Is there a right way for triathletes to run?

Is there a right way for triathletes to run?

This article was originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

Let’s imagine, as some believe, that high-mileage training is the required path to elite performance in long-distance running. To make the elite level, one needs not only the motivation to run high mileage, but the body that can endure lots of miles with little in the way of injury. So either you need to be blessed with near-perfect mechanics so you can handle the volume without injury, or you need to somehow eliminate or work around the biomechanical flaws, somehow, some way.

Whether this type of efficient stride is a gift or a skill that can be taught has become a furious debate in the past five years. As a triathlete and runner who has been among the 70 percent of runners who get injured every year, this is the question I hoped would shed light on preventing injury and enabling higher performance, no matter what hand of cards you’ve been dealt genetically.

This is what leads us to the idea of treating running the way we do swimming—as a trainable skill. It’s universally accepted that becoming a good swimmer means spending huge amounts of time in the pool with a coach watching and teaching you, drill by drill and set by set, swim technique. The same could be said of a golf swing. We aren’t born with flawless freestyle technique and surely don’t come into this world with a perfect five-iron shot. In swimming and golf, skill development and practice are the price of success. However, there is not a similar universally accepted doctrine when it comes to running—although that conversation has, as mentioned, heated up in recent years.

In fact, there’s a real scorcher of a fight going on among coaches, biomechanists and physicists about whether running should be developed like a skill, what forces are actually at play when we run and whether or not running style is a mystery of nature that depends on a combination of your genes and running mileage.

Two of the best runners in the Ironman, both Australians, help personify each side of the discussion: 2010 Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae and 2012 Ironman world champion Pete Jacobs. Carfrae owns the women’s Kona run course record of 2:52:09, which she set in 2011. In 2010 Jacobs ran a 2:41 marathon, the third fastest run split in the history of the race (behind the increasingly mind-blowing top two times of Mark Allen and Dave Scott in 1989 of 2:40:04 and 2:41:03, respectively).

The Natural

First consider Mirinda Carfrae. How did she develop such enviable running form? She says that in her years working with her former coach, Siri Lindley, she regularly did workouts on a treadmill with the specific intention of zeroing in on a fast stride rate. “Siri helped me dial in my run pace. I tended to over-stride, which ends up fatiguing you a lot in an Ironman race. She helped me develop higher turnover.” But as far as how she became such a magical runner, she shrugged. “I don’t worry about it all that much.”

“I grew up on a farm,” she says, advancing a theory. “I had a very outdoorsy childhood. I was one of six kids, and we ran around a lot barefoot. We climbed trees. If you fell, you got hurt, you got back up and went at it more.” Her path into triathlon started when a coach spotted her during a basketball practice and suggested she give running a shot.

In addition to rambling on her Australian farm, Carfrae spent some time studying kung fu. Was that perhaps some sort of cornerstone of her ability to run fast in an Ironman? She laughs. “Maybe, maybe not. I can neither confirm nor deny.”

The Tinkerer

Now consider Pete Jacobs. In 2011, he ran a 2:42 marathon after a 4:31 bike to finish second in 8:09, no doubt giving him the jolt of inner knowledge that the top of the podium was calling to him, and it turned out it was. But in looking at how Jacobs has progressed over the years, his 2010 run split of 2:41 for ninth place came one year after he ran 2:57 for eighth place. Was Jacobs born to run or did he make himself a runner?

According to Jacobs, there’s something to be said for painstakingly developing the skill of running.

“It’s only when I read Born to Run [by Christopher MacDougall] that I realized there was a more efficient way of running,” Jacobs says. “It didn’t really say how. It just offered tips and sneak peeks.” Jacobs then developed his own approach to the skill of running, isolating feature elements like a tall posture supported by switched-on core muscles, a foot strike where his full foot lands on the pavement but with the weight more on the forefoot, and increasing his turnover rate by using his arms. When Jacobs runs, he’s constantly checking all the signals coming in from the body, tweaking his form and his use of muscular energy like an obsessive-compulsive engineer.

