How I changed how I ran (and still run!)
Last week I shared some images of my running form over the course of the last four years and analysed my technique. It got me thinking about an article I was planning on writing a while ago and has motivated me to write it now as it links well with the previous article.
Soon after I started running, I got hooked on looking for ways to improve my running and therefore I dived straight in to running literature. At the time, there was a huge ‘barefoot running’ movement in the running industry, which seemed to stem from the success of the book, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (which I have reviewed here).
I really enjoyed reading the book (and have re-read it several times since) and quickly followed it up with a book by one of the authors’ influencers, Ken Bob Saxton, called ‘Barefoot Running Step by Step’. You can read about some of my early forays and experiments with barefoot running on my older blog posts here and here.
What both of these books stirred in me was a desire to experiment with my existing running form in order to feel like I could run all day, like the Tarahumara, run light, strong and silently and stay injury free as much as possible.
So, why did I feel this need to change or toy with my running form?
Defiance was one reason. A lot of self-proclaimed ‘experts’ seemed to suggest that it was not advisory to change your running technique. To me though, this seemed preposterous. Surely experimenting can lead to a greater understanding, appreciation and technique. The rules of learning, of trial and error and of continued improvement surely were applicable to running too?!
I also wanted to get faster. Based on what I’d read, it seemed clear to me that one way of getting faster was to ensure your running style was efficient. You could say that these books acted like my early running coach and I used the advice the books gave, tried things out and used what worked for me.
I also thought that I ran unlike ‘real’ runners. I felt like a footballer doing a bit of running and I think I probably looked like it too! I wanted to look more like Mo Farah or Eliud Kipchoge – graceful, smooth, light and looking like they could run forever.
How I changed my running style
There were a few elements I consciously worked on and they have taken varying amounts of time to get to where I am now.
- Which part of my foot hit the ground first. Up until I read the above mentioned books, I really hadn’t paid any attention to the mechanics of running. I just went out and ran. The books opened my eyes to seeing running as an art to be improved, that I had a technique which I could improve if I took steps to do so and that there was actually quite a lot to think about! I changed from being a heel-striker who made contact with the ground way out in front of my body, to a midfoot/forefoot-striker who made contact with the ground right underneath my body, which is generally accepted as good running form.
This did NOT come naturally to me at all! I really had to be intentional about doing this, thinking about it a lot during my runs. I also noticed that this increased my leg turnover and initially, it made my calves ache like crazy after each run for probably about three weeks. I therefore gave my legs more time to recover between each run. Why did they hurt so much? This was because I hadn’t been engaging them properly in my old running technique. I’d been relying more on my upper leg muscles and so my calves weren’t being engaged like they were meant to. I have to say, after the three weeks of aching calves, I also noticed how much BIGGER they had become! Now I was using them properly, I was faster too without increasing my perceived effort.
2. How I hit the ground. I really did ‘pound’ the pavement with my feet and you could hear me a long way off. So, I consciously tried to run ‘light’ trying to make less sound in my footsteps. I had the following passage from a character called Caballo Blanco, from the book Born to Run running through my head constantly:
“Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a sh*t how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one – you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”
I agree with the sentiments Caballo Blanco expresses here. I’m not one to shout my mouth off about my running prowess, but I have had the odd compliment from time to time about my running style.
These two were the really big ones. The third one is one I’m still working on and it is more difficult to work on it because it tends only to happen when I’m really tired and unable to think about anything other than trying to keep running!
3. Using my arms properly. Most of the time, they behave themselves. However, when I’m really tired on a run they (particularly my right arm) tend to develop a mind of their own and move across my body, making my torso rotate and therefore slow my down at the key moment I want to be running as efficiently as possible. The ideal is for them to pump up and down by the side of my body, providing balance and momentum in the direction of travel. I’m conscious of this to a point but need to try to remember and be focused on this when I get tired on runs.
To give some context to the benefits of changing my running form, I wanted to share a few observations:
- I now feel like a runner, rather than a footballer who can run.
- I feel like I could run for longer than I ever could before I changed my running technique.
- I’m faster! I know that you could argue that this is just down to training over four years, but I honestly don’t believe that. From a debut half marathon of 1:27:32 in 2012, my PB is now 1:19:12 and I know I could run a 1:18 with some dedicated training now, based on my recent 10 mile race (https://www.strava.com/activities/1272325054).
- I’ve only had one running-related injury (Doing too much too soon back in 2013) and I don’t think I’d have stayed injury free for this long running like I used to, from all I’ve read about running injuries.
I try to avoid over-analysing each run I do, but I think it helps to be mindful of how you’re running and what each part of your body is doing. Often what you think is not what is really going on!
Have you had to change your running style? Or spent time honing particular elements of it? I’d love to hear your comments!