It’s not uncommon to see the North African leaders in a race cast caution to the wind by impulsively going out faster in their opening mile than anyone else would dare. Sometimes they even sacrifice their own race by going out hard, dropping their competitors only to tire in the late stages to allow one of their teammates to ultimately win. Look at their stride. They don’t think too much about planning or splits. They do things in more in a natural way. But at the same time, they can also get carried away.
They have a very smooth stride that changes only marginally as they accelerate in the final laps. Unlike most of their peers, they have the ability to change velocity without showing effort which makes their speed deceptive. There’s not an ounce of wasted movement within their body so there is never a need to switch to a sprinters gait in the drive for the finish. It is something to see!
The thing that amazes me is that it’s almost all pelvic rhythm quickening their leg rate, like revolutions per minute. Their form is nearly perfect in that they run from the belly which tapers the muscular effort in their legs and feet. They run with more fire, like complex machines; so focused… yet so free! It is something to see.
This unique ability is evident in many of the extraordinary world class runners who have advanced humankind over the last fifty years, particularly the East Africans who grew up running barefoot. Of course it’s a rarity to find an ordinary runner with a functional physique resembling theirs but there are elements that can be taken secretly and artfully like stealing a look at a diary or using someone else’s ideas to illuminate your own.
Skeptical? Read further.
The Form – Training Dyad
For the past two decades the sport has been flooded by a wave of fashionable, form-focused coaches with different schools of running technique instruction. High stride rate – low stride length – minimal pounding – mid-foot landing etc. are all easy enough to teach. Sadly however many research based coaches and disciples have remained quick to condemn these trending form workers as unscientific, holding fast to the staunch belief and dichotomous conclusion that form will never replace training.
Argument is never going to help us apply the science of peak performance and the jargon that goes with it. I think the way that we understand human movement and metabolism depends entirely on our individual experience.
To my knowledge, loss of form is the most accurate ‘in-run’ sign of overtraining as well as a major contributing factor to the wear and tear that causes soft tissue injuries like achilles tendonitis, IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, to name only a few. It’s also no secret that comprehension of how the body works properly is instrumental in rehabilitating and preventing further injuries. The other consequences of form deterioration come from ‘energy leaks,’ the most serious being a greater psychological drain on the nervous system. The breach in the runner’s nervous system triggers a higher than desired heart rate at any given pace, accompanied by the cascade for stress hormones that occurs when someone moves into an elevated heart rate zone prematurely. It’s called “blowing up” for good reason.
Transcendence (not paralysis) by Analysis
“Forget about form. If a joker throws his arms around, that’s fine so long as he’s fit and relaxed. Then he moves smoother and easier and form takes care of itself. We want the chap who can run for two or three hours and come back looking as fit as when he went out.” – Arthur Lydiard, 1962
“There is a cost to correction,” says esteemed exercise science author Matt Fitzgerald, explaining the fragile balance involved in meaningful form change. The pitfall of apprehension about how well we are running or not can disrupt performance by loading the mind with useless anxious thoughts about doing it right.
More than one thing can be true. The duality of running with an intentional focus on good form can actually help us gain leverage over negative mental chatter so we can calmly discriminate and repurpose those same thoughts. This small taste of supereminence helps shore up the energy leaks and deepens our resolve to stay motivated, positive, happy and ready to challenge ourselves in the moment. In this way, the deliberate holding of attention on one’s form acts as a bridge to running efficiency, fatigue resistance and mental resiliency.
“The spatial and temporal boundlessness of sport, by ordering and sublimating our energies and by closing off the world’s drudgery and confusion, can evoke our spiritual depths like a work of art or monastic discipline.”- Michael Murphy
I once had the good fortune to train with some “jokers” who eventually astonished the world of ultra running with several huge performances made possible by their relentless concentration on refining their form. Their dedication to form work was part of a much broader spiritual discipline. Their ultimate aim was to produce higher qualities and reverse emotional pattern behaviors through physical and mental improvement. They were something to see.
But endless tinkering with form or a “helicopter style” of coaching has never worked for me. I always work on my form in small attainable ways but I’m not obsessed with it. A firm reliance on consistent running and trust in my instincts have made me fairly proficient at it. “Science speculates that the stride is a self optimizing system,” writes Matt. But if I were to stand at the starting line without grasping the fine points of how I want my legs to move, it would never happen.
I’m one of those chaps who’s happy to run two to three hours without much difficulty at all. The point for me is to focus on the whole experience I’m having rather than dwell on any one physical sensation or imperfection. All I think about is how to manage my energetic state effectively so my natural speed and endurance can emerge in a relaxed way.
Running form acumen by itself does not make you any fitter, nor does measuring high in any one set of efficiency parameters guarantee a particular performance. I hope you will think critically before buying into trending running form transformations or over specialized movement makeovers advocated by running gurus, personal trainers, footwear fads, magazine articles or other baseless speculation.
A hands-on guide to the most positive lasting change most people can make to improve their endurance – making the majority of your workouts easier. And a thorough examination of the science and research behind 80/20 Running, as applied to all 3 of Way Of Running training categories.