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Who Should Be Responsible For Teaching Better Running Form?

Posted by on Mar 12, 2012 | 9 Comments

There aren’t too many people that disagree there is such thing as “good running form.”  Most of these people would also agree “good form” consists of a few variables, such as good posture, shorter stride, higher cadence, and relaxed, fluid movements.

It’s obvious not everyone does this.  In fact, most people (talking to you road runners) still run with a slow, loping gait with the foot landing way in front of the body and a heavy heel strike.  There’s a growing consensus this poor running form causes a litany of problems, including an increase in injuries, decrease in efficiency, and a dependency on heavy, cushioned trainers that absorb impact and correct abnormal movements.

Teaching better form is quite simple as we’ve shown with our BareForm system.  We (Merrell and I) broke good form down to three simple elements- an athletic posture, balanced foot landing, and cadence of at least 180.  Since we developed the concept, we’ve used it to teach thousands to run with better form, usually in a matter of minutes.

These subtle changes and gentle guidance have the power to make a dramatic difference in people’s lives.  Long-time runners with a history of injuries find they’re able to run practically injury-free.  People that were largely inactive find they actually enjoy physical movement.  People are learning to run longer distances and at a faster pace.  When done correctly, there is no real downside to teaching better running form.

Of course, there is one significant obstacle- transition time.  The transition from one running form to another taxes different muscles, tendons, and ligaments.  All require a degree of strengthening and adaptation,especially if the better form is accompanied by a move to more minimal shoes or barefoot.

I equate it to breaking your arm.  If you wear a cast for eight weeks, your arm becomes weak.  Once the cast is removed, you have to go through a period of rehabilitation to regain functional use.  The same concept applies here- anychange requires an adaptation period.

So Who Can Teach Better Form?

Back to the original question- who should be responsible for teaching better form?  Currently, there’s A LOT of people and organizations teaching better form.  Still, the reach of these people is limited to a small fraction of all runners.  In an ideal world, everyone related to the running industry would teach better form.  This doesn’t happen for a variety of reasons.  Let’s take a look at these people and institutions:

Running Coaches

I have never met a running coach that believes overstriding with a heel strike is good.  In fact, many coaches I know DO teach better form as part of their overall intervention.  However, there are a lot of coaches that do not teach better form, especially middle school and high school coaches.  There seems to be a belief that changing form will somehow negatively affect performance or health, even though any objective measure says otherwise.  As coaches, teaching proper technique should be a major concern.  Imagine a golf coach not teaching the elements of a good swing, a baseball coach not teaching the proper footwork to turn a double play, or a football coach not teaching proper tackling technique.

My take: If you’re coaching runners, you have a responsibility to teach better running form.  It’s that simple.

Running Stores

Running stores are an interesting case.  Some, like the minimalist-only stores, teach better form as a part of the sales process.  Other stores, like Running Fit and Playmakers, offer classes and clinics to teach better running form.  Unfortunately these stores are more of the exception than the rule.  Many running stores still buy into the old paradigm based on the idea that people run how they run and shoes should correct the flaws in their form.  Even though the store employees may understand the elements of better form, there’s a hesitancy to teach.

My take: Most stores are in a difficult position.  If they push better form too much, they risk losing sales.  For a small business, this can be fatal.  As much as I would love to see every running store in the country teach the basic elements of better form to every singe customer, it’s not going to happen.  Yet.  As the ideas of better form disseminate throughout the running world, this will likely change.  Running stores will continue to be in the later majority, though.

Running Clubs

Running clubs exist pretty much everywhere.  In most cases, running clubs serve as more of a social network than a means of spreading ideas.  Still, the social nature of running clubs is an ideal format to disseminate the idea of better form in a casual setting.  The very nature of “better form” is usually spread organically.  One person tries it, has success, and tells their friends.  Curious about the benefits, the friends also try it.  They have success, then spread the idea to their friends.  And so on.  Running clubs could be an excellent network to spread these ideas, especially if the club held an occasional “workshop” to give members an opportunity to learn from each other.

My take: Running clubs can be excellent venues to discuss and teach better running form, but it takes the right mix of individuals.  The idea that there could be a right way to run seems to be taboo in many circles, which can create an unfortunate roadblock to discussion.  As the idea of better form spreads, discussions will become more welcome.

Good Form Advocates

This includes people like myself, the ChiRunning and Pose folks, and all the other authors, bloggers, researchers, and forum participants that actively teach better running form.  This group is doing the legwork of developing these ideas and working to spread them to the general running population.  This group is absolutely critical.  The down side- they have limited reach.  In almost every case, people have to seek them out to gain the benefits of their teachings.

My take: For the most part, this group is already doing what they can to spread the ideas.  Many could benefit from more collaboration, which includes accepting that their particular take on better form may not be the best for everyone.  Collaboration requires acceptance of other ideas.  Luckily this appears to be happening.  A good example is the Natural Running Center- lots of talented people coming together to share knowledge.

Running Magazines

Open up any specialized sport magazine geared toward participants.  What do you see?  Tons of articles discussing technique. In fact, this is a staple of golf magazines.

Open up a running magazine.  What do you see?  Pictures of shoes.  Or clothes.  Or articles discussing training plans.

