Coach's Corner by: Caroline Bailey, PhD
What Kind of Runner Are You?
New Year always seems to be a time of reflection, contemplation and resolution. With this in mind, I thought I would start the year, encouraging all you fabulous Byron Bay Runners to get back to basics and review your running style, to boost your chances of an injury-free year and improved performance. If you are contemplating stepping up to a longer distance (to a half- or full marathon), you need to become aware of your current running style; nobody is perfect and increased mileage puts form flaws under pressure. If uncorrected, you are likely to become injured.
As we are all unique beings, it is true that everyone has their own individual running style. However, there are certain agreed principles established by exercise physiologists, physiotherapists, and other sports scientists as to what constitutes good running style: there are more similarities between good runners’ styles than differences. Also referred to as ‘running form’ or ‘economy’ , an efficient running style produces the maximum amount of speed using the least amount of energy, and involves all parts of your body (not just your legs). Start looking at people running and you will soon see huge differences in ways people move. Over the years, I’ve developed a personal taxonomy of different running styles; here are three of my favourites:
Often seen mid-pack in a fun-run, the Shuffler is characterised by low knee- and heel lift, appearing to move forward as a result of supernatural forces, rather than any personal effort. Often the Shuffler has developed this style as a result of years of jogging long distances at an easy pace, and/or possibly lack of stretching resulting in tightness and poor flexibility through the hips, quadriceps and hamstrings. Sometimes mistaken from a distance as speed-walkers, Shufflers can reach surprisingly high speeds. They often understride (have a short stride, with their leading foot landing just behind the line of their hip), but a high stride rate (i.e. lots of little fast steps). Although unlikely to be heel-strikers and safe from the joint injuries seen in over-striders, typically Shufflers are expending unnecessary energy in their stride rate, when they really need to put more effort into each stride.
How to Improve: include hill runs/repeats to work on leg strength; introduce a stretching and strengthening regime – cross-train with cycling, pilates, yoga or surfing to improve leg strength and flexibility.
These runners are everything a Shuffler is not. Typically seen in the young and uninjured, often a Bounder will pass you early on in the first part of a race, leaping energetically from foot to foot, with all the panache of a Russian highjumper. Bounders have high knee lift showing impressive quadricep strength and flexibility through their hamstrings and hips. In the extreme, they run like an astronaut, defying gravity, almost grazing their chin with their knees on each step. However, they expend more energy going up than along, and are soon caught by the rest of the pack. What’s more, the Bounder is often also an over-strider (where the landing foot extends in front of the body on landing, rather than in line with the hip) and will crash land from their stratospheric heights onto their heels, putting themselves at high risk of injury. Bounders are often noisy runners (with a stompy or slappy footstrike) and may find running downhill quite painful (as it further increases the impact of their already heavy landing). All-in-all they look great to the uninitiated, but in reality, are often caught up and overtaken by the old skinny Shuffling guy (see above).
How to Improve: try some barefoot sessions which will help lighten footfall, and encourage a mid- to forefoot landing (which you are more likely to place under your hip, rather than overstriding). Work on increasing stride rate (cadence) rather than stride length when running fast. Run with music that is 180bpm to be at the correct cadence (regardless of how fast you run) or aim for an ideal of 90 steps with your right (or left) foot, per minute.
The Wobbler is an amazing runner to watch, as they appear to move in many directions at the same time. Being a Wobbler has nothing to do with dress size, but instead how much sideways movement and roll there is through the shoulders, arms and upper body. Exercise Physiologists say that when running, we should think of our arms and legs as four cogs in a linked system. To move efficiently, we need to keep any body part not used to propel us forward (e.g. head, shoulders, body) as still as possible. This means engaging core muscles in the stomach and back, and counterbalancing movement in one limb (e.g. left leg) with equal action in the opposing limb (e.g. right arm). If we don’t, the system will spin out of control (resulting in a jiggly body) and energy will be wasted moving sideways, rather than forwards. In practice, this means not running like Salty the Sailor with elbows sticking out and arms swinging across, rather than beside the body – nor doing impressions of Stevie Wonder (back in the 80’s kids!) with a nodding head or gyrating body.
How to Improve: learn to love to plank! Work on improving core strength and co-ordination through pilates and plyometric exercises. Make a conscious effort to check the way your arms and upper body are moving when you get tired. Stand tall when you run, bringing your chest up (but chin in) and shoulders square; if you round your shoulders when you run, you are immediately relaxing core muscles (and squashing your lungs, thereby reducing your oxygen intake).
In conclusion, small changes in your running style can make huge differences in reducing your risk of injury and likelihood of improving performance (speed and endurance). Over the next few weeks, track sessions will include form drills and exercises that will help you check your own running style, as well as give you a chance to observe others. If anyone is interested in a free individual analysis of their running style, please let me know (Byronrunner@rocketmail.com), as I’m currently studying Gait Analysis (and would love some human guinea pigs to film and evaluate).
See you at the track!