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Find Your Spring: The Missing Link to Teaching Running Gait

Posted by on Sep 26, 2012 | 23 Comments

This last weekend, I had the opportunity to hold a running clinic with Dr. Mark Cucuzzella at his minimalist running store in Shephardstown, WV. We covered a ton of useful information, most of which is included in Mark’s video he did for Running Times.

When we were discussing running form, Mark describes the legs as springs. The tendons and ligaments of the feet and legs store energy as the foot hits the ground. This energy is released as the foot leaves the ground. It’s a little more complicated, but that’s the gist of it.

He had the clinic participants run in place to feel this phenomenon. If their cadence, or number of steps per minute, were too slow, they lost the “springiness” and it took more work to run in place. If their cadence was too high, the feet weren’t on the ground long enough to properly load the springs. Again, it took more work.

The point- teach the participants what the ideal cadence feels like based on “feeling the spring.”

When we actually started running, Mark encouraged the participants to use that “feel the spring” feedback to figure out how fast their cadence should be.

And I had a grand epiphany.

This is the missing link to my own teaching methods. Over the years, I’ve simplified my own methodology. As of right now, Merrell’s Bareform method, the methodology I use, consists of three steps:

A) Teach “Athletic posture”,

B) Teach a balanced foot landing (both foot placement relative to the body and foot strike),

C) Teach cadence, or the ideal number of steps you take per minute.

The methodology works well. It taught the fundamentals without giving our students too much to think about. It put them on a path toward more efficient form. The problem has always been describing what the ideal cadence should feel like.

Some like to teach 180 steps per minute as an absolute, but that idea is stupid. It’s not supported by anecdotal or empirical evidence. Cadence clearly varies among individuals based on a litany of factors… which makes it difficult to teach.

Until Mark planted the “feel the spring” idea.

The running in place drill was great in that it perfectly demonstrated how the ideal cadence feels. Equally important- it demonstrated how a too fast or too slow cadence feels.

If a runner can feel that springiness when running in place, they can identify the cadence and stride length where the same phenomenon happens when moving forward. The great thing about “feel the spring” is it can be utilized at any pace, with or without footwear, and on roads or trails.It can be practiced by running in pace, jumping rope, jumping in place, or running. If you make common newbie mistakes, you won’t feel the spring. For example:

  • If you overstride, you don’t load the springs.
  • If you run on your toes, you don’t load the springs.
  • If you unnecessarily lift your feet (like in my last rant), you don’t keep your feet on the ground long enough and allow the spring to unload.

This is the proprioceptive/tactile cue I’ve been looking for.

What do you think? Can you feel your spring? Give it a try and report back. ;-)

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23 Comments

  1. Robert Whitmore
    October 8, 2012

    I use this mental picture, I envision my feet as if on a ” elliptical” machine, and instead of planting and pushing off I am cycling them on that ellip path, I can feel when the cadence drops if I am tired, and then I pick up the tempo- cadence by better hip flexion forward and it comes back, eventually the endurance will be there at the later kms.
    This way my gait is on, I plant allowing the natural spring of the arch and not pound, like I did as a shod runner.
    Robt

  2. Chris
    October 5, 2012

    This makes sense to me. The missing link is a good way to put it.

  3. Ben W
    October 1, 2012

    After reading this post, I thought I would find the springs in my legs. But, I found them in my arms and hips. When my arm swing sinks up with my hips, my legs seem to take care of themselves.

  4. Barefoot Running University » Fourteen Things I've Learned About … | The Running Clinic Site
    October 1, 2012

    [...] Find Your Spring: The Missing Link to Teaching Running Gait [...]

  5. Thomas
    September 30, 2012

    I guess I felt the spring effect last week when I hit the stretch where I usually walk the rest of the way back to the car as a cool down and found slow running to be easier. Yet I’m puzzled by Mark Cucuzzella running with a form that brought his heels up with a couple inches of his butt. This aspects feels very strange to me when I’m on the road or in a trapeze class where running with your heels hitting your butt is one of our warm up exercises (man cannot live by running alone). When I look at this
    http://vimeo.com/26475410 lovely video of Lee Saxby running trails I couldn’t see his heels coming up anywhere near as high. Two experts. Two different strides. Is this a lesson in individual preferences or am I missing something?

  6. Houston
    September 30, 2012

    This is one of the reasons I have been advising people not to stretch for many many years. The tendons and ligaments act as springs. If you stretch out a spring it is unable to return as much force. If you have a tight spring it will be really “springy.”

  7. Bare Lee
    September 29, 2012

    Well, I tried this a bit but I always feel awkward when I consciously mess with my cadence. I don’t know how people can do it. But I would say I notice the spring, can feel it more strongly, when I run faster, but that’s to be expected because I’m exerting more force application. I would say for me ‘feeling the spring’ at slower paces is more a function of have good posture, when the hips are sunk down a bit but not too much, my shoulders are straight but relaxed, etc., then proper cadence, but I have a confirmation bias going into this, as I’ve never understood the concept of proper cadence.

    • Bare Lee
      September 29, 2012

      then proper = than proper

  8. WG
    September 28, 2012

    I like it. I’ve mentioned my Achilles epiphany a few times in discussions. I was consciously letting my heels drop down and very literally feeling the “boing” after the tendon loads and then releases. There’s a small push from down below when the heel is lifted (effortlessly) that sets the next stride in motion. It’s easy for me to feel, and when I encourage that moment to happen with each step, then I automatically make any fine-adjustment to the rest of the cycle. The effect is most apparent and easiest to duplicate, and perhaps most valuable, going uphill. But I don’t know if anyone else under the sun will feel it the way I do. And that’s the rub. Same with “feel the spring”.

