Joe Maller.com

Running Technique

“Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it’s just as nuanced as any other activity.” Eric [Orton] told me. “Ask most people and they’ll say, ‘People just run the way they run.’ That’s ridiculous. Does everyone just swim the way they swim?” For every other sport, lessons are fundamental; you don’t go out and start slashing away with a golf club or sliding down a mountain on skis until someone takes you through the steps and teaches you proper form. If not, inefficiency is guaranteed and injury is inevitable.

“Running is the same way.” Eric explained. “Learn it wrong, and you’ll never know how good it can feel.” (page 202-3)

Since reading Born To Run and following up with additional research, I’m running farther, faster and more comfortably than ever. Previously, my best month’s milage was 45 miles. Since March I’ve averaged over 85 miles per month with July topping 100 for the first time. Last year I ran 375 miles. Physically, I’m sure I could go farther, but nothing in the book helps find more hours in the day. I’ve also shaved about a minute off my average mile without really thinking about speed.

I don’t have a coach and haven’t looked at video myself running (yet), but I have become highly focused on improving my mechanics and efficiency. These are some of the ideas I try to keep in my head while running:

  • shorter stride
  • Faster leg turnover
  • soft, quiet landings
  • pull the feet up off the ground
  • pull legs back with the butt
  • feet should be moving backwards before they touch the ground
  • straight back
  • “If it feels like work, you’re working too hard”
  • Do I need to eat or drink?
  • midfoot strike (land on the outside front of the foot, roll towards the big toe)
  • “release the springs” (try to use the tendon’s natural, zero-cost springiness)
  • Relax your hands and arms (don’t waste energy)
  • smile

Also, perhaps especially, Caballo Blanco’s mantra from page 111:

“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 shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that for 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.”

It’s still awkward, but I think I’ve felt it a couple times, usually somewhere past 4-6 miles into a run. My pace is faster than I’d have expected, but there it is; a grace and feeling of self-sustained movement and a sort of weightlessness and motion that feels like it could go on forever. Barefoot Ted described it well: “Like a fish slipping into water.”

A big part of adjusting my technique simply had to do with changing shoes. Despite having been previously diagnosed as a heavy over-pronator and clamped into motion-control shoes, it didn’t take long to become a minimal footwear convert. Less shoe gave me a better feel for the ground and increased flexibility across my feet. Read the whole story here: From Asics Kayanos to Nike Frees to Vibram FiveFingers and beyond

Getting past awkward

Ken Mierke is the exercise physiologist Chris trained with in chapter 27 and the creator of the efficiency-focused Evolution Running system.

“When I teach this technique and ask someone how it feels, if they say ‘Great!,’ I go ‘Damn!” That means they didn’t change a thing. The change should be awkward. You should go through a period where you’re no longer good at doing it wrong and not yet good at doing it right. You’re not only adapting your skills, but your tissues; you’re activating muscles that have been dormant most of your life. — Ken Mierke, page 206

The introduction to Ken’s instructional videos are online and are among the most helpful things I’ve found:
Part 1 (5:29), Part 2 (4:59), Part 3 (5:02), Part 4 (4:38) and Part 5 (4:23)

The third video especially talks about the zero-cost elastic recoil of the springlike Achilles tendons in our lower legs and how to benefit from it.

Two other articles by Ken, Creating Efficient Horizontal Propulsion and Maintaining High Turnover When Running Slowly (both on one page) talk about improving running efficiency by using leg muscles to reduce bouncing and increasing endurance with faster leg turnover. I’ve found bouncing to be a serious waste of energy and very hard on the joints.

On page 205, Ken makes the case for faster cadence to 62-year-old triathlete Alan Melvin:

“Kenyans have superquick foot turnover,” Ken said. “Quick, light leg contractions are more economical than big, forceful ones.”

“I don’t get it,” Alan said. “Don’t I want a longer stride, not a shorter one?”

“Let me ask you this,” Ken replied. “You ever see one of those barefoot guys in a 10k race?”

“Yeah. It’s like they’re running on hot coals.”

“You ever beat one of those barefoot guys?”

Alan reflected. “Good point.”

Upping my cadence might be the most challenging aspect of working on my form. Fast turnover, coupled with trying to pull my feet up off the ground and reducing ground-contact time has definitely affected how far I’m able to run. I’m going faster but my endurance hasn’t come close to catching up yet. When it works it feels great, but I tend to get winded quickly and am having a lot of trouble sustaining the faster cadence across any respectable distance.

Gordon Pirie is never mentioned in Born to Run, but his freely available book, “Running Fast and Injury Free” is worth reading, especially chapter 3, “Injuries, Technique and Shoes.” Gordon Pirie was outspoken with the confidence that he had lived and proven the ideas and techniques wrote about.

Pete Larson at RunBlogger (who also teaches Biology, Physiology and Biomechanics at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire) has posted dozens of excellent slow-motion videos showing various foot-strikes, both barefoot and in assorted footwear.

There are TONS of other running technique videos online, some of which are just patently awful. (“strike with your heel then roll off?! Gah!!) As an alternate or supplement to the ideas in the Evolution Running videos, I found Pose Running to have more of a direct approach to efficient mechanics which I prefer over the more holistic and metaphysical Chi Running.

It can seem at times while researching all of this, that everyone must know about it by now. Every running-focused blogger read the book months before I did and online community discussions about the book are all well established. But looking around the last race or anytime I run when other people are out, it’s clear that not enough people do know about this. So many people are bouncing along, pounding the ground in enormous shoes and grimacing in pain — the ideas behind more efficient, natural running and minimal footwear obviously have a ways to go.


  • tropiccat

    This is very useful, thank you!