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Should We Teach Running Form?

Posted by on Sep 4, 2012 | 9 Comments

A few years ago, Richard Knobbs, an Internet friend, asked me a series of questions about running I had never considered. I couldn’t find the original message, so I’ll paraphrase. He asked the following:

  • Is there a right way to run?
  • If so, how should it be taught?
  • What happens if we’re wrong with either question?

The questions were framed around the idea of barefoot running, but can be generalized to the greater running community. A recent article in the New York Times asked a similar question- “Can runners become better, more efficient runners on their own, merely by running?”

The questions have profound consequences. almost all barefoot runners, supporters of “natural running”, and almost all professional running coaches would agree there’s a right way to run. Exactly what that looks like varies greatly, though some common ground can be found. How it’s taught is even more variable.

Richard’s questions made me question my own methodology. It opened my eyes to something us barefoot runners like to ignore- lots of people have success using a running form that, to us, looks terrible. His questions also made me examine the different methods used to teach running form. It forced me to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of my own methodology along with the other methodologies. Lastly, it forced me to recognize that all methodology, including my own, could only be successful with a sliver of the population. The entire line of thinking was instrumental in developing my six guiding principles from my book:

  • There is no single right answer.
  • You must experiment and learn from your successes and failures.
  • Your body is your best teacher.
  • Patience is mandatory.
  • Relaxation is the secret to great form.
  • You must enjoy the process.

In the course of expanding my knowledge about running form, I initiated conversations with some podiatrists that were fairly skeptical about barefoot running. Several made a point that any runner will eventually adapt their running form to produce maximum metabolic efficiency- barefoot or otherwise.

This concept is the exact concept touched on by the research in the NYT article. The research suggested runners would eventually become more efficient without any outside intervention. That would seem to reinforce the podiatrists’ point.

That brings us back to Richard’s questions. A few days ago, I wrote about becoming a more efficient runner. My hypothesis is too many runners listen to “better running form” advice that calls for the activation of muscles that aren’t necessary to maintain running gait resulting in wasted energy.

In the realm of psychology, we study the brain’s tendencies to take shortcuts. The brain is always trying to conserve energy by eliminating unnecessary thought. That’s why we have trouble remembering details, develop stereotypes, etc. The brain ALSO works to conserve physical energy. Unless otherwise overridden, the brain seems to have a tendency to make all movements as simple as possible. In short, our brain is exceedingly lazy. That laziness seems to transfer to running, too.

So… does teaching better running form really result in greater efficiency? Or are we better off leaving people to their own devices? I’ve tried to walk this delicate line for awhile by distilling “good form” down to two or three simple concepts, then focusing on the idea of allowing your body to guide you to that promised land of greater efficiency.

I’m curious what my readers think. Some are coaches that teach a specific method. How do you assure your clients are really becoming more efficient? Some readers are hardcore barefoot runners, which usually support the idea of just “listening to your body”? But will that always work?

I’d love to start a discussion on the topic… post your thoughts!

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9 Comments

  1. James
    September 7, 2012

    This is an interesting discussion. I’m inclined to think that people with adopt the most efficient form on their own without coaching. I am amazed that Priscah Jeptoo, who won the silver in the Olympic marathon, is able to run as fast as she does with form that makes me want to cringe.

    In some cases a biomechanical fault or maybe a previous injury could hinder running form as the body would find a way to compensate around whatever the limitation is. Working on correcting that could lead to better efficiency.

  2. The Pooch
    September 5, 2012

    While I like the idea of letting my brain unconsciously streamline my running form, I think my previous years of poor running form are too deeply ingrained for that approach to work. For me, running well requires an enormous amount of conscious attention to detail. The instant I lose focus, my body immediately reverts to over-striding, pushing-off, leaning too far back, etc. Even when I am barefoot. So that doesn’t really say much for my brain’s ability to unconsciously optimize anything. To become a better runner, I needed the very specific instructions about cadence, foot-strike, posture, stride, etc provided by Chi Running.

  3. Bare Lee
    September 5, 2012

    Another great post. I like your six guiding principles a lot.

    For me, what has worked is to ‘just run’/LTYB, but at the same time, I have read up a bit on biomechanics and watched some video of elite sprinters and distance runners, so now when I run, I think about how it’s feeling with respect to this information. I then let my brain process this awareness of feeling on its own, that is, unconsciously. Here’s a schematic representation of this dialectic of proprioception and intellectualization:

    1.) try to listen to your body (proprioception)
    2.) try to understand what your body is saying (analysis)
    3.) try to understand what your body should be saying (more analysis)
    4.) try to understand if what your body is saying is what it should be saying (more proprioception)

    repeat until the thesis (proprioception) and antithesis (analysis) have resulted in synthesis (running bliss).

