When the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games rolled around I was deeply into my running second coming, beginning to put together some reasonable performances in the rarified and freezing air of Australia’s running Mecca, Ballarat.
Not too long after Beijing I succumbed to yet another running injury – the kind I’d experienced on and off for 20 years that had always prevented me from fully embracing and enjoying running with any consistency.
Since then I’ve researched and written a book about running technique and helped battlers such as myself to move with a little more purpose. I began with the hypothesis that there was probably something that good runners were doing that I wasn’t.
My body was breaking at 40-50 kilometres per week; an average Olympic distance runner would completed more than three times that volume of running at much higher intensity over many years.
Simply dismissing talented runners as genetic freaks with some unattainably alien method of running seemed a cop-out. Surely there was something they were doing that I could practice to help my running? As it happens, there was.
I wanted to know how they moved, rather than just being an awestruck trackside dummy. I wanted to understand what consistent movement patterns, postures and even muscles were being used at different stages of the running cycle. So through research, self experimentation and observation I began to learn.
Running with Olympian Victoria Mitchell
Back in 2008 I was lurching around the Stephen Moneghetti Track that circumnavigates Lake Wendouree in the freezing, but pollution free Ballarat air. In contrast Olympian Victoria Mitchell was leaping over the steeples in the Beijing Olympic Stadium through a densely packed and particle rich atmosphere.
Four years later in 2012 I’d done a lot to improve my running fortunes and Victoria was building up to another shot at Olympic glory.
I found myself with a video camera at Gosch’s Paddock in Melbourne where Victoria was completing a barefoot recovery run on grass. The main curiosity for me was the chance to look at an elite runner running at relatively normal speed.
Mostly that was achieved, but as I mention in my ‘on the fly’ commentary I thought Victoria was initially going to run a touch slower than 5 minute kilometre pace, however I think it became evident that things got a little quicker than that. White coat syndrome without the white coat perhaps.
What follows is an unedited audio track and video that I recorded whilst observing Victoria run. It contains my impressions and some observations about running technique. I’ve added some slow motion video sections to help provide additional information.
Some attributes of elite running to ponder
There is much to learn from looking a the common elements that elite runners tend to share. There are outliers who manage to perform at high levels while seemingly defying convention, but these become fewer and with less deviation from the elite ‘mean’ as the events get faster and move to the track.
Elite runners are mostly well-aligned, their thighs running on the tram tracks that are the hips, they very efficiently apply force to propel their torsos ahead of the hips and legs. Twisting and rotation of the thighs is minimized when in contact with the ground, with little energy leaking away to impede forward progression.
They also maintain relatively high level of joint stiffness as they run – this means the legs and feet act as springy levers of the hip. An efficient cycle of loading and release of the muscles and tendons from the hips to the feet means good runners can tap into more ‘free’ energy stored in the tendons and connective tissue structures. This stiffness tends to increase with speed.
High cadence is often spoken about as being linked to elite performance and I don’t disagree, what’s perhaps not discussed is the elite ability to stride fast and long simultaneously. Break out your Mo Farah videos for confirmation.
Even those top runners that are less than perfectly aligned seem to be able to lock, load and release quite efficiently and have key moments of stability. It’s impossible for me to imagine any runner, no matter how physiologically gifted, being able to maintain 3 minute kilometre pace or less for any significant distance without some workable combination of these elements being present.
What we see versus what is
With all the controversy around running technique what different people see is well, different. I’ll leave the video there to do the talking and runners and coaches can take what they will from what they see. Regardless of your predisposition hopefully you will get something useful out of it.
If you find yourself violently in conflict with my commentary just mute the sound and listen to some relaxing music – I won’t be offended.
What we think about – running technique cues
The application of certain mental cues to provoke changes in movement pattern can be useful but also confusing. A case in point is arm-swing where the majority think about rapidly drawing the elbow back to stimulate movement, whereas some people, such as myself, think about driving the arm forward. The end result is perhaps similar as Coach Mark Gorski and I were discussing the other day.
Having discussed aspects of running technique with Victoria on a number of occasions I can confidently state that what she thinks about during running is not the same as what I think about. Some elements are consistent such as ‘keeping a long spine’, but others vary. As Professor Julius Sumner Miller might ask why is it so?
Well for one, the difference in talent and ability between us is a very wide gulf, which suggests to me that certain building blocks of good running are much more subconsciously inherent in better technicians.
It’s speculation, but maybe Victoria doesn’t have to think about core aspects like hip extension and stability as they are a natural part of her program. Alternatively, her individual biomechanics might lock around a better running pattern more naturally than those with different proportions and movement range.
It’s possible that Victoria can devote more thinking time to aspects of running that are elite markers i.e. rapid recovery of the swing leg, high hip extension velocity. That’s is, pulling the leg through and knee forward fast and then getting the foot back onto and off the ground pronto. At least one of these cues in Victoria’s mind is pull through.
For a bit more on Victoria’s thinking check out her blog. Sydney-siders can look Victoria up for lessons.
— Victoria Mitchell (@vic_mitchell) June 21, 2013
So when someone describes how they move and it’s different to your way of thinking it doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, especially if they or their pupils can then turn around and execute good technique.
It’s the result that counts, not the stimulus that gets you there. Obviously there is a limit to this line of thinking in that instructing someone to paint the fence Karate Kid style isn’t likely to produce the desired result.
Strength of your convictions
Most all of the elements discussed above are trainable, better stability and increased strength in muscles and tendons are all by products of strength training. It’s not going to propel you from the back of the pack to an Olympian but it does help.
All of these benchmarks are relative and everyone (even Olympians) have strengths and weaknesses that they have to contend with. It makes sense to build on your strengths and fill in the odd chink in your armour whichever way you can.
The difference from starting as a 2/10 for strength and moving to 4/10 might be a modest volume of injury free enjoyable running. So inching yourself a small way forwards can often pay relatively high dividends – especially if you’re starting from a low base.
Strong, not thin and weak
Better runners often appear lean, but it’s not a weak skinny frame that will propel you to Olympic glory or injury free running: it’s a strong body capable of applying and absorbing force efficiently during running without breaking down.
I was interested to note that Alberto Salazar, coach of Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, considered it was Mo’s seven hours of gym each fortnight that was more significant to his double gold medal-winning London performance than the 160+ kilometres of running.
Tirunesh Dibaba also mentioned her twice-weekly gym sessions which she says helped her claim a place in the history books by defending her Beijing 10,000m title.
The key for me is to not wistfully romance the elite running phenomenon but to recognise the bits I can learn from and train for to improve my own situation or that of other runners needing help. Hopefully there’s something here to stimulate your thinking about running.
Words and images by Brian Martin