pocket Atlas of the Moving Body is a small book of 60 pages or so that contains everything you need to know about the human body.
What you need to know is: should you change or improve your running technique? Does your running form need revolution or evolution? This chapter will give you some clues on whether your technique is broken or only needs minor repair. I don’t believe in making changes if there is no reason to do so, therefore this chapter is designed to help you to identify whether you or an athlete that you coach should consider making changes or improvements to your/their technique. Like any important decision it helps to have criteria on which to make an assessment about whether making a technical change is warranted and worthwhile. Ultimately, you or your athlete will need to undertake running gait analysis to inform the decision and identify any specific issues that may need to be remedied. This chapter considers all aspects of whether you will truly benefit from and be motivated enough to improve your running form by:
- explaining that shoes and equipment alone won’t improve your running technique;
- understanding the personal triggers that might prompt or motivate a technique change;
- analyzing your running form and understanding which muscle groups are driving your running;
- identifying any common flaws you share with other runners;
- thinking about if there is a pattern of injury and pain connected to your running technique;
- determining what this injury or soreness pattern can tell you about your running technique;
- documenting any preconceptions you have about your running style;
- having an accurate a mental picture of how you are running; and
- answering the question: should I change or improve my running technique?
If you are an average runner like me, you can use this information to visually benchmark your technique (with the aid of photographs and video footage) to monitor your progress in making technical improvements. If you are a coach working with athletes to target developing these external technical characteristics, this will help you quickly evaluate how well your runners are moving. This chapter describes the:
- running cycle or gait broken into four phases;
- visual signs of good running technique at each stage of the four phase cycle; and
- visual signs of technical flaws at each stage of the four phase cycle.
A note about the discussion for regular runners. I have deliberately sought out studies to support my explanation that describe the technical characteristics of talented runners. I look at and explain these studies with the goal of providing an objective benchmark for good running technique. Elite runners provide the best example of technical excellence. To keep things relevant for the regular running community the studies used as a source of discussion show talented runners moving at slower as well as race speeds, 8 minute mile (5.00 minute km) and 6 minute mile (3.43 minute km). What I found interesting was that there was no change in the muscles used at different paces. The conclusion being that the same basic muscle activation pattern for running well can exist whether you are a 5 minute kilometer runner or a 3 minute kilometer runner. It then becomes a question of how strong, coordinated and finally fit you are to be able to sustain that pattern at faster speeds. This makes the discussion completely real for a 40-60 minute 10 kilometer runner. If an elite athlete can move at slower speeds using good technique, then so can you.
So why is this significant to a discussion about running technique for normal humans like you and me? The answer is that humans are good at running, it’s engrained in our DNA, and this is good news as it means everyone can run. We might not all be able to move like an Olympian but we can run better. The problem is many of us don’t give our body the chance to move in a way that it is designed to move. When Haile runs his muscles and tendons engage in a way that easily absorbs landing forces and in each and every stride his body loads and releases energy stored in his tendons and muscles. I know I can’t do this as well as Haile does, but I can do it well enough to make improvements in my running.
The muscles involved in running. When I began trying to change my running technique I had no idea which muscles were supposed to be firing when. It was something of a mystery to me. This may sound strange to someone who is naturally gifted and has always run well, but it was a very real problem for me. Depending on your existing technical strengths and weaknesses, getting your running engine room firing with good timing might be a real challenge. I suspect many runners do grapple with getting this system of running right in their minds. This chapter gives you the complete picture of which muscles need to be firing when to generate the good technical elements discussed in chapter 4.
In addition to giving you a template for how running works, this knowledge will help you develop a basic strength and coordination program to help change or fine-tune your running technique. This is critical for narrowing your focus to exercises that strengthen the muscles needed for good running and practicing the coordination of smaller components of the running cycle. You need the gym practice to turn off the muscles that cheat and emphasize the muscles you want to be the prime movers, not only during strength and coordination training, but in your running. So your strength work-outs will have two distinct but complementary purposes: strength and coordination. Bringing the right feel from practicing specific movements during strength training can really help you activate the correct muscles. You’ll learn more about this by reading chapters 7 and 9.
Chapter objectives. This chapter provides the information you need to record yourself running and interpret the results with a simple gait analysis. As I indicated earlier, it’s definitely worth showing your video to a range of experts (both paid and unpaid) to see what they can pick up. Like most problems the more sets of eyes and brains you have pondering the problem, the quicker you’ll solve it. In summary, at the end of this chapter you should be able to set up the equipment to record and interpret your (or another athlete’s) running technique by:
- having a list of equipment you may need;
- understanding how to capture the necessary angles on video;
- knowing how fast you should run during your video;
- knowing what to do if you don’t have access to a treadmill;
- using photography to supplement your video analysis;
- answering a mental questionnaire about your running form; and
- interpreting technical attributes, strengths and weaknesses: front, side, rear, low side (foot strike), stride rate and sound.
