By: Sean Smith
This blog post is going to be very anecdotal since interventions to runner’s biomechanics have scarcely been investigated, thus, methodology for incorporating form work into running programs has not been investigated at all. I have had the privilege of not only working with the national level athletes at Chico State, but also of watching great coaches (with backgrounds in kinesiology and form analysis) work with many other athletes at a variety of levels: high school, collegiate, and professional. The following methods stem from a culmination of my own experience in working with my athletes and observations of other coaches working with athletes.
When analyzing a runner’s form, I have found it most appropriate to give up to 3 techniques to work on over the course of a month or two. Although an athlete might have more things to work on, trying to process and keep track of too many critiques at once may be too large a task to tackle. Working on some of the larger issues or more prominent ones have been the focus of analysis in working with my athletes.
Although every athlete is different, a typical order of assessment would first look at the athlete’s alignment and coordination pattern (suggestions depicted in part 2 of this series). At a fundamental level, these are essential to having a powerful and efficient stride. In essence, running aims at putting force into the ground, in the right direction, in a (hopefully) short period of time, repeatedly. Being able to streamline this force through a body that is vertically aligned with a powerful coordination pattern is a good technique to develop right off the bat. There are usually running mechanics in the realm of alignment and coordination that an athlete will be able to work on, so typically one of the 2 or 3 pieces of feedback that I provide relates to these variables. The second technique that I evaluate involves creating a relaxed passageway for oxygen to flow, and to a large extent, not wasting blood flow to undesired tension in the upper body (tips for achieving this relaxed passageway were addressed in part 3 of this series). If the athlete has unfavorable running mechanics in this realm, working on shoulder posture and tightness in the neck and face is valuable. The third thing I look at is the level of compactness and extension seen throughout their stride in both the arms and the legs (Also discussed in part 3). In my experience, it is easier to work on the upper body first and lower body second. This may seem strange for readers thinking, “the lower body should be focused on first because it is performing more work.” In my experience, it seems that athletes are able to consciously control what their arms are doing more easily than their legs. Perhaps this is because their arms are not load-bearing, while the legs are. That’s not to say that other running coaches haven’t had different experiences, some athletes might have no problem increasing compactness and extension in the lower body during certain parts of their stride. Compactness and extension of the legs is not something I avoid working on with athletes at all, but if there are some easy-to-fix kinematics in the arms that an athlete can work on I typically start here. One of the last things I will look at is transverse and sagittal action. I usually save this one for last because much of the feedback related to coordination and alignment often increase sagittal action and decrease transverse action without having to directly assess these issues. There are probably many examples of this, but I will mention one that a coaching mentor of mine, well versed in biomechanics, described to me. If an athlete has too sequential of a coordination pattern, transverse action in the upper body is likely to occur. The moment push off occurs, the opposite arm is flexed at the shoulder joint sufficiently, and should begin extension as the lead leg begins extending at the hip joint. Instead, extension of the lead leg, and flexion of the trail leg at the hip joint pause as knee joint action begins (sequential coordination pattern). If this happens, the arms may begin crossing midline (lead arm) and possibly flare out laterally (trail arm) while they wait for hip action to begin. The arms and upper body’s main purpose while running is to counterbalance what the legs are doing. Although that example might have been wordy, it has stuck with me and is a great example of the holistic effect that coordination can have on an athlete’s form.
I believe the order in which I analyze running form and provide feedback to athletes is important, but the way they incorporate the feedback into their training is perhaps equally important. Chico State’s 110m high hurdler school record holder told me last year, “Everything in moderation, even moderation itself.” Though this comment was in the midst of a discussion about food, it is valuable advice in many contexts and absolutely pertains to changing running technique. Having runners begin to incorporate feedback on their running form should be done slowly, especially if they have poor technique and have not worked on it before. Working on kinematics too hard, too fast, and too soon can do more harm than good and even result in injury. I advise athletes to focus on form during all strides (100 to 200 meters at a tempo which takes them through a full range of motion; typically 1500 to 5000 meter intensity) and during one aerobic run each week, initially. Once they feel comfortable with this, and their body is slightly more accustomed to the new biomechanics, adding another aerobic run each week as well as portions of workouts (first third or half), during which they are working mechanical changes, may be appropriate. The first workouts where I feel an athlete can really take advantage of working on their form is during tempo (or threshold) runs. The pace is fast enough to require efficient and economical mechanics but not so fast that they have trouble focusing on technique due to processing the pain of the given intensity. Once the kinematics have been adopted or learned and the athlete has gained the muscular endurance required to use them, focusing on them in faster paced intervals and races may be appropriate. Ideally, the frequency of how often an athlete incorporates ideas into training should gradually increase, there are some forms of feedback that aren’t meant to be worked on during certain efforts. For example, working on getting the heel close to the butt as it cycles through the swing phase would not be appropriate to work on during a recovery run. An athlete would probably appear to be doing a high-knee drill while moving at 7 or 8 minute pace, and their hip flexors would likely be over-worked. However, postural and alignment form work during easy runs would be reasonable. Providing athletes with an appropriate way to incorporate the new technique, moderately and safely is always coupled with the actual feedback.
In the same way each runner’s stride is unique, their minds are, too. Every athlete learns differently. The importance of being able to connect with the athlete and help them see how to adopt new technique has been mentioned throughout this series. Some may hear advice and understand quickly the changes they need to make and then physically adapt. Others may need to be shown, video or need to see a physical demonstration. I can almost guarantee that a number of athlete’s will benefit from physically going through the motions themselves whether that be in a drill or in a stride immediately following the feedback. The great coaches I have seen work with athletes on form have been able to make this connection with their runner, that is, they learn to form a feedback that works best for each of their runners. Although there are certain kinematics we strive for in general, being able to attend to each unique situation and understand that certain techniques may work differently depending on the athlete is something I try to take into account. Regardless, running is a movement and more importantly a skill, which can be learned. Having the tools to provide appropriate and valuable feedback to enhance running technique is a key ingredient in a biomechanical approach to coaching distance runners.