Bill Rodgers in his prime. Image: Sports Illustrated
Running isn’t easy, but it’s supposed to be simple: no need for fancy equipment, just a half-decent pair of shoes, some clothes you can get sweaty in, and a little motivation. Most of us will never do a triple axle or serve a tennis ball at 100 mph, but we instinctively know how to run—right?
Common wisdom used to have it that the best running form was whatever seemed to come naturally. Much of this misconception grew out of a famous experiment in the 1970s, when Penn State scientist Peter Cavanagh, editor of The Biomechanics of Distance Running Form, tried to fix Bill Rodgers’ technique—and found that imposing textbook form actually made the champion marathoner less efficient. In 2003’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jogging and Running, Rodgers himself writes: “We all run like we do for a reason, namely, according to how our bodies are put together…each runner is an experiment of one. One of my legs is longer than the other. As a result, I land on the extreme outside edge of my left forefoot, and my right arm often swings across my body. This is not textbook form, but it’s what works for me and what feels comfortable.” (To be fair, Rodgers did offer a few general form tips in the book).
Bill Rodgers, however, was one of those lucky runners who instinctively gravitate to a championship running technique, something that is increasingly rare today, when, according to Running Times, “Almost all top coaches have their runners spend time working on their form” and “most elites, already blessed with enviable technique" work to improve form.
Rodgers also started running before shoemakers began padding their products with thick soles, a move that allowed millions of new runners to break with thousands of years of human tradition and start striking the ground with their heels. According to The Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 75% of modern runners are heel strikers—which would be fine and dandy if heel-striking didn't force us to hit the ground in front of our center of gravity, at two to three times our body weight.
Heel striking. Image: Adelaide Vales
“In the 70’s,” says local runner Tony Garrow, “you were told to run heel to toe, taking advantage of the heel cushioning in the back of the shoe.” After years of heel-striking, however, “I have had my knee scoped, a year and a half battle with a bad hamstring, a two year fight with a chronic sore heel, repeated bouts with hip flexor pain, plus a chronically bad back.”
Many athletes heel-strike happily away for years, and because we’re lucky, keep our mileage low, or replace our shoes often enough, we don’t develop too many injuries. “If it ain’t broke,” we figure, “don’t fix it.” Bad form may not be hurting all of us, but it does hurt plenty of us. According to the May/June 2010 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports, around half of all runners experience injury on an annual basis. Running technique isn’t solely responsible, but it is probably a significant contributing factor.
“As you become fitter,” Rodgers wrote in The Idiot’s Guide, “your form is going to get better because the muscles throughout your body that support you when you run are going to get more used to their new task.”
The muscles you use will get stronger, but that does not automatically mean your form will improve—and the muscles you don’t use, but often should be using, can weaken.
Vibram Five Fingers. Image: Honolulu Magazine
“Longtime runners actually suffer from the body’s ability to become efficient,” says veteran coach and runner Pete Magill in a recent cover story for Running Times. “You become so efficient that you start recruiting fewer muscle fibers to do the same exercise, and as you begin using less muscle fibers you start to get a little bit weaker…Once you’ve stopped recruiting so many fibers you start exerting too much pressure on the fibers you are recruiting to perform the same action. And then you start getting muscle imbalance injuries—calf strains, little hamstring pulls, things like that.”
You'll rarely see an elite runner hitting the ground with their heels, but it’s only been in the past few years—inspired partially by the success of Christopher McDougall’s 2007 book Born to Run, and promoted by the Pose and Chi running methods—that ordinary runners have realized that they, too, can change their running techniques, especially by learning to strike the ground with their midfoot or forefoot. The barefoot/near-barefoot running movement is responsible for the success of Vibram Five Fingers, Nike Free, and Newton Running.
Pete Pfitzginer, a former Olympic marathoner who now works as a running coach, says, “We all run as children and assume that we are doing it correctly…that is usually not a bad assumption, but there is a difference between doing something reasonably well and maximizing performance.”
Changes in form might enable us ordinary runners to go faster—maybe not fast enough to win the local 5K, but enough to move up in the age group or race at a quicker mile pace.
Independently teaching yourself a new running style, however, could be a lot like trying to teach yourself German from a German-English dictionary and a couple Pimsleur lessons: possible for a few gifted individuals, but far from ideal for everyone else. I recently spent a couple four-mile runs trying not to heel-strike. After two days all I got was lingering pain in my lower back and right knee.