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Running tips on technique and saving energy

By: Verne Maree

In future instalments of our regular running column, we’ll share favourite routes and talk about shoes, gadgets, treadmills, nutrition, racing – both here and around the region – hashing, children’s running and more. This month, Verne Maree gets into top form.

We might run a tad faster if we were chasing this chap
We might run a tad faster if we were chasing this chap

Beginner runners are sometimes self-conscious about running form: how to land on your feet, how far to stride out, what to do with your arms. As for me, I took to running because it seemed to require absolutely no skill: anybody can put one foot in front of the other, right?

Partly true, but it’s not the whole story. Even small tweaks to your running technique – especially if you’ve developed bad habits – can make you more biomechanically efficient, meaning you’ll get more enjoyment from your running, maybe go a bit faster, and most certainly reduce your risk of injury.

Stride
Husband Roy used to say unkindly that he could always pick me out from a crowd of runners because of my pathetically short-strided gait – we dubbed it my “Run for Life shuffle”, after the running orientation group where I got started many moons ago.

I’ve consciously tried to lengthen my stride over the years, but now it seems I shouldn’t have. In fact, it encouraged landing on the heels (not good) instead of the mid-foot (better), and a too-upright posture.

To go faster, says physiotherapist Simon Raftery of OrthomedPhysio (and most other experts), instead of trying to increase stride length, you should increase your cadence, meaning the number of steps you take.

Foot strike – heel or mid-foot?
Simon recommends aiming for a mid-foot strike, rather than landing on the heel of the foot, which is what some 80 percent of runners do. That’s because:

* Heel-striking causes an equal and opposite ground reaction force (GRF), which pushes the body upwards and backwards. Landing on the mid-foot creates a more vertical GRF, reducing the energy required to go forwards.

* A mid-foot strike immediately engages the calf muscle and stretches the Achilles, the body’s biggest and strongest tendon. The Achilles stores the potential energy of landing and then reuses it for push-off. And the unique arrangement of muscle fibres in the calf makes it capable of producing enormous amounts of force: 300 times more per square centimetre than the glutes and one and a half times more than the quadriceps.

* Heel-strikers usually land with a straight knee, which is much harder on the joint. A mid-foot strike is associated with a flexed knee that reduces the force through the joint and provides more cushioning.

Hands and arms?
As a general guideline, elbows should be bent between 90 and 110 degrees and arms should move with an easy rhythm; hands should stop at the midline of your torso. Keep them gently cupped, not clenched, and relax your shoulders.

6 Tips on Technique
Here’s the most economical way to run, gleaned from Singaporean doctor Ben Tan’s book Run for Your Life! – The Complete Marathon Guide:

1. Keep the knee flexed or bent at the end of the leg’s forward swing; extending it will tend to apply a braking force
2. Land with the foot under the centre of mass, that is, directly under your pelvis; landing too far forward again acts as a brake
3. Lean slightly forward, about 5 percent; this tip from Ben Tan’s team really helped me, including their advice to engage the core so as to keep the hips more stable
4. From toe-off, bring the foot back up and down in a direct path; don’t waste energy by indulging in butt-kicking
5. Optimise trunk torsion by activating core muscles and rotating pelvis and shoulders in opposite directions; this twisting action helps recycle energy and open the stride in a good way
6. Keep legs in the sagittal plane during the forward swing; kicking them to the sides is a waste of energy

Of course, best form depends on what sort of running you’re doing. If it’s a high-intensity interval session (more about that soon), you’ll be sprinting; and sprinting requires a completely different technique, including landing on the forefoot.

What’s more, if you’re negotiating MacRitchie’s cross-country hills, shale, rocks and tree-roots, form won’t be uppermost in your mind. If you’re anything like me, simply not falling takes priority!

And in the end, guidelines on technique should not be taken as gospel. That’s because every runner is different. I remember the words of Run for Life coach Alf Burgess about the style of one of our elite athletes at the start of a 15K in Durban: her elbows jerked, her hips swayed in ungainly fashion and she looked incredibly awkward. “It doesn’t matter,” said Alf, “because she’s going to win this race.” And she did.

 

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