"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Should You Change Your Stride?

The same questions come up, usually in cycles. A common one concerns whether one should try to correct running style flaws. Here's two recent examples and one from last year (Sea Legs Girl, Mmmonyka, SteveInaSpeedo). The answer, as usual, is complicated.

Some runners have eccentric motions that have no bearing on their running. Bill Rodgers was famous for looping one arm in bigger circles than the other; it turned out to be a natural way to counterbalance having a leg-length discrepancy - though many had suggested he "correct" his form, he was running well. If he were a beginning runner with a bunch of nagging injuries, however, it might make sense to put an insert into one shoe to adjust for leg length and then try to run "correctly." Jim Ryun ran sub-4 minute miles with his head rolling in circles; the rest of his form was perfect and this eccentricity did not seem to affect him.

The first consideration is: does your running form get worse when you run faster? If it stays the same or improves, chances are that you've found what works for you. For example, I have an odd arm swing (you can imitate it by holding your elbows locked at one angle; it forces you to move your shoulders back and forth) which goes away when sprinting or running hard uphill. I can run with better form on slower runs, but it takes concentration and is tiring. You don't need fancy equipment to answer this question - you friends can tell you, if they've seen you run, if your form falls apart when running fast.

If your form does get worse when you run faster, the next question is: how much running have you done? Beginning runners often have an awkwardness that gets better with practice and without conscious effort. Veteran high-mileage runners often develop an efficient "shuffle" stride; Derek Clayton and Alberto Salazar set world records in the marathon with that stride - heel striking, no knee lift; it sometimes looks like they're almost sitting - and this stride works well for some runners at some distances. The shuffle does not work well at short race lengths, though, and a runner planning to do short races has to learn (or relearn) the "power stride." Fortunately, this is a simple task: the faster you run, the better your form has to be, so practicing fast strides and/or sprints will automatically correct flaws.

Just what is "correct" form? There are so many factors that entire books have been written on the subject. In short, if you have no biomechanical weaknesses, your form will probably be good and you'll have few problems with injury. If you have weaknesses, some can be corrected to a degree, but most have to be compensated for by altering one's form. These deviations in form from the standard will lead to injury... but only if you overtrain or make sudden changes in your training.

Learning the various elements of good form can be valuable, but more telling is learning to observe how one's own form changes. The classic example of this is "falling apart," when one has run as far as one can at a given pace and suddenly it's a struggle to keep moving (in the marathon, this is "hitting the wall"); when one falls apart, one's form alters dramatically. Knowing what the difference is between how you ran when you ran well and how you run when exhausted, sometimes you can get back into a run (albeit at a slower pace) by forcing yourself to adjust your form to what it should be. This is one of those things that I do not do well - photos of me late in ultramarathons show me with hunched shoulders, leaning forward, often staring at the ground in front of my feet. Correcting the imbalances that lead to that poor posture with specific exercises could be of use, but I think it's better to not get in that situation in the first place.

Photomanipulation (oops, her eyes don't track!)


Carilyn said...

I have a very odd little "clip clip" stride from logging a lot of miles over the years. It is great for long road races because it is efficient, but very bad for trail running (one reason I fall down a lot) and makes me look like an doofus. I also have some ruptured discs that can lead to a "leg drag" sometimes - another very attractive quality of my stride :)

Dale Jamieson said...

very interesting this, Steve. I spent a while dealing with an ITB problem at the end of 2011 and into 2012.

I was told that my leg length difference was the problem and given a 6mm insert for my right shoe to correct the balance.

2-3months later and after the third time of getting severe back pain - which kept me out of work, I linked the two together and ditched the shoe insert.

I've not had an ITB problem since (or back pain). After physio and after reading about the very issue you have written about I too decided to try and change my gait and address my biomechanical weaknesses that way.

I've improved and am more efficient as a runner now but my inherent flaws do still manifest themselves now and again e.g. I have a hip problem that has put an end to my progress for a short time whilst I rehabilitate the gluteus medius on one side.

Lets just say that I'm coming round to the widely held belief that there really is such an aspect as genetics at play here!

sea legs girl said...

Aha. I appreciate the longer explanation! I am relieved since my form seems to get better the faster I run. But I will do as my coach says :o). For the record, I haven't second guessed him yet. That is why my husband will never be my coach because it is part of my job description as his wife to second guess him.

mmmonyka said...

Thanks for the feedback on my blog! Yes, I read it although you missed the cut:)

Of course it all makes sense. And it is all individual.
I have had ITB problem for 3 years and I was getting quite desperate. I did PT, stretching, rolling etc and it kept coming back. So I figured that maybe it has something to do with the way I run. I talked to one very knowledgeable coach who watched me run and told me that I run on my toes all the time, I do not put touch the ground with my heels and I felt that I was not using my hip flexors/glutes which led to dropping my hip and putting strain on my ITB. So I decided to correct all that. As you said, it was f**** tiring and I had to concentrate all the time and each runs was a misery, now it is better. I think that it paid off. My ITB seems to be doing well now (almost 9 months of consistent running!!!), although I do not know whether it was indeed my running gait, because I have changed a lot of variables at the same time.

I still do not know what I am doing with that left leg and why I cross my centerline with my arms, but I think that I will try to correct that left leg now in winter when I will be doing mostly slow runs.