DIARY: The man who would not bend (his knees)

The two greatest technical bugbears left for me to slay on my journey has been the remnants of two powerful habits:

  • Keeping stiff knees
  • Pushing off with a straight knee (you’ll notice they are related)

My lack of “trust in my knees” was one of the first trademark features of my old running stride that Tony Riddle identified when my technical journey began. It seems like a lifetime ago and in some ways it is.

This weekend I had to rush downhill outside Brockagh to join our group of “Masters of Running” trainees (I managed traffic while Jason recorded the uphill/downhill footage).

Afterwards, I looked over the footage and felt like shooting the breeze on about some personal observations – not so much with my usual “coaching hat” on but with my “runner hat” – some personal excitement about progress made. That said, the video illustrates some key principles of running biomechanics that readers may find helpful.

An “honest” video

The footage I looked at was“more honest” than some online footage you will find on running technique insofar as I did not have any preparation and I am wearing inappropriate footwear for the hard tarmac slope I am running on (the VivoBarefoot Breatho, a trail shoe that has more than 3mm of sole – and thus delays the sensory input I received from the ground during this shoot).

Had I been wearing a more appropriate shoe, such as the VivoBarefoot Stealth or Aqua Lites (3mm of sole only) or had I been barefoot, technique would have been further improved and my ground contact time would have been shorter as I would not have needed as much time to compress the rubber under my foot. Let’s have a look at some stills. This will be a low-brow, not academic, view at running style, so if you are a biomechanist or other expert, please forgive some simplifications here.

The bending of the knees

The image that really put a smile on my face was a still-shot of your truly while I am in the air (the so-called “flight” phase of running). The perfectionist coach, including the one in my head, will point out a slightly excessive upper body rotation, somewhat tensed shoulders and visible muscle tension in the lower legs (which should be relaxed during the flight phase). But let’s have a look back to my starting point:


On the left is a sprint finish photo taken in 2008 showing during a cross-country race (Dublin Novice) – notice a completely stiff knee and a massive heel-strike. The photo on the left shows that I was quite happy to use this technique on rocky descent at full race speed (this photo taken on the infamous “Boneshaker” during the Fairy Chase race in 2009).











This propensity for “stiff-leggedness” reared its ugly head even after technical correction – notice on the next photo below, taken during a hill session in my back garden how a tendency to “rear back like a horse” here results in another landing on an almost fully locked knee ahead of my centre of mass (in layman’s terms just “my body”).

Now let’s look at what happens after the first image which caused me to conclude that definitive improvements are happening. I touch the ground in the frame below (there is no weight on my leg yet, only contact with the ground). The distance between my centre of mass (here shown to run through my hip bone through my chest to my head) and the point of first contact is a strong indication of how quickly I will be able to get on and off the ground. This frame can be further improved, especially with a stronger knee bend but it’s by no means shabby.


From the point of contact I spend a further 5 frames (each frame being 1.6 milliseconds) to get into what is referred to as “The Pose” in the Pose Method invented by dr Nicholas Romanov. The pose is a position of maximum potential energy – now sometimes referred to as the “springness position” – and it occurs just as the centre of mass (the majority of your body-weight) passes over your point of support (in this case the leg on the ground) and unweights the point of support.

Going back a few frames: during the frames between the first touch (shown earlier) and “the pose” my bodyweight settles over my support leg. These frames are known as “frames on support”. I spend 3-4 frames with the leg definitely “weighted” in this footage – or 5 to 6 1/3 milliseconds.


Caveat: The green line on the left is probably more straight than it appears because my reference point for drawing it (the ground) is sloping downward, although it appears flat to the naked eye. As with everything in this article I’m simplifying to illustrate general points rather than slowing down the narrative for absolute precision.

Notice what happens next. In the photo on the left my heel has just begun lifting off the ground again, signifying that my body weight has moved ahead of the support leg. This initiates what Pose coaches call “The Fall” and what in ChiRunning is interpreted (in our opinion, incorrectly) as “the lean” (more on this in my next article where I will have a look at some of the leading ChiRunning practitioners to illustrate the differences in interpretation).


ChiRunning first contact – heel first – compare to my earlier image with the two red dotted lines  (I’ll discuss this more in upcoming blog entries)

Lean, fall or what?

Notice by comparing the two photos above that while technically I am “leaning” or “falling” my upper body stays straight – look closely and you can see the lean occurring from my hip joint which is extending away from the leg on the ground. Look at the wall and notice that although my upper body is still upright, it is now closer to the ground than previously. That means: my body has moved forward and downward and will continue to do so until my other leg touches the ground.

If I was to simply leave the my other leg in the air, I would keep falling forward and downward until I would fall flat on my face. Before this article becomes too technical, I am going to stop here. The bottom-line message is this:

  1. Huge improvements have been gained between the early photos and where I stand today
  2. Certain details remain to be improved but there are less and less and of less and less negative impact

There is no end-point for this practice. I fully expect that eight years from now, even after logging many thousands of miles to achieve my “before-40” goal, I will still regularly be reviewing videos of myself looking for small errors to fix. Why? Because every error removed means more speed and less injury and I need to be able to train a great deal in the future. Also, regardless of whether the effects of aging are over-stated in general, getting older does reduce certain physical abilities. The best way to keep your speed and power intact as some advantages of youth is lost is to hone and perfect technique. You could say it’s a hidden fountain of youth.

To be continued…


Anonymous said…
Rene, I know what film you have taken the still of the chirunner from. It's class isn't it. Eagerly awaiting your chi running article!
Renny said…
Didn't want to pick on one in particular but it's the same on videos with Danny Dreyer himself unfortunately and testing the "lean setup" in their videos it produces the same effect. It's a bit like being constantly off-balance really with no choice but to throw a leg far ahead to catch the falling upper body. I'm hoping to get around to the article - I'm surprised it's not more widely reported already because there's a lot of theory openly available about the correct nature of the "fall".