“It took about a year to start developing,” Jacobs says of the technique. “There was a lot of trial and error.”

So that’s the essence of the debate: the mysteriously gifted farm girl versus the tinkering mechanic.

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Philosophical Debate

This dichotomy between philosophies is evident whenever Nicholas Romanov, Ph.D., gives a talk on his method of running and method of teaching running, called the Pose Method. Romanov’s work began in the late 1970s within the Soviet Union superpower sports machine, when he was a teacher and coach at the Pedagogical University in Cheboksary, about a nine-hour drive east of Moscow. Although he remains a polarizing voice when it comes to biomechanics and running, there’s no denying that he has had an impact on triathlon. Elite triathletes like Tim Don, Hunter Kemper and Andrew Johns have endorsed the method as well as coaches like Joe Friel, George Dallum and Graham Fletcher. Romanov (who is a now a U.S. citizen) is currently working with the Russian ITU triathletes. But his critics tend to focus their complaints on how the laws of physics work within Romanov’s model.

This model, Romanov says, was created because of a “paradox.” As Romanov details in his book, The Pose Method of Running, he felt despite the thoroughness of his Soviet postgrad education in the sports sciences, he had little to offer his athletes when it came to running. “I realized that all of my university education had not equipped me to teach my students such a seemingly simple exercise as running. … I didn’t know what running [was], from a biological and physiological standpoint.” Romanov then set out to establish a model of running and a method of teaching it, essentially studying human movement as well as animal movement through the cold, clear prism of physics.

The Pose Method was the model of running that Romanov produced, a method now taught through clinics around the world. When Romanov speaks before an audience to introduce the Method, he starts off by reading a quote by Ken Doherty, one of the dominant thinkers in track and field technique in the 20th century and author of The Track and Field Omnibook: “Running technique is primarily an individual matter. A sound rule of thumb when it comes to running technique is to leave it alone. Do what comes naturally, as long as ‘naturally’ is mechanically sound.”

Romanov points to the paradox within Doherty’s last sentence: Without a standard of what “natural” means to running, and what he means by mechanically sound, there is really nowhere to go with this advice.

For a thorough understanding of Romanov’s standard of running and the approach he advises triathletes and runners to follow in learning it, it’s best to read his book cover to cover, but here’s a synopsis: The use of the word “pose” refers to the position of the body when a supporting leg and foot are in balance and in contact with the ground. Motion occurs when the supporting leg is lifted and the body falls forward, both feet off the ground. Eventually the other foot makes contact with the ground and another supporting position, or pose, is established, and ground has been covered. This moving from position, to position, to position—and pulled forward by gravity—is essentially the Pose definition of running and how Romanov looks at it. Like ballet, t’ai chi or any other form of human movement, it’s all about the path from one position of support to another position of support.

The Pose Method, Romanov says, intends to find and teach the best way to move between these positions of stability: The ideal way to move between each of these positions should make the best use of gravity, involve the least amount of impact stress and be efficient in terms of speed and use of energy.

To cut to the chase, there is more agreement than disagreement when it comes to the fundamentals involved in the gait debate. Pose Running and Chi Running, a form of teaching run technique based on movement principles of t’ai chi, for example, encourage an engaged core, a forward lean from the ankle (not the hip), a shorter, more compact stride, a faster stride rate and striking underneath your body weight as opposed to reaching out with your foot and driving your heel into the ground.

So while there’s some consensus on how to run well, the gait debate burns hot when you talk about gravity. It’s Romanov’s emphasis that gravitational torque should be the main source of power—an assertion that sounds too much like a perpetual motion machine to some of his fellow scientists. It all seems to boil down to an argument about what powers running: Is it by a bolt of energy from the muscles and tendons of the legs and hips? Or is the best power achieved by understanding how a human runner covers ground like an inverted pendulum? That through proper forward lean and proper mechanics a runner can be swept through a run by repeatedly falling, over and over?

