Soon after I started running, I got hooked on looking for ways to improve. I dived straight in to running literature. At the time, there was a huge ‘barefoot running’ movement in the running community, which seemed to stem from the success of the book, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
The book was a very enjoyable read (I have re-read it several times since). I quickly followed it up with a book by one of the authors’ influencers, Ken Bob Saxton, called ‘Barefoot Running Step by Step’. You can read about some of my early forays and experiments with barefoot running on my older blog posts.
Both books stirred in me a desire to experiment with my existing running form. I wanted to feel like I could run all day, like the Tarahumara. To run light, strong and silently and stay injury free.
Why The Change?
So, why did I feel this need to change or toy with my running form? Defiance was one reason. A lot of self-proclaimed ‘experts’ seemed to suggest that it was not advisory to change your running technique. To me though, this seemed preposterous. Surely experimenting can lead to a greater understanding, appreciation and technique. The rules of learning, of trial and error and of continued improvement surely were applicable to running too?!
I also wanted to get faster. Based on what I’d read, it seemed clear to me that one way of getting faster was to ensure your running style was efficient. You could say that these books acted like my early running coach. I used the advice the books gave, tried things out and used what worked for me.
My style was unlike ‘real’ runners. I felt like a footballer doing a bit of running and I think I probably looked like it too! I wanted to look more like Mo Farah or Eliud Kipchoge; Graceful, smooth, light and looking like they could run forever.
How I Changed My Running Style
There were a few elements I consciously worked on and they have taken varying amounts of time to get to where I am now;
Which part of my foot hit the ground first.
Up until I read the above-mentioned books, I really hadn’t paid any attention to the mechanics of running. I just went out and ran. The books opened my eyes to seeing running as an art to be improved. My technique could be improved if I took steps to do so. There was actually quite a lot to think about! I changed from being a heel-striker who made contact with the ground way out in front of my body, to a midfoot/forefoot-striker who made contact with the ground right underneath my body. This is generally accepted as good running form.
This did NOT come naturally to me at all! I really had to be intentional about doing this. I had to think about it a lot during my runs. This resulted in an increased leg turnover. My calves aching like crazy after each run for probably about three weeks. I therefore gave my legs more time to recover between each run. Why did they hurt so much? It was because I hadn’t been engaging them properly in my old running technique. I’d been relying more on my upper leg muscles and so my calves weren’t being engaged like they were meant to. After the three weeks of aching calves, I also noticed how much BIGGER they had become! I was using them properly. The result? I was faster, without increasing my perceived effort!
How I hit the ground.
I really did ‘pound’ the pavement with my feet and you could hear me a long way off. So, I consciously tried to run ‘light’ trying to make less sound in my footsteps. I had the following passage from a character called Caballo Blanco, from the book Born to Run running through my head constantly:
“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 sh*t how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that 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.”
I agree with the sentiments Caballo Blanco expresses here. I’m not one to boast about my running prowess. Since my changes however, I have had the odd compliment about my running style.
These two were the really big ones. The third one is one I’m still working on. It’s a longer term project because it tends only to happen when I’m really tired. When I’m unable to think about anything other than trying to keep running!
Using my arms properly.
Most of the time, my arms behave themselves. However, when I really tire, they (particularly my right arm) tend to develop a mind of their own. They move across my body, making my torso rotate. This slows me down just at the key moment I want to be running as efficiently as possible. The ideal is for them to pump up and down by the side of my body. This provides balance and momentum in the direction of travel. I’m conscious of this to a point but need to try to remember and be focused on this when I get tired on runs.
To give some context to the benefits of changing my running form, I wanted to share a few observations:
I now feel like a runner, rather than a footballer who can run.
Like I could run for longer than I ever could before I changed my running technique.
My speed improved! I know that you could argue that this is just down to training over four years, but I honestly don’t believe that. From a debut half marathon of 1:27:32 in 2012, my PB is now 1:19:12 and I know I could run a 1:18 with some dedicated training now, based on my recent 10 mile race (https://www.strava.com/activities/1272325054).
I’ve only had one running-related injury (through doing too much too soon back in 2013). I don’t think I’d have stayed injury free for this long running like I used to.
I try to avoid over-analysing each run I do. But I think it helps to be mindful of how you’re running and what each part of your body is doing. Often what you think is not what is really going on!
Ready For Change?
If you’re considering what your running form looks like, or how efficient your technique is, then there are a few different things you could do.
- Head to a running store that offers gait analysis services. These are often provided free to lure you in!
- Speak to a running coach, like me(!), who can provide a gait analysis service and provide you with a report that outlines what you’re doing well and what you should aim to develop (as well as tips for how to do so).
- Get someone to record video of you running at a few different speeds (you’ll want side on, front on and from the back views!). Then, watch it back and see what you look like. What do you notice? What would you change?
- Watch YouTube videos of professional athletes running – pick those who run similar distances to you and watch how they run.
- Check out my blog article here on how to analyse your own running form and use the checklist I provide there!
I hope that helps!