Part 1 – Why Change a Runner’s Form?

Anyone in the sport of distance running is constantly looking for ways to improve running performance. But what is the best way to improve performance? We have known physiological factors that are determinants of running performance: Maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), lactate threshold, and running economy.1,2,3,4 Of these factors, you’ll hear most coaches talk about the first two when writing and describing workouts to their athletes. Coaches usually prescribe workouts to increase the VO2max of their athlete. VO2max refers to the maximum amount, or volume, of oxygen an individual can consume per minute. With distance running being primarily an aerobic event, one’s ability to maximally utilize oxygen consumption is crucial in improving performance. Another factor mentioned above that is important for distance running is an athlete’s ability to work off “lactic acid” while running hard (which relates to the lactate threshold). I put “lactic acid” in parenthesis because coaches often use different language to describe the same phenomenon and from a physiological standpoint, to put it lightly, there are more proper ways to describe this phenomenon. Regardless, “lactic acid” is what you will frequently hear coaches say when prescribing lactate threshold or “tempo” workouts to their athletes. Lactate threshold refers to the intensity at which lactate levels begin to rise because an athlete is not able to “clear” lactate from muscles at the same rate by which it is being produced. As the body produces lactate, that it is unable to “clear”, muscles will have a hard time functioning properly. All of this is to say that increasing an athlete’s lactate threshold, or for an athlete to have a higher threshold, speaks well to the ability of the athlete to perform at a higher level. The third determinant mentioned above should not be overlooked, as running economy (RE) is actually a better predictor of performance than VO2max.5 Runners with a better RE use less energy running at submaximal velocities than those with worse RE.

There are both physiological and biomechanical factors that are known to influence running economy. As coaches and athletes look to improve running performance, it is important to explore all potential avenues that could lead to an improvement in the determinants of running performance mentioned above. Specifically, in this blog, I want to delve into the ways coaches and athletes can work together to improve a runner’s RE in an effective and simplistic manor. Increasing the quantity of mileage run and the quality of workouts over time are emphasized in any good training program and this is one proposed method for improving RE. Most programs also place an emphasis on strength & conditioning, running drills, and plyometric work which can all improves RE.6 Even though running at a high level is reliant on skillful movement in which each kinematic factor has a specific purpose and function, truly breaking down a runner’s biomechanics and working towards a more skillful movement pattern is often neglected in distance running programs.7

From a coaching perspective, having an athlete improve running performance at a faster rate without having to increase work (i.e., more miles or greater intensity during workouts) would be very beneficial to the athlete. A coach and athlete are always working together to find the line between “putting in too much work” and “not putting in as much work as we could be.” So we should assume that all the things a runner can be doing to improve their RE, from a physiological standpoint (mileage, intensity, strength work, diet, sleep, etc.), are already being explored. If this is true, then in order to improve RE at a more substantial rate a runner will need to explore other options. Paying attention to running mechanics may be an important place to start when trying to improve RE. Changing the biomechanics of an athlete can be an incredibly effective way to improve the athlete’s running performance without putting any more physical stress on their body. In many cases, it may actually put less physical stress on a runner to improve certain kinematic variables. By this point, the question, “Why change a runner’s form?” should be coming to light. Determining what, how and when to alter a certain movement is the next step in a biomechanical approach to coaching distance runners. Researchers have investigated which biomechanical factors affect running economy, quite thoroughly.5,8

Applied biomechanist, and assistant professor in the kinesiology department at California State University, Chico, Dr. Melissa Mache, works with students on establishing the answers to 3 fundamental questions in the world of biomechanics: 1. How do people move? 2. How do better people move? And finally, 3. How do people move better? How better people move, and specifically, how elite runners run, should be the ground work for a coach in establishing what a coach and athlete would like to change. Knowing how and when to bridge the gap between where a runner’s movement patterns are and where they want to be may require a coach to have some background knowledge and/or conduct research into good running mechanics. Once a coach and an athlete have established exactly what they want to fix, putting into action the best way to change the movement can be the most difficult part. What an athlete thinks they are doing and what they are actually doing, more often than not, are two very different things. At present the development of specific interventions to change a runner’s technique have not been extensively investigated or well documented within the literature. However, there have been interventions that improve certain kinematic variables such as increased stride rate and reduction in vertical oscillation of the center of mass (CoM) through Pose® running method.9,10,11 Other interventions in the literature have addressed running mechanics among young or novice athletes.12,13 Some of this research suggests that a visual and verbal feedback intervention can be an effective means of eliciting modifications in running technique. At present it seems there is ample information, both evidence-based from relevant literature and anecdotal from coaches and athletes, to attempt to develop and implement a system for improving running mechanics.