Critics of Romanov point to research like a 2000 Journal of Applied Physiology study, which concluded that faster running speeds were achieved with more force poured into the ground as opposed to how fast you can move your legs. But that’s just one study. There is no shortage of studies on locomotion to get swallowed up by, most of the brain-melting variety for the laymen biomechanist, ridden with terms like “spring-mass system,” “elastic recoil,” “ballistic running,” “minimum swing time,” “stationary pivot points,” “dynamic similarity theory,” “ground reaction forces” and “gravitational wave velocity.”

Human movement is far more complex than most people think, remarks Jim Gourley, an aeronautical engineer, Ironman, and author of the book Faster: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed (VeloPress, released in July). Gourley has written his book with the hopes of making some of the hard science involved in triathlon accessible to the non-physicist triathlete.

As far as running goes, he suggests that while Christopher MacDougall’s Born to Run may have helped ignite the argument between “natural” running, Pose Running, Chi Running, barefoot running and whatever else is in the fray, it didn’t do much to help solve the problem of how we run. “I think MacDougall had the right answer; he just didn’t provide any of the underlying science.”

Gourley summarizes the science of how we run this way: It’s like we have two pogo sticks attached to the hips. “Everything sort of works off of that model.”

With the image of the pogo stick in mind, think about short hops versus long hops. “It’s easy to stay on the pogo stick with short hops. But when you make huge leaps on the pogo stick, the stick is too far out front of your center of gravity, and you can fall backward. A lot of things happen when we lengthen our stride to cover more horizontal distance. Your vertical displacement is high, which is a waste of energy for the runner. You come down at a steeper angle, with more vertical impact force.”

Shortening the stride, Gourley says, also helps retain spring in your muscles. Gourley calls it spring, Romanov calls it elasticity and Danny Dreyer, creator of Chi Running, calls it tension in the muscles. (If you think of Pose Running as a Western-medicine, hard-science formula for running, think of Chi Running—which Dreyer based on his studies with a t’ai chi master—as an alternative medicine counterpart.)

Whatever you call it, Gourley says this spring is an invaluable commodity for the triathlete, and when you run out of spring, you’re doomed to shuffling, which is bad not just because it’s slow but because “studies indicate that it leads to an increase in both the magnitude of the load placed on the leg and the amount of time it is under load.” To preserve this spring/elasticity/tension, shorten your stride. Gourley says, “Shortening your stride length facilitates increasing your stride frequency, which leads to your legs compensating by increasing muscle stiffness. Rigid muscles in turn function as an anchor for tendons and ligaments to stretch and recoil against. Literally, you ‘put a spring in your step.’”

Studies on the Pose and Chi running methods offer a cloudy view. One of the layers of cloudiness is the fact that Pose and Chi running are in the business of selling seminars, videos and books, and some of the studies were obviously conducted by the creators. The best and most thorough review of the scientific studies on the methods was conducted in a mammoth six-part series by Ross Tucker, Ph.D., and Jonathan Dugas, Ph.D., on their website Sportsscientists.com. In the review they discuss Dr. Tim Noakes’ study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise in 2004, conducted in Cape Town, South Africa, on the Pose Method that they participated in (Tucker and Dugas consider the Pose Method and Chi Running as being basically indistinguishable). “We did drills, got taught how to run, and how not to run,” they reported on the website, noting that they received more personal instruction than a typical seminar participant would. At the end of the study the subjects had reduced vertical oscillation and lowered the impact stress on the knees. Strides were shorter and stride rates were higher. But Tucker and Dugas reported on ramifications of reducing the loading on the knee: “That loading doesn’t just disappear; it goes somewhere else.”

It goes to the ankle, they continued, and as much anecdotal evidence has suggested, in making a sweeping change to running form, there’s a risk in creating an Achilles tendon or calf muscle injury.

