Basic Movements in Running
National Consultant - Track & Field
There are two views on running technique. One school of thought believes that proper training improves technique and no additional time needs to be spent on it. The other school of thought is that many runners do not achieve the results they should because their technique does not let them exploit their fitness to the maximum. Far too many former and current Australian coaches fall into the first category. On the other hand the great Australian coach Percy Cerutty believed that all else being equal the athlete with better technique would prevail. I agree with Cerutty and the others who say technique is important because the world record holders and the runners with a better finishing sprint are invariably the ones with the better technique*. I have also been interested to note how the equally great New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard, who originally could have been categorised as being positioned somewhere in the middle as regards technique has now emphasised its importance a lot more in his recent books.
Left: Vasala & Keino - Munich 1972. A classic photo of body position in a finishing sprint.
Editor's note: From an Australian perspective Craig Mottram is a wonderful example of correct running form. Once he learns to use his arms correctly throughout the finishing sprint he will be an Olympic Gold medal candidate
Is there such a thing as an “ideal” style? The answer is not really but faster runners do exhibit certain common “characteristics”. These relate to both the upper and lower body movement - as well as knowing how to breathe correctly.
The Head. This should be carried in the same position as when you are sitting with good posture. You watch the ground by moving your eyes down and you watch for overhanging branches when running through bush by raising the eyes. You do not move the head to any significant degree. Held too far forward it will cause your upper body to come too far forward – which will cause your butt to move backwards. Held too far backwards it will cause your upper body to arch backwards causing excessive heel strike. The only time you may move your head dramatically during a race or on a run is when you need to ‘look’ around you. Your head will be in the correct position if you can see your knees coming up - and feet pointing forward - simply by dropping your gaze. Your natural line of vision will be toward a point about three metres in front of you.
The Shoulders. The best runners move forward with very little shoulder sway. Excessive shoulder sway is probably the worst fault you can have when running and it normally occurs as a result of restricted arm movement at the elbow. Your shoulders should appear slightly rounded, not held in the military attention position. It is only in this position that your arms be fully utilised. It will be impossible for you to engage naturally in any activity (try golf, boxing, tennis etc!) with your shoulders pulled or held back. The military shoulder position will also cause a less than optimum foot plant because pulling the shoulders back also pulls the elbows in. This has the tendency to make the feet turn out! Unfortunately the military shoulder position is a common sight at any running or triathlon competition.
The Back. With the butt pushed ever so slightly forward (see Pelvis below) and upward (see Vasala/Keino photo) this should be reasonably straight. This may occur naturally or strengthening is required. A back the shape of a question mark cannot bear heavy loads!
The Arms. These should swing naturally in a relaxed manner from your shoulders. With the arms hanging naturally from slightly rounded shoulders your elbows will hang about 7.5 to 10 cm (3-4 inches) out from your body and pass by your body in that plane when running. The slower the running pace the more your arms will move across the body as their main function is stability. The faster the pace the more your arms straighten up to move parallel to the hip. In most distance races the hand will move in a line between the hip and a point virtually in front in the solar plexus. The faster the speed the greater your arm movement but while you may drive your elbow further back as the speed increases your hand should never cross the centre line of your body. The arms however are not one unit. Proper movement at the elbow will stop excessive shoulder sway (the cardinal running ‘sin’) and provide extra power to your running. Many elite runners almost appear to ‘throw’ the arm, particularly the forearm, via a ‘snap’ of the wrist*, towards the ground to initiate the ‘pulling back’ action in a manner similar to the way a swimmer changes their hand position as they catch then pull the water at the beginning of a stroke. In fact there are many similarities between the two actions, eg, you must pull the arm backward to generate forward movement. The last point in relation to the arms is that they are NEVER pushed forward on the return to the front. Rather the arm ‘gets back’ because of the rebound effect generated by the tension created in the shoulder by the pull back and the hand gets up to the correct forward position by allowing the rebound of the upper arm to cease but the momentum of the forearm to continue. This is not something that can easily be described and you will need expert advice. However the ability to avoid forward thrust of the arms is what allows the faster runners to stay relaxed and appear to float over the ground rather than to be working hard to achieve speed.
