Clean up your technique for a better run.
Let’s start by beginning at the end. Human beings are designed to be able to run. We were literally born to do it. We were designed to be able to do it. Being upright, separating our lung mechanics from our leg mechanics, our abilities to cool ourselves, store energy in our heel cords and even our long big toes, these are all hallmarks of the capacity to run.
And yet running is one of the least “taught” skills in the pantheon of human ability. It’s because we think of running as a natural ability. Who taught you? You probably didn’t think very much about it. We take it for granted, like breathing or blinking. Why does this matter? Because more people in the U.S. get injured running than get injured in any other sport. And it’s not just because there are a lot of people running. The actual culprit is in the environment.
If you watch any kindergartener run or sprint and compare him or her to any other running kindergartener, you’ll find that all children look very similar and express nearly identical and universal running mechanics. It doesn’t matter whether they are moving slowly or at top speed. It doesn’t matter what type of shoes they’re wearing or if they are barefoot. Running is running. They don’t need to activate their glutes or be assessed for the perfect pair of expensive, overly cushioned, motion-controlled, electronic-enabled running shoes. They are a perfect expression of what the body is capable of doing: running. (One of my running coach friends is fond of pointing out that all zebras run the same way, young or old. Horses, too. Heck, even elephants all swim the same way.)
The environment shapes our movement patterns
So what happened? Why do so many of us “hate” running? Why is it so difficult?
We are undone by our environment. Our running birthright is slowly shaped and bent to express how most of us are spending our days, namely sedentary and sitting. The point is not the associated problems of modern life but rather the fact that movement patterns—like running—are ultimately a function of the way we are able to express our biomechanics. For example, if you wear a high-heeled shoe to work (by definition, any shoe that isn’t flat or that has a “ramp or slope” from heel to toe), you are systematically altering the way your foot is allowed to move and you’re walking with a seriously shortened Achilles tendon.
That’s fine for a few steps, but what about the 10,000 steps a person will take during the course of a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year? We have suddenly exposed the foot and ankle to literally millions of repetitions of altered motion. And if you still don’t think that’s a problem, consider what happens when we suddenly require that shortened heel cord system to absorb two to three times our body weight when we land during a run?
Learning to run like a kid again
Sitting creates a similar phenomenon. The average adult easily spends eight to 10 hours a day in a seated position, working, eating, commuting and relaxing. That shortened, flexed-hip position we practice for hours at a time becomes a problem when running requires that our hip is able to extend our trailing leg behind our body.
If you don’t have pain or injury and you’re still skeptical, that’s fine. Let’s look at how your foot is making contact with the ground. This is the crux. Human beings are masters of compensation. Our bodies are (thankfully) able to buffer ridiculously altered mechanics when it comes to locomotion. Can you imagine a world in which this wasn’t the case? We wouldn’t last long.
But this conversation isn’t and shouldn’t be about injury or pain. Rather, recapturing your ability to run like a child (human) means you can actually leverage your body’s structures and ability to run fast, to run well—and run long.
Running technique—the facts without the friction
Running technique is a hot and controversial topic. I believe running is a skill that can be developed and refined indefinitely. I know world champion triathletes who obsess over being more efficient runners. I know Olympic medalist sprinters who get coached on nearly every sprint they make. Let’s leave the running technique debate to the internet and focus on some universally applicable techniques that can optimize your running performance.
When we coach children, we often introduce constraints to their movement skills that automatically elicit correct and safe movement outcomes. For example, we will have young children jump and land with their feet together. Landing with their feet together keeps their knees from buckling in and their feet from collapsing. They don’t have to think about those things. The protection happens automatically if they land with their feet touching. We call this a blocked skill. You either do it or you don’t. When we begin talking about running technique with people, we often will use the same model and call it blocked movement practice.
Running makeover drill #1
In order to actually use the amazing mechanical system of your lower leg to your advantage, you need to run at a cadence that allows the natural spring that is your connective tissue, muscular and tendon system to return stored energy acquired during the foot “strike” portion of your gait cycle.
It’s easy. Download any metronome app on your smartphone and set it to 91 beats per minute. The beat of the metronome will correspond to one foot touching or leaving the ground. (We like to have people “lift off” their foot during the beat.) What you may discover is that you are probably “running” in the high 70 to low 80 bpm. If we define running as using the structures we evolved for more than 2 million years to propel us forward, then a foot strike at less than 91 bpm actually doesn’t qualify as running at all. (And don’t worry, most competent runners live in the 94 to 96 bpm category.)
Here’s the deal: Don’t freak out the first time you try this. We know you can grind away at a much lower stride rate. Our goal here is to simply improve your mechanical efficiency. Running at a higher turnover is actually more metabolically and mechanically efficient. See, we haven’t even talked about how to run. I just told you to run at this pace. You’ll probably find that you had to automatically shorten your stride and change how you interfaced with the ground. And that’s the point. Your body will adapt quickly and the skill is easy. Run until you can’t keep up with the tempo and then walk when you fall behind. Run again as soon as you recover. Your tempo is your guide.
This is skill-blocked running. If you nailed that 91 bpm pace, increase your tempo by a notch or two until you are cruising between 94 to 96 bpm! Yes, people actually run marathons at those paces. Actually, all good runners are naturally working at those tempos. They figured out automatically how to operate the most efficient way to store and return the elastic energy generated during running.
Running makeover drill #2
Ready for your second task? It’s crazy. It’s called running … barefoot. Remember when I noted that kids run the same way regardless of what’s on their feet? Right. It’s that. Don’t panic and no, you aren’t going to run a 5K barefoot. Go out to the concrete in front of your house and perform some short running without your shoes.
Here’s the caveat. Your feet are weak. Your heel cords have been shorted along with your hips, for a long time. The key is to get a small dose of barefoot running. I like to perform this after we train or run. Remember the minimum viable cadence? It applies here, too. What you’ll notice is that when you keep your cadence high, you’ll automatically land in a way that protects your feet and ankles. If you are a heel striker, you can’t be one here.
The reality check: Your barefoot running should look very much like your “running shoe running.” What we find is that the typical running shoe allows us to perform running behaviors that we could never get away with if we were barefoot or wearing a thin shoe. And this is the point. There is good evidence that those runners who land lightly are less likely to experience a running injury.
Short bouts of barefoot running are an excellent way to strengthen your feet and expose your running to the ultimate truth test: Does your running technique remain constant independently of what’s on your feet? The first time you run 20 meters without shoes, you’ll note that your stride shortens and you won’t be able to slam your heel into the ground without that piece of highly engineered foam protecting you. That’s the point: Whether we are running fast or slow, barefoot or not, running technique should remain the same because it is the same. When people heel strike, they cannot sustain a compensated motor pattern either barefoot or at speed.
Aim to have a uniform language of locomotion. Be sure to limit your initial barefoot running exposure to less than 400 meters total. Give it a month or so and make it a goal to run a leisurely barefoot mile. And don’t forget your cadence. Give both these technique boosters a shot and you’ll quickly realize that you have a lot more running performance in the tank.
Photo credit: Darren Miller Photography