Gold medal or Palme d’Or? Why running form is less important than running more.

This morning, as I was sitting eating breakfast, a thought popped into my head about the nature of competition. My wife had cooked eggs and we were eating them with slices of gruyere cheese. But not any old gruyere cheese – award winning gruyere. My wife is Swiss, so when we do have cheese from her country, which is not all that often, we will try to go for the good stuff.

Winning at cheese making

But how do you choose an award winning cheese? I suspect like many things, there are criteria that the cheese is tested and tastes against – texture, moisture, pungency, saltiness, etc. So what you end up with is a set of judges, judging against a set of criteria.

As a cheese maker, if you want to win a prestigious award you have to know what the criteria are and make your cheese as close to the best that it can be within those areas. Get that right and you win.  The same is true for so many things – cooking, playing music, painting, gymnastics, achieving at work… if you know that good looks like and you can fit as closely to that as possible, then you will win. Of course there are always exceptions, but most of the time rewards in these type of competitions come from fitting the winning criteria as closely as possible.

Running for a gold medal (or a PB: same thing to me)

jeux-olympiques-2012-medaille-or-e1344324672447

With our sport, however, the same isn’t true. There are no style points. You don’t win by being the runner with the best style or the runner who most resembles what the judges consider to be good running form. In fact in running, form follows function. The idea is to get from A to B as fast as you can and who cares what it looks like?

Sure, there are people who do exceptionally well and seem to have qualities and characteristics that others could emulate to get faster, but the more I read into running form, the more it seems to be that there is no single way to do it best.

Nowadays it is easy to think that Usain Bolt is the paradigm of perfect sprinting form. But remember back a few years and you will know that before he arrived all sprinters had to be 5 feet something short, stocky and have short, powerful legs. Suddenly a veritable giant with legs too long to fold underneath himself comfortably, comes along and changes everything.

Michael Johnson was considered to have a terrible running style – didn’t stop him from dominating his sport for a decade.

Haile Gebrselassie – one odd, crooked arm. Paul Radcliffe – strange nodding head. Dathan Ritzenhein (pre-Salazar) – pretty much everything!

The list goes on.

My take on running form

So I recoil a bit when people ask me about whether they should be fore-foot striking or where their head should be. Worse is when I get told by people that ‘coaches’ (usually personal trainers, not specialist running coaches) are telling them to change their running style if they want to get faster. For me apart from recent advice from my coach regarding arm carriage, head position and  thoughts about leaning slightly forward, I have never really worried about my running form. I think that in some cases people mistake working on their form as a shortcut to getting faster, whereas I think that is something to be dealt with as you reach the limit of what you can achieve purely on training alone.

By the time I had run a 2:43 marathon, I had never thought about running form for a single minute. The more I run, the more my form seems to improve and then the more my running improves – a virtuous circle! I certainly don’t think that I will be winning any Palme d’Or for my running style, but as long as I am still improving – that is getting faster – what do I care? Not much, to be honest.

 

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About simon

I run marathons. Everything else is a result of that.

5 Responses to “Gold medal or Palme d’Or? Why running form is less important than running more.”

  1. James May 28, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    I think there’s a blurry line you’re straddling with this topic and you’re right that concentrating purely on form won’t necessarily do anything for your speed but for some people it will.

    I know anecdotally speaking, I’ve spent time trail and in particular fell running/racing (which I appreciate is a bit different from road racing) and in my case I can honestly say that time spent studying efficient form and technique for running up and down technical hills has been well worth the practice time.

    I find in fell racing if you’re able to run the bits others walk you’re able to take minutes out of an opponent in a short distance and then if you’re able to descend like a demon too, you’re onto the next level right there. I’m by no means a runner on your level but I found in a recent fell race that technique definitely earned me a placing probably slightly above “my level” (http://running.welcomebrand.co.uk/lactic-flashback/).

    Often the form for climbing and descending on trails is similar among runners as it’s more extreme terrain on trail and fell race courses.

    For me, running more has of course got all the obvious benefits and I’ve roughly found a form on roads that I’m happy enough with but who’s to say I couldn’t eke out a few more seconds a mile with some minor tweaks to position or perhaps if you worked with a coach and analysed your form you might move into the 2:3x’s yourself as once you reach a certain level, you’re looking at smaller and smaller gains on performance based on mileage alone.

    Some people are just natural freaks, and it was fascinating watching Jeptoo smash the VLM this year with her unusual style but people like that aren’t the norm!

    J.

  2. Liam May 28, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    I appreciate that aesthetically, form isn’t crucial however my understanding was that efficient form (eg being light on your feet, shoulders relaxed) required less energy and thus preserved vital energy which could be used elsewhere?

  3. Mark Lloyd May 28, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    I think there’s far too much emphasis put on running form for most runners. The top, say 1% of athletes make it look effortless, but that leaves millions who don’t. For the vast majority, keeping relaxed is critical whatever your form and that’s easier the fitter you are.
    But the most important factor is keeping it going when it hurts both in training and racing.

    When I see people who are good, but don’t necessarily flow, you know they are as hard as nails. Take John Gilbert for example. I am sure he wouldn’t mind me saying he isn’t the prettiest runner in the world. But the 2-17 he ran in London tells me that he’s able to work hard and put himself through the sort of discomfort most people can’t bear.

    If you train hard regularly and consistently and can avoid injuries (which is vital) you will progress whether you forefoot or heel strike. Lean forward or back. Or swing your arms too little or too much. Like most things, it’s all about the regular application of effort over time. There’s no other way.

  4. dommy May 28, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    Might I be so bold as to suggest that maybe you were just lucky, and started out with a really good natural form?

    I don’t really know, I didn’t know you when you were starting out.

    I know that for me personally, m form when starting out was terrible. Rather than pushing myself forward, I was throwing my leg out in front of me and pulling the ground toward me. With every step, particularly downhill, I was braking my own speed. My quads were doing all the work. After long runs or hard runs, I felt a lot of pain.

    It was only after I started reading about form, watching how elite runners ran, and a small amount of coaching that I altered my form drastically. But rather than focusing on heel / midfoot / forefoot / whatever, I took my own understanding of biomechanics, gravity, and physics, and realised I needed to be moving forward – using gravity to make me go there, and pushing myself further and faster with every stride.

    The next race I trained for, I cold train more often, harder, and faster than I ever had before. I felt like running became effortless, more rhythmic, and I could wear lighter and less cushioned shoes. The more I could run, the harder I cold run, the more intense my sessions and the less rast between, the faster and I went.

    Changing my form completely changed my running, and made me realised I could be fast.

    It’s not necessarily about being pretty, but being effective. And by being effective, you have to be efficient, and use your body in a way that will help you prevent injury, and get onto the next session as soon and as hard as you can.

    • dommy May 28, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

      In all of that I kind of forgot my main point! A lot of people think form will be the magic bullet, just like they think some fancy diet or lots of core work will do the same.
      To take out that initial chunk of time from PBs, the main thing is to run harder. For some people, they need to have better form to be able to do this.

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