Discussing the study at a USA Triathlon science seminar, in a side by side Q-and-A session with Romanov, triathlon and running coach Bobby McGee expanded on a follow-up to the Cape Town study. “It was the only heavy study done of Nicholas’ work,” he says. “All were chosen from a heel-striking sample. … Anecdotally, almost everyone who went on to maintain the Pose Method—because of that short period of development—developed Achilles and soleus issues.”

McGee portrays the Pose Method as useful but idealistic—and the use of Pose thinking in his coaching is evident, but scaled back. “Every single one of [the Pose drills] is a highly skilled plyometric drill,” he says. McGee believes that only a “reasonably proficient” runner will ultimately be able to master all of the levels of the program, and that it may take not just months, but years. “In the learning of the technique, in the teaching of the technique, things get lost. I’ll see someone who has been spending a lot of time with Nicholas, and it looks like he’s using too much range of motion, too much energy, it looks like his legs are overworking. … All I can think is, he hasn’t quite got it yet.” So McGee considers the individual variation component. “I try to move away from ‘this is the system and that’s it.’ Some people don’t have the strength, the power, the flexibility and the core strength.” There are gradations, he says, and by using the Pose (and presumably Chi) tools, a runner can “enjoy being injured less and running faster.”

That said, McGee does subscribe to the critical ideas at work in Romanov’s model. Romanov says that his frustration with the naysayers is that he would prefer to have a face-to-face discussion about it. “I do understand that Pose is not free from an uncertainty,” he says. “It is a work in progress, but the primary concept of how we move is correct.”

Where to Now?

So back to Carfrae and Jacobs—the great runner that comes by great form naturally versus the runner who dedicated a year to overhauling his form and became faster because of it.

The debates funnel down to some obvious points. If you run fast and never get injured, then why mess with it? But if you’re injured a lot, and/or you’re slow, it may be worth it to spend some time studying and tinkering with your running form, in a measured and patient way like Jacobs did.

For those interested in following Jacobs’ path, the sweet spot seems to be patience. Attending a clinic may be worthwhile, but it’s just a starting point—implementing a set of new running skills takes time and attention, and likely requires a holistic approach of strength and mobility work to absorb the new skills.

As an oft-injured runner with a knee that felt like I was one heel strike away from tearing apart, I had little choice but to steer into this territory. I took on a six-week project of learning Pose drills in hopes of overhauling my form. I carried a metronome in my hand and engaged a much faster tempo, falling forward, compacting my stride, striking on the forefoot and pulling my foot up with my hamstring. The first two weeks were positively weird: While doing 200-meter repeats at an easy-to-medium pace, I was breathing as if I was running all out and my hamstrings felt on the verge of cramping. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was ridiculous.

But by the third week it all clicked. My breathing had returned to normal as my pace quickened. The new stride rate caught on. My legs felt like wheels and the pain in my knees vanished. I was surprised to see I was running faster with less effort.

In the sixth week, however, my Achilles became sore, and of course, I couldn’t help myself, I kept doing the drills until I became so sore running became impossible. Temporarily, I should say. Although I experienced a similar outcome to those in the Cape Town study, I also knew two things: Running form can be changed, and I also had hope that it could be changed—with a little more time and patience—for the better, and for good.

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Where the Rubber Hits the Road

Since the conceptual debate isn’t close to being settled, what should we be doing in the interim?

Longtime triathlon coach Cliff English has considered the on-the-ground practicalities of solving the challenge of running in an Ironman. English, who currently coaches pro long-course triathletes Heather Jackson, T.J. Tollakson and Tim O’Donnell, consults with coach Bobby McGee on mechanics.

“Our sport is about taking care of business on the run,” says English. “You want to be efficient.” English sticks to a set of fundamentals when teaching running form. “High cadence, minimal vertical oscillation, arms compact, a good [slightly forward leaning] body position with the energy moving forward.”