The Hands. Hold your hands in a “loosely clenched” position with the thumb resting lightly on the first knuckle joint of the first finger. When running the wrist should not break or be flopping about. This is generally the sign of a weak or tired runner. Your hands should also be carried in a position that is about 67 degrees to the vertical, not vertically or horizontally as is commonly seen, because these positions put more stress on your forearm- which is then transmitted up into your shoulders. As speed increases your hands should move forward in the 67 degree position but as they reach the most forward position they should be rotating to perhaps 35-40 degrees and by the time you have pulled the hand back to your hip your palms may be almost facing down. Your hand should then rotate back up to 67 degrees as it returns forward. Again this movement is natural to swimmers yet many triathletes do not exploit this technique when running. Done correctly there is a ‘snap’ like feeling as the hand drives the arm back which coincides with the landing of the opposite foot – and is normally felt more on the right hand to left foot combination than the reverse. Again this is not something that can easily be described and you will need expert advice.
The Pelvis. This must be aligned naturally, ie, inclined slightly upwards to allow the upper leg to move upward easily as the leg swings forward. Simply standing still and noting how high you can raise your knee when your pelvis is tilted down, held level or tilted slightly up will demonstrate this for you. This can only happen if your back is fairly straight. To be straight the muscles of the lower abdomen and back must be strong. If they are not strong strengthen them.
The Legs and Feet. Before we discuss how the legs and feet operate we need to differentiate between “ground contact” and ‘landing’. An aeroplane makes contact when the wheels touch the ground but a landing has not occurred until all the wheels are firmly on the ground and fully supporting the plane’s weight. The means the legs are merely the connection between the upper body and the feet. Correct technique requires you to “feel” for the ground with your foot in exactly the same way as a plane’s wheels ‘feel’ for the ground prior to touchdown. The best running coaches make the following points about the way the legs and feet operate.
- Toni Nett, well known (West) German sports scientist, points to the fact that all (good) runners at all distances make first contact (not ‘land’) with the ground on the outside edge of the foot. The foot will then roll inward so it is planted flat directly under the centre of gravity or as close to it as possible. This rolling action provides the ‘shock absorber’ effect. It is at this point that you have actually ‘landed’. The precise point of contact varies with the speed of running. Sprinters contact the ground on the outside edge, high on the ball, near the joints of the little toe. When running at 800m-1500m paces, the foot is planted on the outer edge of the sole at the metatarsal arch. At 1500m to marathon pace first contact is by the outside edge of the arch between the heel and the metatarsus, ie, the outer more forward edge of the heel.
- Percy Cerutty stressed that the foot should land relatively lightly (ie with minimal noise),
- Bill Bowerman said the foot, lower leg and thigh should be swept backwards at the time of landing - creating an active striking action – and that “the point of contact should be directly under the knee”.
- Dr Manfred Scholich, a (East) German scientist states the landing should be as close to the centre of mass, ie, as close to under the body in both the longitudinal (head to toe) and transverse (side to side) plane as possible, and will followed by an elastic amortization to lower the body weight on the full sole of the foot in the middle of the support phase” and that the landing must avoid the braking effects that accompany a full heel landing caused by an exaggerated forward reach of the foot. (The reader will note the many magazine photos of runners and triathletes doing this).
As Cerutty constantly said running should be a free uncomplicated movement. Before you worry about times, distances, intensities, etc, you should focus on relaxation. Practice your upper body action in front of a mirror. Seek relaxation at slow speeds before trying to run at high speed. Jog more and strain less. If you cannot run relaxed at 10 minutes per kilometre you cannot properly at 2:30 or 3:00 per km.
