Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Benefit of Proper Run Form

For those of you that have followed this blog for a while, you know I’m a big advocate for Newton Running Co. and their shoes. Why? Because they are the perfect long distance, on-road shoe. They don’t absorb shock, but they transfer it to the shoe via their proprietary action/reaction technology. And while I enjoy my minimal shoes as much as anyone, if I know that my route will take me on pavement for an extended period of time, I’ll reach for my Newtons first.

One of the benefits of living in Colorado is that I live within an hour of Boulder, the home of Newton. Every so often, they’ll hold what’s called a form clinic. It’s an opportunity for newcomers to try their shoes, and converts like me to tweak our form with some of the best runners in the world.

I had the privilege of joining the form clinic group last month with some friends, very good runners in their own right. One of the things that was emphasized in the hour-long clinic was having proper posture. This means holding the head straight, ears directly over the collarbone, and standing tall with a slight forward lean.

Let’s break those two points down, beginning with the head. Having a neutral head that is in a good position is imperative for fast, efficient running. One of the telltale signs of fatigue is the head beginning to rock. And every movement of the head is something that the body has to compensate for, which wastes energy. Over the course of a 5k it may not be a big deal, but if the body is already in an energy deficit by the time the run is reached in a triathlon, every calorie that can be conserved is essential. 

There’s a very simple way to judge what your optimal head position is. Newton calls it the tripod. Standing tall, head held high, place the index finger of your right hand right under your chin. Then allow your middle finger and thumb to rest on the collarbone, forming a triangular shape with those three fingers. Occasionally during warm up, I’ll form the tripod just to check my head position and make sure it’s optimal.

As far as I'm concerned, their second point at the clinic is sort of redundant. If you utilize proper form by striking directly under or just slightly in front of your center of mass, you should already be leaning slightly forward. A good example of this form is Mirinda Carfrae, Ironman World Champion and record holder on the Kona course.

Another good example of proper form is Newton Athlete Craig "Crowie" Alexander, who is a 3x Ironman World Champion and Kona record holder with an impressive 8:03:56, running a 2:44 marathon en route to his win. 
Note that Crowie's right foot has not yet landed (for lack of a better term) which is why it appears to be landing slightly in front of the optimal position. However, it should be noted that the optimal position of a foot strike is not directly under the center of mass, but slightly in front of it.

I was surprised to learn this because for the longest time, I'd been told by many minimal runners that the ideal position was directly under the center of mass because the knee is a hinge joint, designed to move in only two directions (up and down). However, when we look at Mirinda Carfrae's form directly before take off, as seen in the first picture, the knee is never fully straightened. If it were completely straight, there would be additional strain on the ligaments behind the knee. Therefore, to achieve as long of flight time as possible, the foot strike should be slightly in front of the center of mass or slightly behind it to generate as much propulsive power as possible.

Additionally, landing directly under the center of mass puts more strain on the quadriceps by creating more a squat, compact form. Forcing the quadriceps into a squat after the strain of a 112mi bike leg means that they are again working, defeating the purpose of a triathlon-specific bike, which minimizes the strain on hamstrings and calves so that they are fresh for the run. The extra energy required to push oneself out of the squatting position is often the difference between winning and losing. Pete Jacobs even went in for a run form comparison after 2011 and came to the conclusion that it was his striking in front of the center of mass that was the margin between his second place and Andreas Raelert's third ,a margin of two minutes, four seconds, despite the fact that he came off the bike nearly five minutes. With the proper form, and the execution of subtle nuances, Jacobs made up the five and put an additional two minutes into Raelert, a strong runner in his own right.

One final point: Alberto Salazar, perhaps the running guru and coach of Nike's distance athletes, is well known for saying that perhaps 90% of his runner's miles come on soft surfaces. He's also known for the saying, “You show me someone with bad form, and I’ll show you someone who’s going to have a lot of injuries and a short career.” The point here is that 1) you should be spending more time on trails, grass, a track, even a treadmill and 2) if you're spending time on the pavement and run with bad form, you're compounding the risk of injury. It's like doubling the size of the window, the window to injury. Correcting your form will open doors to faster, safer running.

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