As a runner, you have probably had the same experience I have had many times: A non-runner asks you how to run. How do we do it? Or, what is the best way to run? But there is no best way. Running is a natural activity that doesn’t necessarily need to be taught.
One of the beauties of running is there are just about as many different running styles as there are runners. How often do you recognize a fellow runner in the distance by the bounce in his or her step or a certain arm swing? We all have different running styles, based on who we are and what our biomechanics and other individual characteristics are.
That being said, there are some efficiencies in running style that can improve how well you run. For example, good running posture can help you run more efficiently with less effort, check www.PostureSavvy.com for more info. Try to run tall and straight, thinking of yourself as dangling from the end of a string that comes from high in the sky and is attached to the top of your head. Your head should be up, looking forward instead of down at your feet.
Also think about keeping your hips forward and moving from your core. The legs are just along for the ride. This is hard for some of us, as we want to go faster and end up leaning forward thinking this will get us to the end faster. Focus on bringing the upper body back in line, though you don’t want to overcompensate and lean backward either.
Another aspect to consider is your foot strike. A lot of this may be out of your control, as you might naturally overpronate (rolling in on the ankle as the foot hits on the outside of the heel and pushes off on the inside of the big toe). Or, you could run completely on the outside of your feet due to being bowlegged.
The actual strike of the foot should be centered directly below you, or as close to this point as is comfortable. Think of your foot strike as landing on your little toe and slightly rolling in as you quickly push off the ball of your foot. This action does a couple of things. It keeps you from overstriding and makes your turnover a little quicker. With shorter steps you develop a quicker rhythm that also means there’s less pounding on your legs.
Another way to analyze your natural foot strike is to run barefoot. Go to Zilker Park or a nearby football or soccer field and run a few minutes on the soft grass. Your body will not let you land hard on your heel, if you hit the heel at all. Think about how your foot naturally lands as you run barefoot, then put on your shoes and try to mimic the barefoot strike while you are wearing shoes. Practice this foot strike and if it feels natural, you will soon have it in your routine where you don’t have to think about it.
As far as leg turnover, studies have shown that a little bit higher turnover is more efficient than taking long, loping strides. Next time you run, try this: Count the number of times your right foot hits the ground in a minute. It will probably be a number below 90, so count again but this time try to get the turnover up to 90 (180 steps per minute). This change in turnover could take some getting used to, but at the same time, you may feel better doing it. Everyone is different, and hitting 86 or so might be close enough for your particular running style. You will probably appreciate any increase in turnover, no matter how slight, especially when you want to run faster.
Another key is try and stay relaxed, even when you want to go as fast as you can. Tensing up will do nothing but slow you down and waste energy. This is especially true in the arms wing. Flexing your arms in an attempt to try harder will backfire and wear you down. Have a nice relaxed motion with the arm swing, straight ahead forward and straight back with the hands about waist high. Don’t clench your fists either, but keep the fingers slightly cupped and limp. You can think about your hands swinging through your pants pockets in order to keep them low. Letting your arms come up too high wastes energy by making you exert effort to hold your arms up.
There are some neat tricks you can do with the arms. If your legs are getting tired near the end of a race, pump your arms a little quicker than normal and the legs will try to follow the arms. Sometimes it is easier to focus on moving your arms fast instead of trying to move dead legs. Also, on hills, if you think of yourself as pulling back hard on the right arm swing, then the left leg will try to pull back hard going up the hill, and vice versa for the left arm swing and right leg which also come back in unison.
Unlike sprinters, distance runners don’t need to lift their knees much if at all. Lifting your knees too much can bring you to fatigue quicker. Some great marathoners are classified as “shufflers” and don’t pick up their feet much at all due to lower knee lift. As you do faster speed work, the knees will come up a little more, but still don’t overdo it, focusing on turnover instead.
One aspect you need not worry about is your breathing—unless you are huffing and puffing on easy runs. When you hear, “Do an easy run at conversational pace,” that means run at a pace where you are easily carry on a conversation with a training partner. If you can’t, you’re going too fast. Try to breathe in every other time your right foot hits the ground, which means you are also breathing out every other time the right foot hits. This is considered easy breathing.
You might think this is breathing too quickly, as you’d rather take longer, deeper breaths. That’s OK if you can’t make the change, but the shallow, quick breaths get the oxygen into the system a little more efficiently.
Monitoring your breathing is kind of a poor man’s heart rate monitor. Breathing too hard means the heart rate is too high above the zone, and you should bring it down by slowing up and getting your breathing in at the every other right foot strike effort. Being above the zone for too long will cause you to crash and burn where you end up slowing down considerably.
A source of interest for non-runners is what do I think about while running. All of us daydream some during a run, or try to work out a problem we have at home or work. Sometimes we focus on hitting a certain split for a specific distance, or we concentrate on a pace per mile we want to run. But, also, it’s good occasionally to think about how you are running, even in a race. Does the turnover and foot strike feel right? Are you overstriding or running within yourself? How is the breathing? Are your arms and posture where you want them to be? And, most importantly, are you staying relaxed?
You don’t have to think about all these things constantly, but from time to time it’s good to remind yourself to be as efficient in your running style as possible.
Mac Allen coaches Team Mac (www.teammac.co) for racing from 800 meters through the ultramarathon. A top-flight competitor himself, ac has over 15 years of coaching experience.