That being said, I am currently a master’s student in Kinesiology at California State University, Chico. My course of study has allowed me to place an emphasis on learning in the sub-disciplines of Biomechanics and Strength & Conditioning. I am also in my third year as an assistant coach for the cross country team here at Chico which provides the opportunity to work with athletes on their running biomechanics on a weekly basis. Chico State’s cross country team has established themselves over the past couple of decades as one of the best teams in the NCAA Division II. Throughout the past 13 years, the Chico men and women cross country teams have won 10 Championship trophies (top 4 teams in the nation earn these) and have only been outside of the top 10 teams in the nation 3 times between both genders in the last 17 years (once on the men’s side and twice on the women’s side). The standards at which we are able to allow people on the team subsequently require all incoming athletes to have fairly elite talent at the high school level as well.  Thus, I am blessed to work with very elite Division II cross country runners who compete at a national level every year. Throughout the Fall 2016 cross country season I have been and will continue to use a structured verbal and visual feedback system in order to elicit better running technique and hopefully improve RE among our runners. The system I have been implementing is heavily based in some of the evidence from both physiological and biomechanical literature that I previously cited.

In coming blogs I will shed light on the specific feedback I have provided (and continue to use) to help our athletes at Chico State. Furthermore, I will also offer explanation of how that feedback was provided. It is my hope that this blog will be useful to coaches at all levels of competition and runners of all abilities. I am excited to talk about the intricacies of this intervention as well as monitor its effectiveness in eliciting changes. It is likely that this blog will result in the discussion of many successes and even a few failures. It is my hope that both my successes and failures will prove valuable to those who wish to improve their own running or the running of others.

 

References

  1. Conley, D. L., & Krahenbuhl, G. S. (1980). Running economy and distance running performance of highly trained athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 12(5), 357-360.
  2. Ferri, A., Adamo, S., La Torre, A., Marzorati, M., Bishop, D. J., & Miserocchi, G. (2012). Determinants of performance in 1,500-m runners. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 112(8), 3033-3043.
  3. Foster, C. (1983). VO2 max and training indices as determinants of competitive running performance. Journal of Sports Science, 1(1), 13-22.
  4. Morgan D. W., Baldini, F. D., Martin, P. E., & Kohrt. W. M. (1989). Ten kilometer performance and predicted velocity at VO2max among well-trained male runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 21(1), 78-83
  5. Saunders, P. U., Pyne, D. B., Telford, R. D., & Hawley, J A. (2004). Factors affecting running economy in trained distance runners. Sports Medicine, 34(7), 465-485.
  6. Millet, G. P., Jaouen, B., Borrani, F., & Candau, R. (2002). Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and .VO(2) kinetics. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(8), 1351-1359.
  7. Anderson, T. (1996). Biomechanics and running economy. Sports Medicine, 22(2), 76-89.
  8. Kyrolainen, H., Belli, A., & Komi, P. V. (2001). Biomechanical factors affecting running economy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33(8), 1330-1337.
  9. Arendse, R. E., Noakes, T. D., Azevedo, L. B., Romanov, N., Schwellnus, M. P., & Fletcher, G. J. (2004). Reduced eccentric loading of the knee with the Pose Running Method, Medicine Science in Sport and Exercise, 36(2), 272-277.
  10. Dallam, G. M., Wilber, R. L., Jadelis, K., Fetcher, G. J., & Romanov, N. (2005). Effect of a global alteration of running technique on kinematics and economy. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23(7), 757-764.
  11. Fetcher, G., Romanov, N., & Bartlett, R. (2008). Pose® method technique improves running performance without economy changes. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 3(3), 365-380.
  12. Messier, S. P., & Cirillo, K. J. (1989). Effects of a verbal and visual feedback system on running technique, perceived exertion and running economy in female novice runners. Journal of Sports Sciences, 7(2), 113-126.
  13. Petray, C. K., & Krahenbuhl, G. S. (1985). Running training, instruction on running technique, and running economy in 10-year old males. Research Quarterly in Exercise and Sports, 56(3), 251-255.
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15 thoughts on “Part 1 – Why Change a Runner’s Form?