The problem for many recreational and club runners is we don’t realize that we’re not strong enough or have adequate coordination to run with a satisfactory form. This can lead us into the trap of running longer before we are strong and skilful enough to sustain good technique. The result: injuries, modest performance improvements and the boring slog of running a lot of slow miles. If an athlete with poor running technique does more and more training without improving those suspect mechanics, then injury is going to be a likely outcome. The additional volume can reinforce bad habits and subject the body to repetitive stress injuries because the technique puts various joints, muscles, bones and tendons through unnatural ranges of motion.
Elite running and strength training. Elite and well-trained runners experience significant benefit from adding strength training into their running programs. There are numerous studies that have proven this in controlled trials, but the evidence is there for anyone to see: The top ranked 10,000m runner for 2010, Josphat Menjo of Kenya cracked the big time at age 31 after adopting a serious approach to strength training and running (Butcher, 2010). In the space of two weeks he ran 12.55.95 for 5000m, 3.53.62 for the mile and 26.56.74 for 10,000 meters. I was fortunate to witness Josphat easily winning the Australian men’s Zatopek 10 in December 2010. He belies the popular myth of elite distance runners as skinny pipe-cleaner types: he might be lean, but he is a strongly built athlete. The winner of the women’s Zatopek 10 at the same meeting was Australia’s Eloise Wellings, a strong athlete with excellent running technique, who focuses plenty of attention on her strength training regime.
Strength training for regular runners – should we just copy elites? I believe for regular runners the benefit of strength and coordination training may be even more profound than for elite athletes. For an average runner the benefits may extend into bigger improvements by increasing the ability to run with better technique, coordination and posture. Many runners should think about strength and coordination training as a means to develop a good running technique. Only after this is achieved should we begin to seriously increase training volume and intensity.
It is worth getting your running gait analyzed in the first instance. The evolution of your running form should then be bench-marked relatively frequently – if possible every four to six weeks. It helps you to continually refine the changes you have made by absorbing the visual feedback of observing your running technique. These check-up videos provide a great audit trail of where your technique started and where it’s going today.
In this chapter I discuss various strategies for either learning to run as a beginner or refining your technique for more experienced and advanced athletes. I have divided the stages of running expertise into three phases: (1) Developing correct muscle activation, (2) Increase strength and stability through the hips, and (3) Fine tuning for power and speed. It might sound strange but the major objective for this chapter is to learn how to learn your running technique. Successful technique improvements can be made by gaining an awareness of how your body responds to various mental cues in relation to physical movement and the environment. Everyone’s wiring is slightly different, your neurological pathways have been fixed for decades and now you need to reprogram your brain to send different messages to your muscles.
As a final complication each of us absorbs information and learns differently, so one set of instruction that works for me might not work equally well for you. For this reason this chapter contains a number of physical exercises and mental strategies that allow you to practice getting a feel for how better running works inside your mind using your body. We can implement what we learned by recognizing what good running technique feels like and how to stimulate your mind and body to create these more effective movement patterns.
I was fortunate to spend the last two and a half years working in the online learning department at a good sized University. While I don’t make any claims about being an expert in learning and teaching theory, I was lucky to work with some clever people who could make that claim – although modesty prevents them from doing so! I was directed to an educational theorist David Kolb whose experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) lends itself perfectly to teaching and learning a physical skill such as running.
What you will notice throughout the book and especially in this chapter is an emphasis on:
- reading, absorbing and thinking about ideas and theories;
- observing these concepts through photographs, diagrams and video;
- reflecting on what you see in these visual examples;
- trying out movement and thinking patterns;
- reflecting on how moving differently feels;
- practicing new skills in the gym and on the road; and
- training for running in a way that is sympathetic to implementing your learning (chapter 11).
My approach is similar to Kolb’s idea that people learn best by watching, thinking, doing and feeling in a series of interactions and that this process is cyclical and evolutionary. This is important because it reinforces that learning to run with good technique is not a single stage process. You will need to evolve your running technique and condition your body in a series of stages with continual reflection on what you are doing so you can master running as a consciously competent skill.
In chapter 7 I discussed strength and coordination and explained that regular runners with imperfect technique would benefit more from strength and coordination training than their biomechanically sound elite counterparts. My reasoning remains the same: elite runners already demonstrate excellent ability to coordinate their movements and most have sufficient strength to run with good technique for long periods. Strength training provides the opportunity for regular runners to work on and improve both these aspects of their running.