    Also – Jason, in all your discussions on running form, I’ve yet to see any serious attention given to upper-body posture and arm work. I really think you’re missing half the story. The arms play SUCH a crucial role in what the legs are doing and experiencing.

  9. Brad waterson
    September 28, 2012

    I’m an engineer and a geek. When I was hacking a golf a while back I used to imaging my swing being exactly like the swing robot which was basically the fundamental mechanics of a golf swing. I rarely attained those mechanics, of course.

    For running, I’ve always identified with this method ever since I started the whole minimal path. I think I first read about the elasticity on your or Pete Larson’s blog way back in 2010. In my brain, I imagine a simple mechanical model/robot with rigid “bones”, hinged joints, and springs (ligaments and tendons). From a practical running standpoint, the “feel the spring” totally works. For me, if I’m feeling like the legs are getting heavy, it’s because I’ve gotten off the optimal spring rate. I can pick up my cadence just a tiny bit and I’m back in easy mode.

    I’ve had a hard time explaining my robot model to others because apparently the rest of the world is not as filled with geeks as my teaching method requires. I will definitely try the feel cue now though.

    • Robert Whitmore
      October 8, 2012

      Brad good analogy. I use the same in this way, I envision my feet as if on a ” elliptical” machine, and instead of planting and pushing off I am cycling them on that ellip path, I can feel when the cadence drops if I am tired, and then I pick up the tempo- cadence by better hip flexion forward and it comes back, eventually the endurance will be there at the later kms.
      This way my gait is on, I plant allowing the natural spring of the arch and not pound, like I did as a shod runner.
      Robt

  10. EdH
    September 27, 2012

    Very interesting. I’ll have to try this tonight. Then the trick will be to measure it.

    The workout shown where you strap a bungee around your waist to a fence post looked like an interesting idea too.

  11. Kyle Roberts, Revolution Natural Running
    September 27, 2012

    This is exactly what Dr. James Stoxen, Chicago constantly talks about, that the body is basically a “Human Spring”
    See this video describing the concept:
    http://bit.ly/Ps0zw2

    When i teach efficient running form I teach that your running motion should very closely match your running in place motion. The main difference is when you run in place, you are upright (which is why you’re staying in one place). When you want to go forward, add to your running-in-place motion a forward lean. It’s crucial not to lean from the waist, but from the ankles. When someone is able to accomplish this, and their running-in-place motion becomes their running motion with the added lean from the ankles, then they are ready to go out and begin practicing this new movement pattern.

  12. Adam Kelly
    September 27, 2012

    http://www.mece.utpa.edu/~rafree/IntroBioMech/Jumping%20Jack/m_model.html

    I loved talking about this in my biomechanics classes as well.

  13. Steve
    September 26, 2012

    I’m looking forward to trying this for myself. It sounds like it should work. I often notice that my legs feel springy when I’m on a run.

  14. Nathan
    September 26, 2012

    The cadence rate is still important I think because people (meaning me) have a tendency to drop the cadence way down if I’m not actively monitoring it. I’m just lazy that way, but when I actively keep it up I am more in tune with my run, more into it, I have a better time, and I have more energy. Psychologically if my cadence drops then my brain starts to tell my body that I am tired.

    • Jason
      September 26, 2012

      In theory, the “feel the spring” idea will prevent cadence from dropping too low since the springiness will decrease, which would decrease efficiency and make you more fatigued. Maybe it’s not all psychological. ;-)

  15. Jon
    September 26, 2012

    I think this sounds great, the difficult thing when teaching or running with a proper “spring” or correct elastic recoil as mentioned above is knowing with any sort of absolute certainty that your doing it correctly. And what’s even more difficult is knowing that the person or people your teaching “gets it” as well. So this is a very good way to help people work at getting better at the physical act of running. If people can walk away from the clinic feeling what thier personal cadence feels like as a teacher you’ve done it right. I personally like teaching with an external sound like a metronome set at a higher rate because it allows people to wipe the slate clean. The light goes on and the focus on changing thier cadence ends up changing thier mindset to what running is. That makes it feel easier to start, then the focus turns to making it easy to follow= easier to get up and run again tommorow= easier to change the habit and lowers the “no pain no gain” mentality. Good points and very easy to apply…

    • Jason
      September 26, 2012

      Agreed, Jon. Not everyone will be able to respond to the “feel the spring” idea, but it’s a hell of a tool to have in the toolbox. Actually, I think you introduced me to the idea a few months ago. :-)

  16. mike
    September 26, 2012

    when i first started to run bf i thought of how it feels like running in place and it was a good way to describe it. now i feel i should’ve voiced that feeling to others.

  17. rob wehling
    September 26, 2012

    I have been natural running for 3 months. and have watched Dr. Mark’s video and found it very helpful. I can say on a couple of occasions that I have felt that spring reaction where it feels like I have hit the right balance of all the factors, but mostly I struggle to achieve that.

  18. Bare Lee
    September 26, 2012

    It’s funny, I was thinking about this very thing–elastic recoil–on yesterday’s run, and I could feel the spring! Maybe Zap Mama K can design a t-shirt: “Feel the Spring.” On tomorrow’s run I’ll try altering cadence a bit to see if I notice a difference in springiness.

    • Jason
      September 26, 2012

      Keep me posted… I’m curious to hear your thoughts.