  1. This was a very interesting and enjoyable post to read. I am a recreational runner, as well as an undergraduate student at CSUC. I am currently enrolled in Dr. Mache’s Kinesiology 322 course, and it has definitely shown me how a good understanding of the biomechanical differences between experienced and inexperienced movers is key in the process of coaches prescribing beneficial training programs. Prior to reading your blog post I had not heard of the Pose running method, and I took the opportunity to do a little research on its three elements of pose-fall-pull. When I compare that to the form that I typically have in my recreational running, I think that I have probably adopted a form that relies heavily on muscular effort, rather than the reliance on gravity that is suggested by the Pose method. A professor of mine once stated that the best way to get an athlete to change the way they are performing a movement is give them correct components to add to their movement, rather than telling them to stop something they are already doing. In your analysis and coaching of cross-country runners have you found that to be true?

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    1. Adam, Thanks so much for the feedback! I’m glad you were able to synthesize some of this information and do a little digging of your own. I like what your professor had to say about adding correct components to their movement. Rather than telling an athlete what not to do, I am a big fan of encouraging better mechanics. I find that when an athlete adopts a better technique, the less efficient movements tend to go away. So, to answer your question, I have found this method of analysis and implementation to be true and fairly effective when working with runners. Happy Running!

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  2. VO2 Max is a fantastic measurement of aerobic capacity, especially when normalized against body weight to compare across different body compositions and builds of athletes. While coaches certainly do want to encourage their athletes to raise their VO2 Max, my understanding of the metric is it only fluctuates within a margin for each individual. I have heard different numbers, some say 20% improvement, but that is not a hard and fast cut off by any means I am sure you’d agree. The fact different individuals start at different abilities makes athletics seem like it is part of the genetic lottery, but that is where biomechanics assessment, analysis, revision, and application play a steering roll. With regards to running since it is a repetitive movement usually done over long periods of time, form is determining factor in athletic performance. For example, if a runner mindfully increases flexion in the knee as the posterior leg swings forward, thereby increasing compactness and efficiency, that runner may outperform a runner with genetic gold simply due to a more energy efficient movement. Additionally, training over long periods of time can allow mitochondria to become more affluent in the muscle and thereby once again overcome genetics within a margin. At any rate, the attention to form and mechanics that you speak of is already the frame of strength and conditioning and physical therapy, so certainly reinforcing the mechanics of a proper gait and various facets of running that are often overlooked; some of these might include the slight forward lean seen in many distance runners that is then exaggerated in speed runners and the slight knee flexion upon foot strike that allows for eccentric cushioning of the knee and hip joints. I certainly believe that a coach who is not emphasizing these facets of proper alignment and practice is not spearheading the full potential of their athletes and it is coaches like yourself who can apply our current understanding of the body in motion that can make a difference in the way we train athletes. Fantastic article, well written, and very scholastically informative.

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    1. Jake, thanks so much for your insight and take on the world of running and mechanical work! It sounds like you have a pretty good grasp on many physiological and biomechanical constructs. I particularly like what you had to say about mechanical efficiency and, essentially, work ethic, allowing a less talented athlete to close the gap on those with more endowed genetics. Glad you enjoyed the article!

