When I signed up for my first ultramarathon, I started training like crazy. I hired a personal trainer and a strength coach to kick my butt into high gear twice a week. For months I ran, biked, squatted, pressed, lunged, and lifted my way towards ultramarathon fitness. I was in the best shape of my life. Little muscles I didn’t even know existed started popping out and I delighted in making my girlfriends squeal in horror at the size of my flexed quads. And yet, in spite of all my hard work and my Herculean muscles, just a few months before competition day, my training suddenly ground to a halt.
I started developing all sorts of injuries, from pains in my knee to stress fractures to tendonitis. I saw doctor after doctor, determined to fix the problem. I got ultrasound, electric stimulation, orthotics, and kinesio taping, but nothing seemed to work. I was told I had lazy glutes, imbalanced quads, tight hip flexors, weak bones, and fallen arches in my feet. One specialist finally told me my body simply wasn’t made for running and if I wanted to walk without a cane in my thirties and forties, I had better quit.
I was devastated, but also too stubborn to give up. At long last, I was put in touch with a fellow Canadian, legendary ultrarunner Ray Zahab. Within seconds of seeing me run, Ray had the answer dozens of doctors had been unable to find. The problem wasn’t in my bones, muscles, or tendons. No, the problem was in my running technique.
Over the months I had spent working on every aspect of my body, I hadn’t spent a single minute working on the way my body moved. Frankly, I didn’t really think there was much to it. However, what I quickly learned was that if you don’t have proper running form, then it really doesn’t matter how much you run, how many weights you lift, or how large your quads are. That’s right: the size of your muscles doesn’t matter – it is how you use them!
So that you can avoid the same mistakes I made, I’ve written down my top five basic pointers on running technique:
1. Body Position
Generally speaking, you want to be running with your head in a neutral position, looking forward, and with your shoulders down and back. Of course, if you are running over difficult terrain, you may have to look downwards to avoid tripping, but you want to avoid running with your head down because it will also pull your shoulders forward and hunch your back. You should also be keeping your arms at about ninety degrees, swinging your arms forward and back with your elbow tight to your body. Avoid the tendency of sticking your elbows out or swinging your arms diagonally across your body, as this will waste your energy. You want to use every bit of effort into propelling you forward, not sideways!
Some people advocate leaning forward with your upper body so that you are leading with your chest. I agree this is a desired form, but I don’t think it helps to try to force it. You will naturally wind up in this position if you follow the next two points.
2. Stride Length
This one is a big one, so pay attention: the vast majority of you are probably overstriding. This means that in an effort to run farther and faster, you are reaching your leg out too far in front of you and most likely landing on your heel. This is the equivalent of slamming on the brakes! Remember, you want to get maximum result out of minimal effort. The best way to do this is to land front- or mid-foot with your body positioned more or less over top of your leg so you can push forward off it. Easier said than done, right? Working on point number three will help get you there!
Cadence goes hand-in-hand (or foot-in-foot!) with stride length. Cadence refers to the speed at which your legs are turning over. Just as most of you are probably overstriding, I would bet good money you are also using a very low cadence. To find out what your cadence is without having to rely on fancy gadgets, time yourself running for ten seconds and count how many times your feet hit the ground. Before I started working on my technique, I was running at 22 per 10 seconds, or 132 foot strikes per minute. The most efficient cadence is 30 foot strikes per 10 seconds, or 180 foot strikes per minute. Next time you watch a marathon on television, watch for the top runners’ cadences – you’ll see pretty near 180.
Rather than try to count your steps all the time, the easiest way to increase your cadence is to run to a song that has a beat close to 180 or 90 beats per minute (bpm). For me, my song is Cinderella Man by Eminem. Seriously! It has a beat of around 90bpm, so I know I need two foot strikes per beat. On one run, I listened to the song on repeat thirty times until it was engrained in my brain – and in my feet. If you can’t find a song of your own, you’re welcome to borrow mine!
At first, you’ll feel a little bit like motor-mouse. You will feel like your legs are spinning underneath you at a ridiculous speed without getting you anywhere. But give it time. Soon, you will start to build speed while maintaining your cadence, and your stride length will follow as well. All the pieces of the puzzle will start to come together!
Some people try to match their breathing with their strides. If this describes you, here’s a quick anatomy lesson: your legs are not attached to your lungs, so stop trying to match them. You want to be able to get into a good breathing rhythm, but it may or may not match what your legs are doing. Your breathing will, however, give you an indication of how hard you are working. If you are running long distances, you should be able to breathe comfortably enough to carry a conversation. If you can’t, slow down a bit until you get your breathing back.
I know – running can be painful. It can be a real struggle. But whenever you can, remind yourself to relaaaaax. This means every part of your body. For me, I find that if I’m not thinking about it, I will automatically start to clench my hands into fists. Every twenty minutes or so I try to tell myself to let them go and I immediately feel a difference throughout my body. The tenser you are, the more unnatural your running stride will be. For example, if your knees and lower body are tense, you won’t be able to absorb the shock of hitting the ground very well and this will cause you to bob up and down, which is really inefficient. Telling your lower body to relax will help keep your upper body steady and allow you to channel your energy forward rather than up and down. If you are running trails, think of yourself as a stream of water easily passing over the rocks and roots underneath you. Smooth as silk!
Next time you go out running, try tackling one of these points at a time, and then when you think you’ve mastered it, move onto the next one. Before you know it, you’ll be the hottest runner out there – because it is all in the technique, baby!