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.