It’s rare to see an article discussing running form.  This is SLOWLY changing, but not fast enough.  There’s a focus on how to train, but not how to run.  Again, it’s a taboo topic.  I would LOVE to see articles about actual running technique.  In fact, I’d volunteer to write said articles (hear that Runners World, Running Times, and Trail Runner?)

My take: Running magazines have the power to shape the entire industry, including teaching about better form.  One well-placed article could cause a dramatic change in the lives of many runners… if only one magazine made running gait an issue.

Shoe Manufacturers

Three years ago, I would never have expected shoe manufacturers to get into the teaching game.  Oh, how the times have changed!  Aside from Merrell, many manufacturers are beginning to develop better running form resources.  Newton, New Balance, VivoBarefoot, Saucony, Sketchers, and Vibram are all at various stages of developing education programs.  Many others are exploring the possibility.  This represents the single biggest change in the industry as the manufacturers have the power to influence both the consumer and the retailers.

My take: I love what the previously-mentioned companies are doing.  I’d love to see more companies embrace this idea.  Their involvement could dramatically change the paradigm from “shoes will fix your problems” to “good form will fix your problems and shoes are tools that provide protection.”

Medical Professionals

Like the shoe manufacturers, I would never have expected medical professionals to embrace the idea of better form.  A few years ago, it was common to read some podiatrist dismiss the ideas of better form and recommend an aggressive orthotic to solve problems.  Today, more and more are recommending a change in running form as a first means of treating weakness and injury.  It’s a monumental shift from corrective medicine to preventative medicine, and I couldn’t be happier.

My take: Medical professionals don’t have nearly the reach as the other groups, but they DO have access to the most important group- injured runners.  They have the ability to teach these runners about better form, which is critical as they are the group that is most in need.

Conclusion

These are a few groups that have the power to spread the idea of better running form.  If each group stepped up their efforts just a little bit, the impact could be dramatic.

What do you think?  Do you agree with my assessment?  How do you feel about each of these groups and their role in teaching better form?

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9 Comments

  1. Ben S
    March 12, 2012

    I’ll take a coach who allows form to “work itself out over the miles” over one who unintentionally encourages bad form anyday.

  2. Chris
    March 12, 2012

    I think the running magazines is the perfect venue. Its easy, non-confrontational, and would revolutionize running overnight. I read runner’s world religiously when I was new to running and hungry for advice and NEVER heard of “running form” until last year when I started looking on-line for advice for transitioning to minimalist shoes. Like you said, EVERY other sport STARTS with form — running, for some reason, relegates it to the fringes. A column every issue touching on form would be great.

  3. jeremy
    March 12, 2012

    The hard part is getting coaches to be teachable. The teaching is quite easy after that.

  4. Brian G
    March 12, 2012

    I agree with pretty much everything you say. And I agree with Mark that running seems to be the only sport, at least in the US, where working on form is a taboo topic for the general public. Very odd.

    Maybe this came about because while it was assumed (correctly) that the human species as a whole evolved to walk and run (so thus no need to talk about form), because of variation within the population running would be hazardous to some individuals (so thus they’d be fixed with supportive shoes and corrective orthotics). Over time supportive shoes and orthotics became the default for everyone. Just my guess.

  5. Mark Lofquist
    March 12, 2012

    I strenuously agree with your assessment. Running is the only sport where I’ve heard participants say ‘it should come naturally, just do it the way you feel’. we ‘can’ do something without help, but tweaks or all-out instruction/relearning will help with economy, speed and injury rates. there is a tiny sliver of a minority that would end up with good form with no instruction.

    i could swim any stroke without instruction, but coaching, and form improvement made my time improve and i could enjoy the sport without injury.

  6. Brad
    March 12, 2012

    I’m running a track night for my local PTA 5K and most of the people are new-ish to running. I was really surprised at how receptive and curious people were about good form.

    Believe it or not, the 180 cadence thing was the biggest hurdle for people. 180+ hurts until you get conditioned as you know. I’m not really sure how to help on that one except take small bites and build up your aerobic endurance.

    cheers!

    • Fitz
      March 12, 2012

      Brad, see if you can find some music at that bpm (beats per minute). That’s pretty fast but there are house musics and others out there you can find. Even better is a metronome that you can turn up. That was eye opening at a McDougal clinic I went to once. We all jogged in place while they showed us 120 then 140, 160 and 180. Message received.

    • Tim
      March 14, 2012

      I went to a Good Form Running clinic at my local running shop tonight. The 180 cadence was the biggest mental hangup for most of the participants there as well. They couldn’t separate cadence from pace. The guy leading the clinic did a good job of trying to separate the two ideas, but I could see a few were still struggling with it. I fear they will give up on it due to the initial challenge of getting the 180 down. I tried to offer my experience (shop guy knows me as one who’s been working on it for a while now)but he also outed me as the barefoot guy, so they were a little skeptical of me, in a “you can do that, but this is too hard for us..” way.

  7. Kittyk
    March 12, 2012

    I think teaching running form is essential in school. I am writing an article on children’s minimalist shoes.

    I feel that teaching running form, ideally in elementary school –although not so important, because most kids under the age of about 10 will run with good form as soon as their shoes off — but more so in middle and high school is vital if we want to break the cycle of broken runners.

    I am just not sure how we teach the school coaches what they need to know. It’s a big task.