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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Should we fix running form in distance runners?

The topic of running form often evokes strong sentiment from polar opposite spectrums.  On one hand, the "old school" crowd believes in simply going out and running a bunch of miles.  Through those miles, the body should theoretically settle upon its most efficient form.  On the other hand, the "new school" believes in a more active approach to teaching running mechanics.  The "new school" generally looks for specific technical cues associated with good form and has a toolbox of drills to ingrain the desired mechanics.

At Pike Athletics, we believe in an approach that blends the best of "old school" and the "new school."  Given the traditional injury rates in running, it is fair to say that neither school has found the right answer...In this post, we'll cover basic technique issues in running and discuss some effective ways to address these issues in a motor learning context.

One common technique flaw is for runners to tense their shoulders upward.  Many coaches will observe shoulder tension cue runners to lower their shoulders.  However, this advice can be problematic because lifting the shoulders can be a way to assist breathing.  There are undoubtedly more efficient ways to breathe, but if the runner doesn't know how to breathe efficiently the body will settle for an inefficient way, since doing so beats the alternative (a.k.a. suffocation).  Runners with tensed upward shoulders should strive to correct the shoulder flaw, but unless the runner learns effective breathing mechanics, he or she will revert right back to old habits when placed under the physiological duress of a race or hard workout.  If you take away the shoulders as a mechanism for inspiration and expiration in runners who don't know how to breathe efficiently, you have taken away what is currently their most efficient breathing technique.  You better find a way to replace that mechanism, since most people can't solve breathing dysfunction on their own.  If they could, they wouldn't have dysfunctional breathing technique in the first place.

Basic breathing drills are undoubtedly valuable for athletes with suboptimal breathing fundamentals.  Yoga can also substitute, but there are more time effective ways to accomplish the objective.  Nevertheless, it can be a hard sell for runners to lay down on the floor and practice breathing, especially when dealing with scholastic runners who may use the time to take a nap!

Another factor is workout selection.   Although we can't directly teach breathing mechanics through workout selection, we can avoid workout situations that facilitate poor habits.  In terms of training, we can apply this concept by not "racing" our hard workouts and by ensuring that the work:rest:intensity mix is appropriate for the workout objectives and for our CURRENT (not aspirational) fitness.  Visually poor mechanics often result from the body learning how to struggle rather than learning how to cruise comfortably hard at a brisk pace.  As Arthur Lydiard told his runners long ago, "Train, don't strain!"

Many coaches also prescribe arm carriage corrections.  Runners sometimes carry their arms far from their side and receive the instruction to tuck their arms in.  Others may cross over with one or both arms and will be told to simply not cross over.  What the well meaning coaches fail to realize is that the visual presentation of the arm errors is often a physical expression of the runner compensating for something else unobservable to the naked eye such as limited thoracic extension or poor balance in the dynamic unilaterally supported leg positions in running.  A few minutes of form drills here and there aren't going to override a soundly ingrained dysfunctional movement pattern.  Forcing visually good mechanics upon a runner who doesn't possess authentic fundamental movement abilities is like trying to download Mac software onto a PC.

Another common source of technical dysfunction in running form is an inability of the body to segmentally stabilize.  Segmental stabilization is basically the body's ability to operate the lower body and upper body independently.   This skill is critical for balance in all planes of movement.

Poor segmental stabilization  ---->  Inability to maintain posture and/or balance in a dynamic setting -----> Arm  carriage compensations

A runner who can't segmentally stabilize will present numerous form faults including poor posture, excess upper body movement, or inefficient arm carriage.  Runners are often told to drive the arms from the shoulders, but if the runner can't segmentally stabilize the upper and lower bodies, they'll have an awfully hard time achieving optimal arm mechanics since the arms will naturally be called on to compensate for something else.

We can examine the body's segmental stabilization capabilities through the hurdle step test and the active straight leg raise in the Functional Movement Screen. From there, we can make the appropriate movement corrections so that effective motor learning can occur.  I wrote that last sentence in a more passive voice intentionally.  With running, as compared to other sports, we should take a more passive role toward ingraining sport specific technique because running is a natural activity for humans.  Once we get the body into a good state of fundamental movement, we can go more "old school" and let the body figure things out with the use of specific drills when appropriate. 

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