“To the observer, when we run, each stride appears to be a duplication of the last but that’s an illusion… under surface, many aspects of running action consistently vary between strides.” – John Kiely
The state of flow that some people associate with “natural running form” is simply what happens when you find the right posture. When you run in the right posture there’s less need to dwell on any one fine point of perfect running form. You nearly have it. You were born with it. The most important thing is to “own” your physical body. If you slump, you will lose yourself. Your mind will be wandering about somewhere else; you will not be in your body.
The Form / Training Dyad
One problem with the prevailing “natural running form movement” arises from the confusion surrounding what is ‘good,’ what is ‘bad’ and exactly what can be done, especially in the area of speed and efficiency. By prioritizing certain stride characteristics like mid-foot striking, slight forward lean, neutral pelvis etc. over all the rest without bringing all the parts together, the natural running faction effectively splinters the biopsychology of running form.
Bottom line; science matters but scientific data is open to interpretation. Statements like form is better off left alone or there’s no substitute for hard training can blind research biased coaches to the fact that skill and technique make people more capable of great effort and endurance in the first place. Arguing is never going to help us apply the science of peak performance. I think the way we come to understand human movement and metabolism depends almost entirely on our individual experience.
In my opinion, loss of form is still the most observable ‘in-run’ sign of overtraining as well as a major contributing factor to the wear and tear that causes most soft tissue injuries (like achilles tendonitis, ‘runners knee,’ IT band syndrome and plantar fasciitis, to name only a few). It’s also no secret that understanding how the body works is instrumental in rehabilitation and prevention of further injuries.
The other negative 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 of stress hormones that occurs when someone moves into an elevated heart rate zone prematurely. It’s called “blowing up” for good reason.
Transcendence 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 respected 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 anxious thoughts about doing it right.
More than one thing can be true. Running with an intentional focus on regulating our 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 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 of training 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 formwork 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.
“Looking world class!” I would often say, exhorting my friends in the late stages of a hundred miler. 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 careful not to lose myself in the mental effort involved in that. I’m one of those chaps who’s happy to run two or three hours at a time 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.
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. My investment of attention to form, up front, saves energy in the long run.
I hope that in writing this overview, I have not made the mistake of suggesting absolute answers or presenting you with a picture of the ideal runner, biased by my belief in my own experience. Sorry if that’s the case. If I have been more or less impartial in presenting the ideas, problems and solutions I’ve known, then what I have said can be of some value to the general discussion.
Remember that 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 overspecialized movement makeovers currently advocated by running gurus, personal trainers, footwear fads, and magazine articles.
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 — a thorough examination of the science and research behind 80/20 Running, as applied to the 3 of Way Of Running Training Categories.
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