While catching a breather after the Bleep Test, our Welsh running instructor soaked up a few compliments from the ladies before moving on to talking about running form.
He started out by echoing John Murphy, my physiotherapist’s, sentiments on the topic: “I do not want to change your running style as every person has individual differences and you cannot predict what unintended side-effects you introduce when you are trying to adapt to a specific type of running such as POSE or Chi.”
Being a runner who has fiddled in this area and suffered unintended consequences (inflamed metatarsals for one), I nodded in agreement and remembered sitting in John’s treatment room when he took some of the sheen of the ChiRunning I had dabbled in back in 2007 and 2008 explaining how the knee injuries might go only to be soon replaced by calf and Achilles injuries.
When you change your running style, you change the load. If you change your style incorrectly, the effects can be catastrophic (shifting the load to muscles not designed for running); if you change it right, the effects can still be negative (shifting the load to muscles not conditioned for the “right style”).
“There may not be a right or a wrong running style,” our teacher continued, “but its proven that a forefoot to mid-foot strike reduces ground contact-time and thus is a faster running style”. Well, we’re all interested in speed.
“Striking the ground fore to mid-foot, requires strong and flexible ankles, so while I can’t teach you a different running style, I can show you how to strengthen your ankles and how to practice forefoot landing.” This was a brilliant approach: Often the failure in running form is not technique but muscular fatigue. The longer your muscles work optimally, the longer you can keep strong form such as high knee lift etc.
Our first drill was one I have employed as a warm-up exercise in the Hill Circuits: Walking on your toes feeling tall, but our instructor introduced the useful focus to of pulling your stomach towards your spine as you do it. This advice permeated so many of the classes we did: the yoga, the Pilates, the back class and indeed Lydiard wrote about it thirty years ago when he spotted runners slowing themselves down by “sticking their bum out”. Well sticking your bum out is what happens when you try to lean forward but curve your back inwards and our teacher just told us how to avoid it.
Then we nicely progressed through ever more challenging drills moving on to “quick fore-feet tapping” which does feel a lot like tap-dancing, only that you are moving forward. This drill was very enjoyable and easy to absorb and one I could see fitting the warm-up for the hill drills perfectly (Lydiard’s hill drills have as one of their main objectives to strengthen and extend the calf muscles, so this drill complements it well). Even better, it’s the sort of drill you can take home and do anywhere and anytime.
Next we had to jump twice on the left foot and twice on the right foot while landing on the forefoot all the while keeping a running action with the arms. At this point the teacher pointed out when our “non-jumping” foot lifted higher than midway above the shin. In long distance running, movement further up than this is wasteful (you are running “vertical kilometres” in addition to your horizontal) and this drill can help you ingrain a lower lift of your airborne foot during running.
In the end, we were left to jog slowly down the track in our normal style and then, once hitting a certain point, shift over to the “new” front-foot style. The results were remarkable: The sound of foot striking the ground almost disappeared.
Very impressed, I asked the instructor for more information and he was kind enough to leave me a letter with instructions on the drills and comments in the Sports Booking. It will see good use in the coming year…