Running Efficiency & Economy

Running Efficiency & Economy
by Timothy Lyman, Director of Training Programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh

“What’s the best way to run?”

It’s a question I hear all the time. My answer...YOUR way. Your way is the best way to run. The body is a smooth operator, and an extraordinarily efficient movement machine. The more you run, the more your body is going to learn HOW to run. It’s like a river flowing downstream, always looking for the path of least resistance. Everyone has a gait and stride that is different, and it is as unique as your fingerprints. Experienced coaches can recognize their runners from a distance just by watching body mechanics. While there is no one-size-fits-all running form, there are technical four principles that can help improve overall economy and lower the risk of injury. Even though you are a special little snowflake, these are core components that everyone can benefit from.

  • Posture. I’m sure you’ve heard a spectator or coach yelling for an athlete to “run tall!” Good posture means good body alignment, and good body alignment means fewer imbalances. Fewer imbalances create better mechanics, and better mechanics begets fewer injuries. I like to cue my runners to fix poor posture or improper alignment by telling them to engage their core, and to keep their chins up and eyes out.
  • Mid-foot landing. Heel striking is everywhere you look, from articles in magazines to the weekend warriors at the local park. For whatever reason, we’ve been conditioned to believe that a long stride is a better stride. A longer stride creates a point of contact with the ground that is in front of the rest of your body, with the primary impact point right on the heel of your foot. This is the biomechanical equivalent of slamming on the brakes at the same time you are flooring the gas pedal! On contact you create 3-5 times your body weight in vibrations, and heel striking compromises the integrity of your suspension system and its ability to absorb this energy. The result? A stiff lower back and bad knees at best! By heel striking, you are attempting to pull yourself along the surface of the Earth using muscle groups that weren’t designed for the task. Instead try marching in place before your run to become ingrain the sensation of a mid-foot landing, and then practice pushing the world behind you with each step you take during the run.
  • Cadence. Cadence is a technical term for the tempo of your run, similar to RPMs on a bicycle. Since we now know that longer strides aren’t better, how many short strides should you aim for? The magic number here is 180 strides per minute, or 90 footfalls with each leg over 60 seconds (it’s easier to count that way). For all my perfectionists out there, try not to get too wrapped up in the numbers. It’s tough to hit exactly 180 EVERY time you go for a run. I average about 176, but can end up as low as 165! What’s most important is that you simply make an attempt for 180, because increasing your cadence and shortening your stride will also help bring your point of impact to the mid-foot. If you’re landing on your mid-foot, and consequently underneath your hips, your body is in a much better position to absorb the shock. You’ll find that you’ll be running lightly, and sounding less like a Clydesdale.
  • Lean. The all-important lean. Why work harder when you can work smarter? Running doesn’t have to be a constant struggle, gravity can be your best friend and actually pull you forward. All you have to do is keep taking step after step so you don’t fall flat on your face! The key here goes back to our first form focus of posture. It’s important that the core stays engaged and your spine stays straight as you lean forward from the ankles and NOT from the hips. Think of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal moves. By leaning forward ever so slightly, you’re allowing gravity to do what it does best and taking the workload off your body. Running is just falling…..with style.

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