    Hard to say if this has been effective in terms of greater efficiency, as I have no independent variables, but I seem to be making progress, and, more importantly, as per your principle no. 6, I am really enjoying the process.

    P.S., you really need an ‘edit’ function and email notifications.

  4. Bare Lee
    September 5, 2012

    Another great post. I like your six guiding principles a lot.

    For me, what has worked is to ‘just run’/LTYB, but at the same time, I have read up a bit on biomechanics and watched some video of elite sprinters and distance runners, so now when I run, I think about how it’s feeling with respect to this information. I then let my brain process this awareness of feeling on its own, that is, unconsciously. Here’s a schematic representation of this dialectic of proprioception and intellectualization:

    1.) try to listen to your body (proprioception)
    2.) try to understand what your body is saying (analysis)
    3.) try to understand what your body should be saying (more analysis)
    4.) try to understand if what your body is saying is what it should be saying (more proprioception)

    repeat until the thesis (proprioception) and antithesis (analysis) have resulted in synthesis (running bliss).

    Hard to say if this has been effective in terms of greater efficiency, as I have no independent variables, but I seem to be making progress, and, more importantly, as per your principle no. 6, I am really enjoying the process.
    P.S., you really need an ‘edit’ function and email notifications.

  5. Franklin Chen
    September 4, 2012

    Just “listening to your body” isn’t enough for running, any more than it is for dancing or playing piano. I think it is necessary to reach a certain minimum level of knowledge and awareness before it is possible (except for the gifted) to make the most of “listening to yourself”. Metacognition, the key ability, seems to require some bootstrapping.

  6. Ben W
    September 4, 2012

    I hated running growing up. Therefore I avoided it as much as possible.
    Then I got fat and wanted to get married so I started running again, gutting it out. It sucked, and I stopped as soon as I got married.
    Just like the cat, the pounds came right back with vigor.
    Reading Born to Run, Barefoot Ken Bob’s Book, and Jason’s ebook, taught me something I never heard anywhere else — running can be fun, running can be done without injury.
    Born to Run got me excited, but it didn’t teach me to run. When I went out and tried to just run on my own I was too stupid to know how to listen to my body.
    Barefoot Ken Bob’s book actually taught me to run. And Jason’s book, gave me the insight and detail about how to learn to run with good form.
    I know that some may not need it, but I did, and I can’t thank you enough, Jason, for being involved in the barefoot running community in the way that you are.
    Keep doing what you are doing. Maybe not everyone needs it, but you and the people in your community changed my life.

  7. Kate Kift
    September 4, 2012

    I am of a similar idea. Condense the process into 2-3 basic steps of commonality and actively teach that. After that point you need to let the person find their own tweaks to their form. Get the runner to start listening to their body and if needs be suggest the alterations that might be needed: i.e. calfs are aching = bend your knees more, don’t over-stride.

    Everyone is different and will run different. I am finding that actively changing my form to something ‘more efficient’ results in over-use injuries and strains. Every time I have tried to experiment with my form I end up with issues – this has led me to believe that my body does know best and if I mess with what it wants to do then it will let me know!

    • Curb Ivanic
      September 4, 2012

      Hey Kate, that’s part of my theory behind the 3D drills we did in the clinic. They develop running specific mobility and strength while expanding the brain’s map of the running gait. Then when you go back to running regularly with maybe one or two specific cues to focus on occasionally, you can retrain gait without really thinking about it. Your body will figure it out. But retraining movement is a complex process and there’s more to it than just form.

      Jason, at the risk of being accused of self-promotion (guilty ;-) I recently wrote a piece on running economy that discusses how different types of training, including technique work, blend to improve efficiency. http://www.corerunning.com/running_economy_2nd.html

      Your six guiding principle are all excellent points. I think it’s crucial to have principles to guide you and adapt the methods that convey those principles. As a coach I continue to refine and change my methodology as I learn and understand more.

  8. Tess
    September 4, 2012

    Listening to your body MIGHT always work, if your hearing was always good enough. But so many other biases can interfere and blind (deafen?) us to our own feedback.

    Explicit advice from a coach or specific cues for points of form can be really helpful, but I think the best teachers figure out how to use a student’s own internal monitoring as part of the process.

    I think most of us probably need multiple types of input and practice over time to gradually smooth out our running form, learn to adapt to different conditions etc. Some explicit training and feedback, some helpful cues, some listening to the body, some watching other people.

    And you know it’s working when you can run more easily, comfortably, further, and/or faster than you could before.