When watching his athletes race, English keeps an eye on the head position. He wants to see that level head with the eyes fixed 30 yards down the road. “Everything follows from the head. If I see an athlete’s gaze wander up and they’re looking above the horizon, I know that everything will start to fall apart.”

English says the secret boils down to looking at the great runners in the sport, like Mirinda Carfrae and Craig Alexander, and observing the consistency of their form. “Their running form looks exactly the same whether it’s mile 1 or mile 23. This is a matter of preparation. Be attentive to your form. If you fall apart in your training, you’ll fall apart in your racing.”

English has his athletes prepare with specific workouts, like 3×30 minutes at Ironman race pace, with 4-minute breaks in between, the goal being to make a habit of retaining form despite fatigue. “Another way to do this is to break up the long run,” he adds. “Do a two-hour run in the morning and then at night do a fartlek run, where you can run with higher speed, faster cadence and better form.”

What English is getting at is you need to master your running form and build the stamina—both physical and psychological—to keep that form intact as long as possible. Brian Rosetti, founder of the Run Smart Project and formerly a national class track runner, applies the same line of thinking in his coaching. One of his athletes might be training for a marathon, but within the program will be short interval speed training. Why? “It helps improve your economy and efficiency,” he says.

“There’s a misconception that speedwork injures people.” Rosetti says the danger of injury grows when you’re running long and your form is bad. Running sprints, says Rosetti’s fellow Run Smart coach, Malinda Elmore—who ran the 1,500 meters for Canada in the 2004 Olympics—is a great way to teach your body how to run well. “Typical track drills are fine and dandy, but the science behind them is mixed. One of the best strength and drill training sessions for runners is pure sprinting.” Elmore says to do this by adding striders to the end of your regular runs or in track workouts where you focus on really fast 100s. “You become a better and smoother runner by practicing running faster than you would in a race.”

Unlimited Power: The Glutes

One of the interesting things that came out of a 2012 University of Nevada study was that in having heel strikers change to a forefoot strike, the subjects reported feeling uncomfortable impact stress in their lower spines. Did this mean that they should revert back to heel striking? Perhaps, but there’s another possibility: You can strengthen the muscles around the spine and use them.

When you talk about the lower back in triathlon, it leads to a discussion on the importance of trunk strength. In Chi Running, a strong and engaged core is essential to the technique. A strong posterior chain has also been something that six-time Hawaii Ironman champion Dave Scott has long emphasized—and was key in the programming he created for both Chrissie Wellington and Craig Alexander. “Weight training—in particular the muscles in your back, hips, hamstrings and calves—is crucial to the bike-to-run transition,” he once told me. The discussion came up because Scott was watching top American triathletes pile on monstrous bike ride after monstrous bike ride, but still struggled when it came to racing the Ironman.

Trunk strength, aka midline stability, is a principal feature of the approach encouraged by Brian MacKenzie, author of Power, Speed, Endurance: A Skill-Based Approach to Endurance, and is related directly to the bike-to-run transition in an Ironman.

“Think about how you feel after sitting on a plane for four hours or longer,” MacKenzie says. “You’re sitting in that position the whole time.” He says this is not so different from sitting on a bike for 112 miles. “It’s impossible to stabilize your spine for that length of time. There’s a core-to-extremity violation happening no matter how much you try to have good posture, and you have to make up for the lack of integrity in the hip.” The result is that you exhaust the muscles of your extremities because you can’t fully access the more powerful muscles of the hips and the core. “And now you need to run.”

“This is where strength and conditioning work comes in,” MacKenzie says. “The stronger you are, the better you’re able to hold up in an Ironman.”

“You have to learn how to use the glutes,” says Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a medical doctor (who, it’s worth noting, was capable of sub-2:40 marathon racing in his 40s) whose advocacy for minimalist running is archived on the website Naturalrunningcenter.com. “Riding a bike—it’s all hip flexor,” he told me. “You’re not using the glutes that much. You have this whole other engine, the gluteus maximus. It’s the most powerful red meat you have. You can’t tire it out. Look at how Craig Alexander uses his glutes when he runs—I think it’s because he was a soccer player. You need to cue it throughout the race: push, push, push, lightly, like in cross-country skiing.”

