Monday, February 6, 2012

Focus on Run, Bike Technique, Too

Often-overlooked areas of focus for new triathletes are running and biking technique. Most of us, whether new or experienced, often put a large amount of emphasis on swimming technique and either don’t know or neglect to work on proper running and biking techniques.

Why focus on run and bike mechanics? Because proper form:
• is a critical part of running and biking performance and injury prevention.
• will improve your economy and efficiency.
• will allow you to cycle and run easier, faster and farther.

hereas poor form will slow you down, decrease your efficiency and can even be the cause of many injuries.

The article focuses on running mechanics. Next month I will discuss biking mechanics.
Some run low to the ground with little knee lift, while others run powerfully, with high knee lift and a strong kick. Some athletes run with a slight forward lean and some run very upright. Despite the large variety in specific running forms, there are a number of elements that are common to successful running styles, even among elite triathletes/runners.

After running for more than 20 years, I am still continually making small adjustments to my form. Like swim technique, running technique is a learned skill. The main areas of focus when you are running are footstrike, posture, rate, stride and arm swing.

One of the most important phases of running mechanics is the position of your foot when it lands on the ground. When you foot strikes the ground, you can land in a variety of ways – toes first, ball of the foot first, flat footed or heel first.

Heel strikers
Heel strikers often overstride when reaching out in front of their body. Landing heel first is like putting on the brakes with each step, as if you are trying to drive your car while pressing on both the gas and brake pedals at the same time. This wastes energy and makes your running harder than it should be.

In addition to being inefficient, heel striking can cause of a long list of injuries. When you land on your heel, your leg is straight and extended in front of your body. The combination of a straight leg and a hard heel landing transfers a lot of impact through your heel and up through your knee to your hip. The excessive stress that a heel strike places on your joints can cause pain and injury to your hips, knee, ankle and foot. Shin splints (pain of the front of your lower legs) is one example of a common running injury that can be caused by heel striking and over striding.

Toe strikers
Toe first landings result in a lot of up and down motion in your stride and puts a lot of stress on the calf muscles. Toe running is more appropriate for sprinting than for distance running.

Mid-foot strikers
The most-efficient footstrike is one in which your foot lands directly under your hips or your center of gravity. This is when you land on the ball of your foot or flat footed. Doing some barefoot walking and running will help strengthen the ankle and foot muscles that stabilize your lower leg. Doing exercises and drills on an unstable surface such as a wobble board or stabilization pads can also help with this problem. The Newton Running website is a great resource of information on running form. The offer video tips every Friday and run clinics Saturday mornings at their store in Boulder. I also can meet with you with a video camera and discuss more in person.

Within the last couple of years, I was told I run with a very upright and straight posture. I know the importance of a forward lean and had no idea I was still running upright. I attribute my posture to years of running with my dogs, who often pull me forward, which causes me to lean back to keep them closer to me. I often have my husband observe me run if I am struggling with injures or when running becomes more difficult and less enjoyable.

The most efficient posture is one that is upright and relaxed, with a slight forward lean. Your chest should be out and your shoulders back. A backward lean will cause you to over stride and land heavily on your heel, stressing your knees, hips and back.

Keep your hips pressed forward and your butt tucked in. Visualize standing face first against a wall. Press your hips forward so that the bones of your hip touches the wall. Running with your hips forward will help you lift your knee higher with less effort. Concentrate on keeping your shoulders, jaw, torso and legs nice and loose. Keep your head and chin up, don’t tuck your chin and look down. Keep your focus forward, toward the horizon.

Stride Length and Rate
I covered the problem of overstriding earlier. When you reach out in front of your body with your foot and land heavily on your heel, you get the braking action that I mentioned earlier.

In a proper stride, your foot should land directly under your body with every step. You should run at a rate of about 180 footstrikes a minute before you focus on your lengthening your stride. Do not sacrifice quick rate for a longer stride. The quicker rate will allow you to land midfoot, underneath your center of mass.
Where toe strikers tend to leap or bound forward and push off vigorously, and heel strikers reach out and almost pull themselves forward, a midfoot strike with a high cadence and a forward lean propels you in a subtle, forward falling way. You land on your foot in the way it and your body were built to move, and efficiently use and conserve your energy and momentum.

Arm position
The main purpose of an arm swing is to provide balance and coordination with the legs. Arms should be loose and relaxed, close to the body. Relax your shoulders and down through your back – no shrugging! Your wrists and hands should be loose, not clenched. Keep your arm swing compact and your elbows at about a 90 degree angle. Drive your elbow backwards with each stride. Avoid “robot arms” where you drive your arms forward causing over striding. During the arm swing, your hands should not travel above your chest or behind the midline of your body. Avoid crossing your hand in front of your body, as any lateral movement across your body robs you of forward momentum.

Putting It All Together
So what does an efficient running stride look like? Just put all the pieces together.
Head up, your body is loose and relaxed from head to toe, with a slight forward lean. Shoulders are back, chest is out/forward. Arms are close in to your body, elbows are at about a 90-degree angle. Tuck your glutes underneath you and press your hips slightly forward. Drive your knees forward and up, and follow through with your foot/leg as you finish each stride. Land midfoot, and you heel will make contact with the ground. Keep your cadence high – about three strides a second.

Easier said than done, right?

Like any complex movement, it can be difficult to pay attention to everything at once. Through a proper warm up, some specific exercises to focus on specific parts of the movement, and staying focused as you run, you can put the pieces of a fast, efficient, comfortable running technique together.

The most common form flaw I observe in runners I’ve coached is over striding and running with a cadence less then 170 foot strikes a minute, so those are the first things I focus on when evaluating someone’s run technique.

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