Strength and coordination training for runners provides the opportunity to strengthen the muscles needed to improve running form without the fatigue of a running session. Think about how hard practicing any skill is when you are already puffing and your heart-rate is high. You need to practice running-like movements without the distraction of fatigue to build the capacity to run with better technique – something that is only possible with strength. Later as your technique and fitness improves you’ll prolong your ability to hold it together over longer runs. But be wary, don’t let your cardiovascular fitness get ahead of the ability to hold your running technique together. If you are a developing runner improving your technique, then you should make your strength and coordination training at least as important as your running.
Chapter objectives. This chapter provides an understanding of the areas of the body that you should train and how they should be trained to maximize benefit to your technique. In addition to providing some example exercises I explain how each muscle group should be trained so you have a better chance of evaluating the benefits of any new exercises you may want to try. There are literally hundreds of good drills and exercises out there so keep adding to your repertoire. In summary, at the end of this chapter you should know:
- The major muscle groups to target in training.
- Which muscles you shouldn’t isolate in training.
- Some specific exercises to learn at a basic level.
- How to approach learning a strength training exercise.
- How each exercise links to improving technique.
- How to identify useful versus useless exercises.
I currently run in four different shoe models from two manufacturers, but my wardrobe is filled with failed experiments that I never wear and that doesn’t include the pairs I’ve given away to charity, friends and family. The question I kept trying to answer as I purchased another pair was: will these shoes make a difference in terms of running comfort and injury prevention? Would they make me run better? For the most part the answer was no, there is no such shoe, no magic formula. You have no idea how much money answering that question has cost me.
In this chapter I discuss why I believe shoes (or more specifically your feet) are the last place you should look to solve your running technique or injury problems. However, I do believe that wearing minimalist shoes in terms of weight, bulk and interventionist technology will help you get the feel of making technical improvements to your running much quicker. As such, I’ll suggest shoe features (or lack of them) that could be useful for helping improve your running form. But remember, there is no silver bullet, only enablers to help you get closer to the solution.
Chapter objectives. The objectives of this chapter are designed to demystify some of the hype around shoes, barefoot running, foot type, running injuries and performance. There is little doubt that there are good and bad shoes, but we’ll see that shoes are less relevant in preventing injury or enhancing performance than correcting flaws in running technique. This chapter explains:
- Injuries, the root cause is not related to your feet or footwear.
- Interventionist versus neutral footwear.
- Why firmer is better.
- The impact of high cushioned heels (heel-toe drop) on running technique.
- Why a light shoe does not need to be a totally flat shoe.
- The case for wearing more than one shoe model.
- The benefits of and how to progress to wearing minimalist shoes.
- Why running barefoot is not a miracle cure, but can be helpful.
- A shoe buyer’s guide: interview with an expert.
Unfortunately, running is a sport where a large proportion of participants find themselves injured and on the sidelines more than they would like. Could it be that the generally accepted method of training has some flaws? The training of distance runners today is the product of science, the teachings of legendary coaches and the exploits of a select group of resilient and gifted runners. Is there another way, or alternative approaches that might be more successful for regular, less talented and resilient runners?
In running, there is a lot of literature based on the training methods of a few very successful individuals, but does this make their training a model for every runner to follow? There’s an old adage in running about not adding more than 10% to your mileage in any given week, but just how realistic is this for the everyday runner? Should we just mimic our running idols and try and run big miles or is there another pathway to a more productive and enjoyable running? I believe there is. Following the training regimes of high level performers and the advice of their coaches is a high risk strategy for regular runners. Elite athletes are blessed with inherently good technique and resilient bodies that allow them to do more running without succumbing to injury. Wouldn’t we be better off focusing on mastering our technique first so that in the longer term we are skilful and strong enough to handle bigger and more intense training loads? This chapter puts forward an alternative philosophy that is more forgiving on your body and allows you to consistently improve your technique and your running.
The objectives of this chapter are formulated to give you some ideas to try in your training, and if you are a coach, modifications you can make to training programs by explaining:
- How to modify a traditional training structure to make it less injurious and more enjoyable.
- Why tempo running and marathon pace training should be the first harder sessions introduced.
- Why tempo intervals make for good technique training.
- Why hill efforts are good for technique and good for strength & coordination.
- Why hard interval training is not for beginners or someone making technical improvements.
- How trails, with rolling terrain and hills force you to reset and focus on technique.
Written by Brian Martin