The obsession with mid-foot, getting stride length right, “perfect” cadence, and other things. Is there such thing as the “ideal running form?”
In essence, the answer to the question is easy: relax, be smooth, be fluid. Or in other words, put one foot in front of the other and don’t fall down. That apt expression of “the ideal running form” was discussed at a conference in San Diego put on by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and USA Track and Field (USATF). Coaches were invited to learn from the elite experts on the planet on various topics, including running form. The discussion on form was led by USATF and Brigham Young University bio-mechanist Iain Hunter. He’s the one who suggested those two very straightforward rules. But he wasn’t just being glib. He used science to back it up.
ABOUT STRIDE LENGTH
On the topics most frequently asked about by runners (foot strike, stride length, shoe type and upper body form), he led visitors through the work that’s been done. The results were actually fairly simple, and really unsurprising when you think about it. He showed participants that the ideal stride length (which has implications for cadence) was whatever stride length you choose for yourself to be the best.
The study set up runners on a treadmill and had them run at different stride lengths, both pre-determined and self-selected. The runners’ performance was measured at all the different lengths and no number stood out. Instead, it was the stride length that they choose for themselves naturally that used the least energy. This makes a lot of sense, just think about it: the stride length the runners’ chose would be the one they use the most, so of course it would be the most efficient and best for them. This applied for all: experienced or inexperienced runners, rested or fatigued runners, and while running uphill or on flat ground.
As a general rule, stride length and rate (cadence) both increase when you run faster. If you try to increase your stride length without going faster, you are going to be less efficient, and vice versa with a shorter stride. That said, the stride length of runners varies quite a lot for similar performances. It’s not as if all runners at a given speed have the same stride length. For example, the stride length ranged from 3.57 m to 4.08 m at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012. That’s a quite big range.
Of course, there are some people who over-stride and some who under-stride, but the way to fix that isn’t to consciously try to change it, but to put a greater energy demand on your physique by running more easy miles. If you want to spend more time running, your body has to find the most energy efficient way of moving, and, in general, ends up cutting down the over-striding. As you’ll see, this is usually the first step to good form, in all cases. On the other hand, you often see older road runners who have that “marathoner’s shuffle” and would probably stand to lengthen their stride. The way they could do that is by working on short sprints where you make substantial energy demands in a short period of time. That and work to improve your range of motion and stretching will help.
THE MYTH OF 180 STEPS
Cadence is closely connected to stride length, and some work has been done to try to determine what cadence is the best. The seminal study seems to be the examination of the very best runners at the 1984 Olympics, where it was discovered that 180 steps per minute appeared to be the common cadence. This findings has led some people to foolishly adopt 180 as the perfect cadence to run at. This mistake point out some of the problems with taking the findings of sports science studies at face value. For one thing, studies may report on trained or untrained or top runners and the findings should be considered in that light.
Another issue is that the cadence run in a race tends to be different from that run in training. Most runners find that his cadence while jogging is of course much lower than when racing or training fast. So the number 180 isn’t a relevant rule for any runner: you just have to make sure you run your various exercises at the right pace (easy runs very easy and workouts at the prescribed pace). Don’t worry about cadence.
HEEL-STRIKING ISN’T ALWAYS A BAD THING
When it comes to foot-strike, the story is similar: a study of US Olympic Trials finalists in the women’s 10K, as well as the men’s 5K, found no connection between foot-strike and economy, or, more importantly, foot-strike and performance. Many of you would probably disagree. Many people believe that heel-striking is definitely worse and slower because you’re braking!
In reality, even a fore-foot strike involves some braking. If you didn’t brake at all, you would just keep getting faster and faster and gradually achieve time travel. And you can’t do much – consciously – to change it anyway.
A PhD in physical chemistry and top level runner based in Halifax, studied the physics of trying to change your foot-strike consciously. Your foot makes contact with the ground in the blink of an eye – quite literally, as eye blinks last between 100 and 400 milliseconds. From the time when your foot lands on the ground and when you actually feel the force of landing (and perceive it mentally), your foot strike stride is half over. To say it differently, to make any conscious changes to your stride, you have to send those signals before your foot has landed.
How long does it take for neurons to go from the foot to the brain and back again with a new direction? Essentially, there’s not enough time to do it. Like with stride length, the faster you go, the more likely you are to mid- or fore-foot strike. It’s an automatic response and the threshold varies between people. It’s better not to think about it at all and focus on something else.
How can you improve your running form? Well, this can’t be easily done in full conscious effort. It’s better to enhance your skills through better muscle memory by reinforcing as many unconscious movements as often as possible. That’s one reason easy running is so useful, because it trains you to run more on autopilot. So again in the context of foot-strike, running more is the best option to achieve a more efficient form.
ABOUT BAREFOOT RUNNING
Let’s look at various shoe types and running barefoot to see what the effects on running economy could be. The easiest solution is that a lightweight shoe that protects the foot is more economical than running barefoot. This is not news to veterans of the 1970s and 1980s running boom who stick to very basic trainers.
Of course, there are benefits to doing some barefoot running, in terms of improving your proprioception and your foot strength, but when it comes to safety and efficiency purposes you are definitely better off running in a shoe that protects your foot and feels comfortable.
An area where some changes to form may be useful is in the carriage of the upper body. In general, increasing your easy mileage will resolve quite a few inefficiencies here, but if you do notice that your physique is moving asymmetrically (one arm crossing over your chest while the other doesn’t or a shoulder that dips), it’s a good idea to try to find the cause and limit it. The thing is, your body is probably doing these things for a reason and just telling yourself to stop doing it isn’t going to work. There’s probably a muscle imbalance of some sort and if you can find and sort out that imbalance, your running economy will be better for it.
3 SIMPLE RULES FOR HEALTHIER AND BETTER RUNNING
If you’re asking yourself what can you do to improve your form, here are three simple rules.
- Try to gradually increase the mileage of easy running.
- Include some short sprint work.
- Take your shoes off in the grass and do barefoot strides. This will help you strengthen your feet and determine what kind of stride is best for you.
- Use strength-training to get rid of any muscle imbalances and extra movement when running. Do exercises that work weak glutes and hips, which are a major contributors to poor form and subsequent injuries.
Getting better at running is often boring: run more easy miles – really easy so you can run fast a few times a week – and don’t worry too much about your form. There are no shortcuts or secrets. Just rubber hitting road.