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  3. I am currently a student in Kine 322 as well and I think that this is a very interesting topic. I looked at the blog entry more from the point of a future coach and physical educator. I think that all three of the methods are a great way to make sure that I am getting the most effective movements of my players and students. I think this is especially important because in my opinion the hardest part of teaching or coaching is teaching to all skill levels . When you use these three methods to assess your students room for improvement these methods even the playing field for less skilled students. Unless they are perfect which no one is they will have something to improve on and using these methods we will be able break down their movements to determine exactly what they can do to improve.

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  4. Very interesting read and very in line with the way I have coached athletes in the past. What you refer to as running economy can translate into any sport as movement economy. Being that I am a usually a coach of football the mechanics and critiques are different but consist of the same core concept of movement economy and like you said movement economy in other sports is a much better test of performance than VO2 max. I have coached many levels of my sport and have seen many young athletes that naturally have good economy of movement and don’t spend energy on unneeded movements and I have also seen elite athletes have poor movement economy. As a coach of youth I have always worked to teach the best way to move so they learn when they are young and can continue it throughout their careers. I am a firm believer in training the correct and best way to move at the youngest levels as it is harder to change when they get older and movement becomes more muscle memory but as Adam Voss had said in his comment, which I have practiced myself, giving the right components to those who are practicing poor movement economy. I have had a hard time coaching older athletes that have poor movement economy because I did not know the best way to approach the situation. Adam’s comment gave me some idea’s to better my coaching ability in the future but I am wondering if there are other tools you use to help create better movement economy with you high level college athletes?

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  5. I am a student at Chico State and this blog was very informative and helpful to me in analyzing what it means to be a good runner. I myself am not very skilled at long distance and I understand there is many factors involved in running proficiently. Great Post! keep up the good work!

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  6. I am currently a recreational runner/athlete that is enrolled in Dr. Mache’s KINE 322 course. From the day that I started playing sports competitively I have always asked myself questions on how I can become faster, quicker, and have more endurance. Coaches and teammates have always just told me to condition more and focus more on physiological factors like diet, sleep, increasing strength, and overall VO2. Never was my movement questioned and told to focus on increasing stride length through the Pose method or change my movement in any form. Now that I am more of a recreational athlete/runner this article can help me in focusing to improve my overall running economy and understanding how changing my movement can help me from a biomechanical prospective. As I’ve tried to modify my running technique I have noticed that visual feedback and watching myself run and perform certain movements has been an effective approach to help me improve significantly. Being able to focus on certain aspects of a movement and being able to break them down in order to find imperfections and improvements is one of my favorite aspects of visual feedback.

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  7. As an athlete under Coach Sean Smith on the Chico State Cross Country and Track & Field teams, I found this information especially interesting. I obviously want to improve my form and run faster to help my team do as well as possible, but I didn’t know that running economy was a better predictor of overall performance than VO2 max (and I’m an exercise physiology major). I’ve done a fair amount of running form evaluation with Coach Sean over the past few years and I’m pleased with the results. I’ve certainly noticed that specifically for me, tucking my hips forward, keeping my hands up a little higher, and driving my foot down when it’s directly under me have allowed me to make significant improvements in my racing performance. Additionally, these modifications have aided my body in avoiding injury, which is something I’ve unfortunately, repeatedly struggled with during my tenure with the Chico State distance program.

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  8. This was a very informational and enjoyable blog to read. I am currently an undergrad at California State University, Chico working towards my Bachelors of Science degree in Exercise Physiology. I am presently in Dr. Mache’s Kine 322 class, which has helped me to better understand physiological and biomechanical factors of a mover’s movement. Being a recreational runner I have never tried to increase my running time or distance, I just run for the simple enjoyment. However, after reading this blog I am interested to test out the ‘how do better people move’ method and see if improvement occurs in my own movement patterns. In your blog you mentioned, “other interventions in the literature have addressed running mechanics among young or novice athletes.” What age range are they referring to and did they use other interventions on them because of their age or skill level?