Running Form Checklist

Running expert and triathlon coach Bobby McGee believes that everyone has different needs and a different set of problems to work on when it comes to running form. “Anyone who tells you that one size fits all for running form is out of it,” says McGee, who has coached running technique for three decades and worked with top Americans training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Here are his six main tips to make yourself a better runner:

Keep a quick stride rate. Nature gave us a stride rate of around 90–100 steps per minute, McGee says. If we haven’t developed that rating or don’t use it, we “lose height, posture, and alignment” in such a way that we delay ground reaction and gravitational forces get more of a hold on us. We have to exert more energy to reestablish the height, posture and alignment. “We are trying to bounce a flat basketball, and it needs more force,” McGee says. Brian Hickey, a kinesiology professor at Florida State University and top masters duathlete, agrees with this principle. “You want to run like a tack hammer,” he says. “If you lumber along at 80 strides per foot per minute, it’s just constant start and stop.”

Maintain good posture with a slight forward lean. If you run with a fast stride rate, good posture and strong muscles supporting the trunk—the air in the inflated basketball—you profit from velocity. McGee defines good posture as running tall with a slight forward lean (from the ankles, not the hips), minimal-to-zero arch in the lower back (a testament to core strength), where you maintain a straight line from the ankle to the ear, with your eyes looking about 35 feet down the road.

Avoid too much forward lean. Leaning too far forward, McGee says, can lead to over-rotation and injury. You can also end up running too fast for your cardiovascular system.

Apply proper power. Your leg does not just fall to the surface of the ground, McGee says. Rather, you want to “pop” the foot downward and with forward motion, “under oneself,” and then stiffen the arch/ankle/knee and hip while in contact with the surface. This allows the tendons and fascia to load, and friction with the surface to release energy—forward and upward. The leg, McGee says, “is applied and loaded like a pogo stick.” This popping downward power comes from the glute and hamstring, McGee says, and ideally starts when the knee reaches its lift apogee.

Land the foot underneath your pelvis. Or as close to this as possible, McGee says. Doing so will minimize the amount of braking you do while running.

Forget heel versus mid-foot. As far as whether you strike with one part of your foot or another, McGee says this is secondary to diverting the shock and loading elastically. If you’re a heel striker, trying to change to a forefoot strike has a high risk of injury to it, and unless you’re out to make an Olympic team, it might be best to stick with a heel strike. To dissipate the shock and load correctly with a heel strike, keep the angle between the forefoot and rear foot as meager as possible. Think of your foot as a “partial wheel” and start “rolling” the foot to your forefoot as soon as you touch down.

Should you change your running form?

Running is a very primal activity. When viewed as an evolutionary trait, the assumption might be to leave form alone because our bodies are already very well adapted to the task. Form fits function, right? However the voluntary decision to run for longer distances (wearing shoes and covering artificial surfaces) for purely self-actualization reasons complicates things.

If you are struggling to perform to your capabilities, have reached a speed plateau despite improvements in training or are regularly injured, your stride might need a tune-up. My approach to improving run technique is based on ascertaining which parts of an individual’s gait are functions of limitations from lack of strength, power, range of motion, balance/skill or lack of repetition. Then, I determine what running style will be left after these are addressed. This process runs the gamut of PT assessments of movement skills, strength and conditioning, drills and immersion.

I attempt to allow the best runner an individual could possibly be, if all relevant factors are addressed, to come to the fore. I do not teach a specific form. Applying generic run technique leads to injury and inefficiency for many individuals, and while someone who runs with a completely manufactured style may look good, they will never ultimately achieve to their capability. Address what hurts you, what holds you back and what has been “unnaturally” acquired for whatever reason—that’s the most that I can strive for when working on run form. —Bobby McGee

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