Efficiency Makes all the Difference

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One of the questions I get asked most as a coach is, “I’m a new runner and I was thinking about working on my running form, but I’m not sure—should I do it now or wait until I get better or faster?”

There is no easy answer to that question as there are no easy, general, “one size fits all” answers to any questions that involve individuals since each of us are a “whole universe” with different backgrounds and different genetics, to state only two variables.

My answer to that question is that you should do both. It would be very helpful to learn the general and basic ideas of running form (biomechanics) as you embark on your new adventure. And as you improve and learn more about your strengths and weaknesses, you should go back and learn what YOU can do to improve YOUR specific biomechanics in order to improve your efficiency and thus your performances.

The most important reason to learn about biomechanics in general is injury prevention. The second most important reason is to improve your athletic performance.

If you've ever run at Lady Bird Lake, you've noticed that there are a million ways (running form-wise) of getting from point “A” to point “B.” No two runners are alike.

So how do we go about correcting their running form? Is it necessary?
Let me get the boring definitions out of the way…

Mechanics is the branch of physics concerned with the behavior of physical bodies when subjected to forces or displacements and the subsequent effects of the bodies on their environment.

Biomechanics, “life” and “mechanics,” is the study of the structure and function of biological systems (in the case of this article, “humans”) by means of the method of mechanics.

Sports biomechanics applies the laws of mechanics to gain a greater understanding of athletic performance and to reduce sport injuries as well.

Is it necessary to change your running form? If it is not broken, you don’t need to fix it. But I do think you need to know how to fix it in case it breaks, so below are a couple of general rules to keep in mind the next time you go for a jog.

Where do I land? (Not to be confused with “How do I land?”)

My golden rule, THE “if you remember one thing, this is it” rule, is where you should land, where your foot lands in relation to the rest of your body and to the ground.

Your foot should strike the ground right below your hips and your hips should be right below your shoulders and your shoulders right below your head.

“Running tall” is an expression that comes to mind. If you can master this, you will prevent many unnecessary injuries and general muscle imbalances. Of course running tall requires a great deal of coordination, general strength, and core strength.

It is important to take your time when trying to change a running pattern. This definitely is easier said than done, as we spend too much time seated at desks or in our cars, so all our core, abdominal, back, and hip areas become tight and shortened, making it hard for us to “run tall.” After a short warm up, I always stop and stretch my midsection, hips, and upper legs. I do some high knee drills so I can visualize “running tall” and then carry on with the rest of my run.

To make the above rule harder, here is a sub-rule, which has to do with timing. The moment your foot hits the ground should be right about the time it starts it’s backward movement.

Confusing? Let’s go back for a second. Look at one single stride; visualize your right leg leaving the ground slightly bent at the knee, ankle extended, with your big toe last to leave the ground. Now your leg is moving forward due to two things: push-off (momentum) and actively engaging your core and hip flexors to swing your leg forward. Now your right leg (swing leg) is crossing your midsection. If your core and hip flexors are actively engaged, your knee will continue to move forward and up as your foot passes the support leg. Once your knee is as high as it’s going to be, you can unfold your secret weapon—your lower leg. Yes, you can still get an inch or two on that stride by fighting gravity for a split second and letting your lower leg swing forward softly. Then, as your lower leg starts to come down and back…THAT’S when you land, as your foot starts its backward motion. This will help with a smooth transition into the next stride.

Land too soon, and you will shorten your stride by a few inches (not very efficient, my friend), but more importantly, your risk of injury increases because your chance of landing behind your center of mass is more likely.

My next article will be in three months; between now and then, I want to encourage you to think about the above and practice “running tall.” Improve your core. Look for some running drills, like “high knees” and “paw back” (running specific drills will be best at this point), and lastly, look at videos of elite runners running and racing. Pause and use slow motion to see where they land. Where are their feet when they cross the support legs? Where are yours?

Focus on one or two things at a time, and take enough time to let it all sink in. After a good warm-up, go to a track and do just a few strides focusing on “running tall.” Don’t be in a hurry; don’t sprint. Walk back so you can re-group. Doing this four to six times for 20 seconds is a good start.

Bonus tip: the above rule applies to running uphill and downhill.

To be continued…

Carmen Ayala-Troncoso is a nationally known athlete who has been coaching Austin-area runners since 1987. Carmen received her Masters of Exercise Physiology (minor in Kinesiology) from the University of Texas in 1985. She has been running competitively for 30 years; during that time, she has qualified for three Olympic trials (1992, 1996, and 2000) and represented the United States at four World Cross Country Championships (1994, 1995, 1999, and 2000). As a Masters runner, Carmen made the United States Cross Country open team in 1999 and 2000 and qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5,000 meter in 2000. She has won numerous Masters and age group championships. She is currently coaching a small group of elite runners at Rogue Running.

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