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  9. Sean if you’re reading this: Why didn’t you tell me about this blog!? I’ve been wanting to look at your research and everything for the longest time. That aside, due to being an athlete under Gary Towne and Sean, I’ve been able to learn about and experience the benefits of modifying my running form. I experienced aggressive back pain and back spasms for 2 years before coming to Chico State. Sean’s form analysis helped with alleviating this pain. Bringing my knees forward, keeping my hips under me, and activating my gluts more made the back pain disappear. A lot on the Cross Country team has been accomplished thanks to Sean and there’s a lot more work to be done with him in the future. I enjoyed reading this as it’s easy to understand for competitive runners as well as recreational ones. Nobody ever talks about adjusting running form, or any sort of mechanical change no matter what sport. Coaches and athletes always talk about eating better, sleeping more, and stretching will help your performance. Knowing that adjusting your running form can help prevent injury, improve energy conservation, and overall performance are just some of the things this blog captivates.

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  10. I am currently a student in Melissa Mache’s biomechanics class. This article was a very interesting read for me. I had never before heard of the phrase ‘running economy’, and was instantly intrigued by the new terminology. The concept is familiar to me though, and is something that I have used when coaching baseball. I guess I haven’t exactly used running economy, but I like how Elliot termed it ‘movement economy’ in other sports. As a baseball coach of young kids (ages 4-7) I have found that the best way to change a movement pattern is to teach the correct one by showing through example. When I am teaching a 4 year old how to throw a baseball, I have found that it is more effective to show them the step, point, throw method rather than telling them that the way they are currently trying to do it is wrong. The way I have seen what you are describing as ‘running economy’ translate into other sports has been very effective, so I am curious to read your other articles and see how your implementation ends up. This article is relevant in my life because my brother is a cross country runner. I have shared this blog with him and I am eager to hear what he thinks of it!

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  11. My name is MJ Calzadilla and I am currently taking Kine 322 with Melissa Mache’s. In biomechanics we’ve discussed the topic of compactness and how the the more compact a segment is to the axis of rotation the greater the amount of angular motion can be produced.This is something I consciously think about as I go on my runs ( I run about three times a week), I normally run the bleachers here at Chico State as I wish to be more explosive for sports like basketball and I have noticed that when I run for a long period of time I tend to lean forward and not flex my hip enough. I noticed this and now I understand the mechanism behind my current running technique. I’m definitely going to start focusing on my technique starting from the upper body downward to my legs. I figure that way I can slowly incorporate the changes necessary to increase the amount of knee flexion over time. I am definitely a beginner when it comes to running eventually I want to be a fast sprinter like I use to be use this to my advantage when I play sports. I am also a future PE teacher so I look forward to looking out fort the running techniques students have that can use some work on. I currently coach middle school basketball and volleyball along with youth sports once I get my own technique down and I look forward to improving the performance in my athletes.

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  12. Nice read! I think this blog can not only help runners improve their running technique and efficiency but also encourage people who dislike running to get moving. I myself am not particularly fond of the idea of running, but if I can learn a way to make it “easier” and more efficient then I’d surely want to do it. We’re never taught how to run; as kids we just get to one place to another on the playground as fast as we can and that is what sticks. Improper technique could be taxiing on the body or cause injury. It could even be enough for people to get embarrassed enough not to run. Perfect running form could get even more people running! As a Kine322 student I’m interested to read how compactness and extension of contact play a role in the process.

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  13. As an undergraduate at CSU Chico currently enrolled a Biomechanics course, I found this blog both interesting and applicable. I appreciate the information you provide on body alignment. As you explain, it is important for the runner to keep their head situated directly over their shoulders, with their chin up. This is an aspect of proper technique that I often fail to achieve. I tend to lean forward when running. As a result, my head tends to move forward and my chin starts to tuck downward. However, I can achieve improved technique if I work to keep my head positioned over my shoulders. Interestingly, by achieving this, I will also allow for a more relaxed passage way which will lead to improved breathing technique. I also found the discussion on compactness extremely applicable, as this is another aspect of my running form I can work to improve. I tend to engage in unnecessary arm swing when I run, failing to keep them between 45 to 90 degree angles. While I am not a competitive runner, I do incorporate running into my normal workout routine. Because of this, it is important for me to work to improve my technique and find new, useful ways to run more economically.

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