Running is an ideal symmetrical activity for keeping fit. However, it is common for people to blame running for injuries rather than accept that it may be how they run that is at fault. Is there more to running than just putting one foot in front of the other?
The answer appears to be yes! If it were as simple as this there would not be so many running-related injuries. Observe the many different styles, or interpretations, of running and it is obvious that we may not necessarily know how to put one foot in front of the other! What should be an ideal way to improve and maintain fitness is often the cause of many problems. A large percentage of runners, whether running for fun or as part of a training programme, do not seek coaching. We assume it is within our ability to run as we did when young. However we cannot suddenly change our body and attitude when going for a run. How we use ourselves during the day will have an impact on running and if we spend hours slumped at our desk or on the car, our style will reflect the asymmetric nature of a body that has lost the poise of youth.
Our approach to any type of training is susceptible to habit. If we keep doing the same things we will get the same result, yet this is exactly what most of us do. Try the following in place of your usual routine. If you feel you do not want to interrupt your schedule for fear of your performance suffering, you may well be a slave to habit. Leave your stopwatch at home to avoid giving any consideration to the time.
Following your warm up, try walking the first two hundred yards. Enjoy the ease of the movement and let your legs swing from the hip joints, note these are located at the front of your pelvis. Allow your arms to swing like pendulums from your shoulder joints. Be aware of the ground beneath your feet and think of 'walking tall' by using the upward thrust from the ground in response to your body weight. Before you start to run let the arms swing faster without losing form and allow the legs to match the speed.
The next stage is important. Before you move up to a running pace, see if you start to prepare for the effort by holding your breath, stiffening your neck or lifting the shoulders in anticipation of effort. Any unnecessary tension applied at this point is likely to be carried throughout the duration of the run. Try to make the transition from walking to running without additional effort. Allow the arms to bend at the elbow and keep them swinging in a linear motion. Think of the legs swinging from the hips and raise the legs with the knee leading the move.
Once the knee has been raised, the lower leg can be allowed to swing through. The common kicking action of most runners increases the workload on the quadriceps, and in my view totally unnecessary. Be conscious of the hip, knee and ankle joints working together in the movement. As with walking tall, think of running tall to utilise the force of gravity. This may sound a little strange initially but the ground is where the force comes from that moves us forward. Be wary of trying to hold yourself up to achieve an upright position. If you can remove unnecessary effort, your body will attain an effortless upright stance due to the absence of inappropriate muscular activity.
The stimulus to return to your normal way of running will be very strong, as this would be the most familiar. If the new way feels wrong you are on the right track - this will not be your comfortable habitual style. Resist the urge to get it right and continue the experiment for as long as possible, thinking up through the spine and letting the limbs move freely. Try changing the speed of the arm movement to regulate the pace. Remember to monitor whether you have stiffened the neck. A head pulled back by tightening the neck and trapezius puts more pressure on the back and ultimately affects the whole movement.
At some point along the route allow, the arms to stop swinging and drop in front of your hips, an action common with many runners. Observe what this does to your back. You will notice the back starts to twist and shoulders roll. The movement of the psoas muscle, in the lower back, requires a balancing action in the upper trunk to maintain form. This unnecessary twist reduces efficiency by throwing weight in the wrong direction. Return to swinging the arms and observe how the twisting action disappears.
The most common response to the thought of stepping up the pace is to put more effort into the stride. If the legs are already being over worked due to a less than efficient technique, the centre of the brain (motor cortex) that initiates the action has to send more impulses adding to the traffic in the feedback loop. We have the sensation that we are running quicker because of the increased effort, but are we using our energy efficiently?
When you want to increase your speed try the following method. Initially, when you have decided to quicken the pace, observe what you normally do to achieve this. After a minute, slow down to a comfortable jogging pace and again think about raising the pace. This time do not think about running faster but instead just move your arms quicker. If we think of only moving the arms faster, requiring less energy, the legs will match the speed. Try the exercise and experience the difference. The first time you speed up you will use your usual habitual method, the second will feel different because it will be unfamiliar. Try experimenting with your running, always with the goal of giving an alternative approach a chance. If you are experiencing injuries or loss of form first check your style, get someone to watch or take a video. If its habitual actions that are the cause, you will be the last person to notice - because you are the habit!
Running coach legend Percy Cerutty, who coached Olympic Gold medalist Herb Elliot, stated:
"The head rests loosely on the shoulders, that is, is not held rigid. It should be capable of movement as the needs of the athlete demand. In my techniques I often test this rigidity of an athlete. Many are quite incapable of turning their heads freely on their neck and shoulders. Any rigidity here spreads right through the whole musculature. Keep the head and neck free and the rest of the moving parts will tend to be free."
Less is more!
Roy Palmer is a Teacher of The Alexander Technique and author of The Performance Paradox: Train Smarter to enhance performance and reduce injury. More information can be found at http://www.artofperformance.co.uk
He works with sports people of all abilities to recognise and overcome performance-limiting habits.