In his book RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, best-selling author Matt Fitzgerald explores the run-by-feel practices of elite runners and draws on new research to explain why their techniques can be effective for all runners. RUN will teach runners how to listen to their bodies so they can train in the most personalized and adaptable way and begin to realize their full potential. This excerpt from the book addresses how mental training influences running technique.
The best scientific and real-world evidence indicates that the best way to improve your stride is not to think about it.
Once all but ignored, running technique is now the topic of countless magazine and Web site articles, is taught by a growing number of running coaches, and is intensively discussed on Internet chat forums and actual training runs. Underlying all of this discussion is a gradually spreading consensus that running technique can in fact be effectively taught—that there is an identifiably correct way to run that every runner can learn and use to run faster and with fewer injuries. This belief that there is a single right way to run represents quite a departure from the old-school view of running technique from previous decades, which held that good running technique was essentially something that a runner was either born with or not, and that the only way to improve running technique was to simply run and let the process happen naturally.
There are some running experts who still believe that this is the case. Among these experts is Ross Tucker, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Tucker is not persuaded that there can be a single right way for every runner to run. In an article on his Web site, Tucker explained: “My personal opinion is that if there [were] a way to run faster and with fewer injuries that was guaranteed to work in all people … then it would be discovered by default. It’s difficult to fathom that millions of people, with different body shapes and sizes and leg lengths and [centers] of gravity and joint angles could fit into one single pattern or technique. Rather, the passage of time would filter out any flaws for each person.” Tucker believes that individual runners naturally develop the stride pattern that works best for them in the normal course of training, but that this pattern is not transferable—in other words, past a certain point, what works for me is unlikely to work for you.
Scientific research on the teaching of running technique tends to support Tucker’s view. For example, a 2005 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences reported that the running economy of 16 high-level triathletes was actually reduced (meaning the athletes became less efficient) after 12 weeks of practicing the Pose running method. In fact, to my knowledge no study has ever demonstrated an improvement in running economy or performance resulting from technique training.
There is other evidence that consciously meddling with your stride may indeed make it less efficient instead of more efficient. For example, in a recent study from the University of Munster, trained runners were asked to run for 10 minutes at a designated pace on three occasions: once while thinking about their breathing, once while thinking about their stride, and once while thinking about the environment around them. Oxygen consumption was monitored during all three runs. And guess what? The runners consumed the least amount of oxygen—that is, they were most economical—while not thinking about their bodies as they ran.
In the real world, the notion that there is a single right way to run is belied by the tremendous diversity seen in the strides of the world’s best runners. Look at the lead pack of runners in any major marathon and you will see all kinds of variety even among the best of the best. Some runners have a pronounced forward lean, while others are perfectly upright. Some carry their arms high, others low. Some runners are forefoot strikers, while others are midfoot strikers. Some have loose, loping strides, while others exhibit compact strides with very high turnover rates. You can see clearly that each runner, through years of practice, has “solved the problem” of running fast over long distances by working out the optimal stride for his or her unique body.
Supporters of the notion that there is a right way to run correctly point out that there are several characteristics that are common to the strides of all elite runners. However, the best evidence suggests that the rest of us cannot become elite runners—or even measurably better runners than we are today—by consciously aping these characteristics.
For example, it is known that faster runners typically have higher natural stride rates than slower runners. If two runners of different ability levels run together at the same pace, the more gifted of the two will take smaller, more frequent strides than the other. The natural stride rate of the typical elite runner is 90 strides per minute. The average stride rate of the typical mid-pack runner is closer to 80 strides per minute. Now, you might think that consciously increasing your stride rate from 80 to 90 strides per minute would be an effective way to gain a more efficient, elite-like stride. Once again, though, research has shown that runners become less efficient, not more efficient, when they force themselves to run at any stride rate other than their natural one.
I am not suggesting that individual runners cannot improve their strides. But the facts indicate that we cannot become more efficient runners by consciously forcing ourselves to replicate some universal ideal of running form. New research by Stephen McGregor at Eastern Michigan University suggests that improvements in stride efficiency are a major factor in long-term improvements in running performance—perhaps a bigger factor than gains in aerobic capacity. But these improvements appear to unfold naturally and unconsciously through the normal training process as the neuromuscular system slowly learns how to sustain desired speeds with less activation of fewer motor units, hence with increasing fatigue resistance.
Perhaps the crucial difference between how running technique actually improves and how the one-size-fits-all technique systems seek to improve running technique is that the technique systems involve making “gross motor” changes in movement patterns that are usually plainly visible to the outside observer (e.g., you make your legs move differently), whereas natural improvements unfold at the “fine motor” level (e.g., your legs move in basically the same way, but with less muscle activation under the surface), and are visible only as a general increase in the grace of the stride. And again, the forced, conscious changes appear not to work, whereas the automatic, unconscious change do.
The best way to improve your running technique is to not think about it and instead simply run often and run regularly to the point of fatigue at a variety of paces. In doing so you will expose your neuromuscular system to challenges that it will meet by finding more efficient way to sustain desired speeds. Some of these unconscious discoveries will change your stride in the same ways that the technique systems try to force upon runners, but instead of making your stride less efficient these organically made changes will improve your running efficiency. For example, there is anecdotal evidence from runners who train with speed and distance devices with cadence-monitoring capability that stride rate increases naturally and without conscious manipulation as fitness increases.
I confess that until recently I counted myself among those who believe that conscious emulation of the strides of elite runners was a good idea. I learned otherwise in researching my book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. But I greeted this finding as good news, because it actually makes technique improvement easier. The running stride is resistant to consciously enforced changes (with good reason, as we have seen). Thus, making such changes stick is a tedious process that takes a lot of the fun out of running. The better way to improve your stride is much more pleasant: Don’t think, just do it.