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)

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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.

 

London Olympic Games Men’s marathon report

As the London Olympic Games of 2012 draw to a close, the men’s marathon promised to be a fitting end to a wonderful few weeks of sport. Perfectly appointed to provide a stunning backdrop to the action, London was going to make the most of this final act in the Olympic athletics calendar. And we are lucky to have another report from the wonderful Catherine Wilding. Here is what she had to say about the race today (and if you want to read her report of the women’s marathon, it is here.)

 

Sunday 12th August 2012: It was the men’s turn to hit the streets of London.  Historically the men’s marathon represents the denouement of the Olympic Games and it is customary for the race to end in the Olympic stadium.  However, London 2012 organisers wanted to treat the global audience to some of the city’s most iconic sights and therefore devised a three and a half lap course around the City finishing on the Mall.  The course was to follow exactly the same route as the women’s race, yet a week on, conditions could not have been more different.

Iconic sights greeted the runners

It was ideal for spectators – hundreds of thousands turned out to line the route – 10-15 deep in places.  Views over London looked nothing short of spectacular on this blistering summer’s day.  But with temperatures reaching 27 degrees and humidity at 77% conditions were less than ideal for marathon running.

The race was always going to favour the African runners and perhaps conditions were a little more to their liking. If ever there was any evidence needed of how much the African nations dominate the sport, Kenya had 278 runners all meeting the Olympic qualifying time, yet were only able to select three, and therefore overlooked the current World Record holder – Patrick Makau. Ethopia had a similar problem but their selection criteria became rather contentious – again overlooking some of their best runner’s.  Unfortunately it proved to be entirely the wrong strategy.  Not only did their runners fail to make the podium, all three failed to make the finish line.

Team GB had just managed to scrape three runners together after an appeal by Lee Merrien (who fell just over a minute outside the qualifying time set by UK athletics) earned him selection for the team.  However only two of our men – Merrien and Scott Overall made it to the start line as Dave Webb was forced to withdraw from the race owing to injury.  Unfortunately we had no other runners in reserve – much to the chagrin of the African runners who had missed out.

To the non-runner, the marathon can be a rather confusing sport.  (Why – I am often asked in a manner of disbelief– would anyone want to run 26.2 miles? )   And to add further confusion to the un-initiated, on this occasion there were three runners all wearing the same name – Kiprotich.  Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich was running with the bib “Kiprotich” yet is better known as Kipsang.  A former London marathon winner who has won four of the five marathons he has run –  he was a favourite for the race. Stephen Kiprotich was running for Uganda and there was also a Kiprotich running for France.

A great race in store

It was in the final stages of the race when there were two Kiprotich’s in contention (the French version having dropped out much earlier in the race) that the confusion became excitement. By the time the Kenyan Kiprotich (Kipsang) and the Ugandan Kiprotich arrived for the final time on the Embankment it was the Ugandan that was the strongest already having made a surprising move and pulled ahead. He stormed to a convincing win on the Mall in 2.08.01.  Running straight into both Olympic and Ugandan history books as the first ever Ugandan to win an Olympic marathon and the country’s third only ever Olympic medal – their second Gold and first medal since 1976.

It was another surprising result for the marathon with an outsider sweeping Gold.  The Kenyan’s – Kipsang and Kirui, both ran impressive races with Kirui taking Silver and Kipsang Bronze.

It was Kipsang who began to push the pace early into the race.  The lead pack set off at a comparatively swift pace in contrast to the women’s race.  By the 10k mark there was a clear lead pack dominated by the African runners and gaps in the field had begun to open up early into the race.

The first surprise of the race came just beyond the 10 mile mark on the Mall when Ryan Hall of the USA – a possible challenger to the Africans – stepped off the course clutching at his hamstring.  He had gone into the race with a slight injury and clearly didn’t feel it was going to hold up.  Disaster struck again for the USA when moments later his team mate Abdirahman pulled up on Northumberland Avenue.  That left Meb Keflezighi the only contender for the USA.

By the half way point, Kipsang had opened up a 16 second lead on the chasing group.  The 5K splits were averaging 15minutes and the pace was hotting up.   In the chasing pack were Kirui, Abshero of Ethopia and Kiprotich of Uganda.  By this stage, the Ethiopians Sefir and Feleke were already starting to struggle with the pace.  By mile 17, however there were three leaders as Kirui and Kiprotich had caught Kipsang .   It was starting to feel like a race yet there were still 9 hard miles left to run.   The Brazilian dos Santos – two-time NYC Marathon winner – was the nearest contender but over a minute off the pace and back in 4th place working on his own, it seemed he had too much to do to be in contention for a medal.

The marathon gold medalist

There were many tight turns  on the course and it was at around the 36k mark in the City of London that Kiprotich made a swift move on a turn and pulled ahead of Kirui and Kipsang.   At this stage it was anyone’s guess what would happen next.  However Kipsang started to fade and Kirui put on a good fight down the Embankment but couldn’t close the now 19 second gap between himself and Kiprotich.    Making several glances over his shoulder, Kiprotich was checking his lead but by the time he arrived on Birdcage walk he was almost confident of victory.   Heading down the Mall he had the breathing space to pick up a Ugandan flag and hold it aloft as he crossed the finish line making history for his country.  He had opened up a 26 second gap on Kirui who finished in second place.  Kipsang finished in 2.09.37.  The early injection of pace in the race had clearly cost him the Gold medal spot for Kenya.

In 4th place came the American Keflezighi who had over-taken dos Santos to finish in a respectable 2.11.06 with dos Santos just behind in 2.11.10 and 5th place.

The conditions had clearly taken their toll.  Many of the runners neared the finish line looking exhausted and in distress.  Even the Kenyan’s had raced for the drinks stations pouring water over their heads to cool down.  Of the 100 runners to start 18 didn’t make the finish including all three of the Ethopians.  There were many casualties along the way with the South African runner Ngamole collapsing by the roadside with only 3 miles to go.

Scott Overall suffered in the heat and after a promising start he dropped back in the last half of the race to finish in a disappointing 2.22.37 and 61st place.  Lee Merrien finished in 30th place and a respectable 2.17.00, having proved his worthiness for selection.