Well, put quite simply, running is fast walking with some variations. If we look at it closely, it’s really a series of highly coordinated funny-looking hops that allow us to move at a high speed. In fact, it’s these silly jumps that differ running from walking; in a walking scenario, one foot is in contact with the ground at any given time.
Running is hard-wired into our brains - our ancestors developed the ability to run for long distances literally millions of years ago, presumably to hunt animals. We’ve got all kinds of physiological hardware that gets us across long distances much easier than most other animals. So, the obvious question is: Why do so many people struggle with distance running?
The simple answer is that America is obese (check out this article for an interesting graphical example of how we stack up against other modern countries http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/10/this-is-the-average-mans-body/280194/). However, the truer answer is that most of us have never really learned how to run. Why should we have to learn how to do an activity that’s genetically buried in our brains? Most babies try to run as soon as they learn how to walk, so how come such a simple action requires teaching?
Proper running requires teaching because it’s actually a really complex way of getting around. Elements like footstrike, knee drive, heel return, and arm form can all dramatically affect a runner’s performance, not to mention other factors like mental toughness, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, turnover, and pacing. Anybody can go out and slog a few miles, but why are there some people who can go really far really fast?
Running is, at its core, an exercise in physics. Potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, muscles load and release weight, spring-like tendons in the legs store energy, and muscle elasticity allows us to easily decrease or increase pace. The muscular propulsion system, however, is powered by oxygen, which means that running for more than about five or ten seconds requires some level of aerobic fitness. America is pretty short on aerobic fitness these days, so the secret for the average runner is maximizing the efficiency of each step. The techniques I’ll be describing over the next few week focus on going as fast as possible over a relatively long distance, so get those GPS watches ready.
Here’s the first step: each time your foot strikes the ground while running, you’re carrying about three times your “real” body weight on one leg. Simply lower that weight and you’re already halfway there. Do this by improving your footstrike. The most efficient footstrike is slightly ahead of the body on the midpoint or ball of the foot. If proper footstrike is achieved, the body loads weight onto the leg muscles at a point at which the leg is directly under the torso, reducing unnecessary stress on joints and muscular exertion.
Proper footstrike: When the foot hits the ground, the midfoot strikes first and muscular loading occurs when the leg is below the torso.
A large majority of casual runners think that by lengthening their stride (reaching their legs further in front of them on each step), they’ll be able to go faster and run more easily. While it’s true that lengthening the stride allows a person to move more quickly, it also encourages a heelstrike, seen below.
Heelstrike: The runner on the right is about to heelstrike - this means that the first part of his foot to hit the ground will be the heel. This will force loading before his leg is under him, resulting in extra stress on his knees. The runner on the left is exhibiting better form, with a fore/midfoot strike.
The runner on the left in the picture is also exhibiting another aspect of better form: knee drive and better general bodily posture. We’ll address these differences in the next post. In the meantime, work on that footstrike!