It is this ability remain relaxed while moving with what might be termed dynamic relaxation at all speeds that distinguishes faster athletes from slower ones. By exerting and relaxing rhythmically the blood has an easier time moving into and out of the muscle fibres during the relaxation phase which means a greater volume of blood will reach the muscle fibres. The greater the volume of blood reaching the muscles the better the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and the more efficiently waste products will be removed.
So where do we begin? First we need to practice getting the landing right. Start by jogging on the spot and ‘feeling’ the natural landing position. As long as you keep your body vertical you will stay ‘on the spot’. If you want to move forward simply push your butt forward (don’t arch your back!) so you are leaning from the heel not the waist and you will move forward (actually you will accelerate forward) naturally. Now find a straight line (ie, as on a track) and start running along it. Have someone check your landing. Your right foot should cover half the line when it lands and your left should also cover half the line on landing. If your feet are not landing in this way or your heel is ok but your toes are pointing out you are not landing under your centre of mass. If you are landing in this way the outer edge of the foot will make contact first (re-read Toni Nett’s description above) because the foot has a natural tendency to hang that way when relaxed while the backward pulling action will automatically align the foot into the correct position. The landing will also be relatively light because the foot is not landing all at once. To run along a line attempting to land flat footed would mean you actually have to extend the inner edge of the foot down! If your landing is not under, or as close as possible to under your centre of mass it will mean your body falls slightly to the left when the right foot lands and slightly to the right when your left foot lands. This means you are basically zig-zaging along the road - which is all costing time.
If you are landing correctly the foot, lower leg and thigh will have be swept backwards at the time of landing because if your landing is not active the heel will hit first and the braking effects that accompany a full heel landing will occur.
To be successful in achieving a correct landing position you will need to develop the power to be capable of applying a millisecond of downward force (remember I said some elite athletes appear to ‘throw’ their arm towards the ground?) as the lead arm is pulled backwards. The corresponding downward drive of your opposite leg then causes your body to rise. This means your foot has more time to swing back into a position directly under your body. Initially I recommend you think only of applying force with the right arm. Once the technique is mastered the left will copy this action automatically.
Landing under your body means your foot spends less time on the ground than if you land on your heel with the foot out in front of your body because you do not spend unnecessary time pulling your body forward to get into a position to push off into the next stride. More importantly if you have ever been told to “lift your knees up” or to “run tall” ignore these poorly stated directives because, as per Newton’s law, to focus on lifting the legs will cause the hips and indeed the whole upper body to drop.
By eliminating partial or worse full heel landings you will benefit in other ways as well. The first is that the muscles in the feet will be able to absorb some of the shock. If you are running barefoot, regardless of your speed, you will avoid landing heavily and squarely on your heel. Try jogging on the spot on your heels if you want to test the shock absorbency of the heels! Aside from poor technique a major reason many runners land on their heels is related to the shoes they use. Shoes that are promoted as being capable of absorbing the shock of this unnatural way of running but often, because of their thick soles, actually accentuate the problem. Unfortunately studies have shown the shock will still be transferred into the legs and the heel landing will ensure your times are slower than you could otherwise run.
According to Frank Dick (the former UK Director of Coaching and President of the European Athletics Coaches Association ) success in running (and obviously also in triathlon) starts with the feet. He states (see ‘Sports Training Principles’) “the toes may be flexed, extended, adducted and abducted in much the same way as the fingers” and “the foot is well equipped (due to its 26 bones) both in strength and mobility to adapt to any type of terrain”. He also states that “if the heel and no other part of the foot hits the ground first there is no chance for the foot to accept the initial ‘loading of momentum” (the forces inherent in the landing) and no chance for the foot to dissipate the shock because the roll of the foot is over the weak metatarsal arch area rather than over the strong ball of the foot. This means a dissipation of effort and an increased risk of injury.
To develop the necessary foot strength you should consider doing special exercises, like toe walking, and/or spending more time bare foot. If you are a triathlete you need to be more comfortable running without shoes than a runner because you have to run bare foot– sometimes for a considerable distance – during your actual race.
