Something I get asked a lot about is how to improve running form to enhance performance. I figured the best way too approach this very complicated issue is to do a series of posts over the next 2-3 months. This first post will simply be an introduction into the concept of what exactly a “perfect stride” is and to try to challenge some of the conventional tips that have been engrained into us.
The fact of the matter is that there definitely are key (and somewhat obvious) movement patterns that can have a clear detrimental impact on running performance and/or running economy. For example, we know that excessive arm motion will decrease running economy (for example, read more here). We also know that a crazy amount of vertical oscillation (bouncing too much up and down) will also decrease running economy (as shown, for instance, here).
However, I think in popular running culture, there is definitely an overemphasis on achieving the perfect stride. I also think there is low level of appreciation for how trying to fight your natural rhythm can often do more harm than good. What looks pretty and symmetrical is not always what is best for your individual anatomy.
The research has become very clear that there is a large range of what is actually acceptable and best for any given runner. I have more or less stopped using slow motion treadmill gait analysis to nit pick nuisances in somebody’s stride. The real problems can be spotted more accurately with the use of the naked eye while watching runners in their natural element: ie. running outside, and running tired (I am better equipped to do this at H+P workouts than at the office). Unless there is something clearly wrong, messing with somebody’s stride can be a big mistake, and is oftentimes not even close to the miracle injury cure or the injection required for a performance increase.
Example #1: Forefoot Strike
A perfect example of this is the barefoot running craze where runners were forced to unnaturally conform to a forefoot strike, which for many increases the likelihood of developing injuries such as Achilles tendonitis and calf strains. And I say ‘conform’ to a forefoot strike because that is exactly what happened: most runners don’t naturally have a forefoot strike, and even less have a forefoot strike when they are tired (as I wrote about here). In fact, the forefoot strike solution was so wrong as a fix-all miracle technique that one of the major pushers, Vibram, had a massive class-action lawsuit successfully pushed through as a result of their misleading claims revolving around this technique.
Example #2: Knee Position
Another good example as I wrote about here is how certain runners with knee pain (especially under the knee cap) are led to believe that severe inward (valgus) movement of the knee needs to be prevented in order to stop the injury from persisting. Correcting that valgus (inward) motion simply cannot always happen. If your femoral neck is rotated in such a way in relation to the shaft of the femur that an inward motion of that knee happens with impact and loading of the knee, no amount of muscular recruitment can fully correct it. In other words, your muscles can’t make your bones be different shapes.
So you can’t always rehab away genu valgum. However, one inadvertent benefit of the rehab given to try to correct the valgus motion of the knee is that it leads to rehab plans that involve strengthening lateral hip musculature (glut med, TFL etc.) which still results in a decrease in injury frequency, intensity and duration. What researchers have shown is that when the knee’s position is not changed at impact, athletes can still feel better with these exercises because of better stability of the joint and a decrease in something they call variability in motion. You can read more HERE, but basically these hip exercises will never fully correct an anatomical inward/valgus position of a knee for some runners, but they can still reduce the randomness of how a knee settles into that valgus position while being loaded. In many cases that treadmill video/ genu valgum analysis will never get better unless you have a good imagination, but the variability of motion will go down (something you can’t really measure without a force plate), resulting in less wonky minor motions during loading of the knee, and thus less irritation.
Once again, this shows how the pursuit of the perfect gait is an imperfect pursuit since trying not to drop your knee inward is a flawed and futile form correction for many.
There is no Perfect
In essence, what I am trying to get across is that there is not one, narrow-ranged, perfect way to run. There are extreme examples of movements that should definitely be cut out (again, like swinging your arms way too much), but there is definitely a huge risk with deviating from your natural stride. The need to change a stride should definitely be considered on a case-by-case basis. It seems that while the research shows that the vast majority of runners shouldn’t be changing their stride to achieve their goals, way too many runners are being led to believe that the answer to all their running problems is to do things like run on their toes rather than do the things that REALLY matter (like increasing mileage slowly and progressively, losing that extra 40lbs, adding intensity, including recovery weeks, including strength work etc.)
So, aside from the obvious stuff, what are the specific components of running technique, and what is the acceptable range for each of these components? Next month I will take a look at a popular one: stride length.