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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Functional Form

Every runner has his or her own unique form.

It's a problem that's been plaguing track and cross country coaches for years. While there seems to be general agreement on various techniques that make for more efficient running, there is no way to point to any one running star and say, "Just run like he does," because every runner is different, so every runner has a slightly different form.

I still remember running cross country in junior high and high school and noticing the absurdities in everyone else's form. There was the tall guy who seemed to be jumping from one step to the next, and my smaller friend who always looked like he was leaning back against a heavy wind. There were the older girls on the team with their signature moves: one fell across the finish line every time and the other had, well, no form at all. You didn't want to run within a foot of her for fear of death by rogue limb. Then there was me, with my ridiculously high bounce and hair that went in all directions. By the end of the first week of training, you could pick anyone out by their stride from a half mile away.

While I'm sure that every one of us could have benefitted from some modifications to our stride, there was no way that my form was going to look anything like Lady Flail. Recently, with the resurgence of barefoot running, form has become one of the most talked-about aspects of running, and even though we can't all have Ryan Hall's perfection, there are several things we can do to make ourselves more efficient, which means more energy later in the race, which means better times.

First, posture is important. Running with your head down and shoulders slumped closes airways and leads to exhaustion. Keep your head up and your shoulders back, which will open up your chest and make room for more air. Not to mention the psychological benefit of looking strong and thereby feeling strong.

Moving down the body, the next thing to consider is the movement of your arms. This is difficult for me, as I've got bad form here. The ideal movement involves keeping your arms moving forward and backward, not across the body. The latter creates torque on your body which forces your legs (and particularly your knees) to compensate in order to keep you from spinning to the ground. By keeping the motion in one direction, you get the balance benefits without sacrificing stability.

The last major thing that I've been working on is landing on the middle of my foot. As any barefoot runner will tell you, the human heel is not designed to absorb any kind of shock. Notice how little muscle is there? When you land on your heel, the shock shoots up your leg and messes with knees, hips, and lower back muscles. By keeping your body forward and landing in the middle of your foot, you absorb the shock much more easily and the soft, strong muscle of your foot gives you a smoother landing than your heel ever could. It takes some practice, but you'll find that it makes you faster, too.

Where I really get into trouble, though, is when I'm tired. As a race pushes on or, say, I get to the fifth of eight half-mile repeats, my resolve starts to break down, and I begin to forget about all the form corrections on which I've had so much focus. And of course, this is when I need to remember them most of all. Alanis Morrissette would call this ironic. I'm not sure she's using that right.

My goal is to make little tweaks to my form in such a way that they become a part of my natural tendencies, rather than something I have to think about. And then, when I start repeat number six, I won't be quite so terrified of the upcoming miles. They'll be easy, relaxed, and strong.

Not to mention I'll look good.

Thursday's workout:
65 degrees, cloudy
8x800 on 1:00 rest
2:52     2:40
2:39     2:41
2:38     2:42
2:34     2:42

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