At this point however it is critical to state that you do not point your foot down in an attempt to land on your toes or on the ball of your foot because preventing the heel from contacting the ground as the weight is transferred during the inward rolling phase will cause excessive stress on the calves, possibly due to forward pronation, and result in shin splints.
Superior technique also ensures the calf muscles assist with shock absorption and provide propulsive power. Generally speaking the faster you run the higher you will carry yourself because you have a higher stride frequency and you will strike the ground with more force as well. This increase in stride frequency also assists you in developing a powerful “kick” finish. Conversely the slower the runner the lower they carry their hips, and naturally their body in general. The foot therefore lands ahead of the body because the runner cannot get their foot back fast enough to get it under their centre of mass. The further ahead of the body the foot hits the ground the more the foot lands on the heel and the longer the time on the ground.
It is this increased leg speed that is responsible for the continual improvement in world records. It is relatively easy to demonstrate that today’s runner do not possess greater stamina than runners of the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s or 1980’s. Rather they are faster than their predecessors. Marathon runners today have the speed of 5k and 10k runners of the past and today’s 5000m and 10,000m runners are as fast as yesterday’s middle distance runners.
If you are a slower, heel landing type of athlete you must concentrate on pushing down with your thigh for a millisecond every time you take a step. You would be advised to slow your pace to develop the concept of feeling for the landing while you are out on your easy runs. You are also advised to introduce the use of new techniques into your running in small amounts to reduce the possibility of muscle soreness.
Finally is there anyone reading this article would not like to improve their 5k, 10k or marathon times without having to train any harder and/or longer to do it? It can be done. Everything I have spoken about in this article has two major aims. They are to get you to put more force onto the ground in the time you spend on it and to reduce the time you spend on the ground. Studies of top runners show they spend less time on the ground than their slower opponents. Developing the capability to exert more force will require training but decreasing your time on the ground need not. The gains that come from reducing ground contact time can be quantified using the following examples.
Example 1. John runs 10k in 40 minutes and his stride length is 1.5 metres. This means he takes 6,667 strides. This in turn means the average time for each stride is 0.360 sec. If John could decrease this time by 0.003 sec (three one thousandths of a second) he would improve his 10k time by 20 seconds. This is a 0.83% improvement that would equal to 15 seconds for a 30 minute 10,000m runner.
Equally developing the power to improve stride length without compromising stride frequency and technique will dramatically improve your times.
Example 2. If John could improve his stride length from 1.5m to 1.51m (a 0.7% improvement) he would take only 6,625 strides to run 10k. Provided each stride remained at 0.0360 seconds he would run 10k in 39:44. For the 30 minute 10,000m runner this equates to 29:48 – a 12 second benefit.
If John could improve stride frequency by .003 seconds and stride length by 0.01 metre he would improve his 10k time by a total of 36 seconds and a 30 minute 10,000m runner would improve by 27 seconds!
This paper was presented to coaches at the IAAF Regional Development Level I Course in Nairobi, Kenya in 1991 and updated for the IAAF Regional Development Level II Course in Nairobi, Kenya in 2002 and 2003. Other papers of a similar nature may be found at http://eps.rccbs.com and www.benson.com.au
Tony Benson was an 1972 Olympic 5000m runner and the Head Coach of the 1992 Olympic Track & Field Team who has coached athletes to Olympic, Commonwealth and World Championship level while the EPS team he directs has coached triathletes, including Sean Foster (below) & duathletes to World Championship level. A Level 3 Run & Triathlon coach and an International Amateur Athletic Federation lecturer he has recently returned from Kenya where he directed the first All Africa Level 2 Middle & Long Distance course for coaches from English speaking African nations. With a 10k road time of 27:37 and a world 5th ranking in 1971 Tony remains the last Australian to win a distance event at a Grand Prix race in Europe.