XTerra Series II: Your running form matters!

   Teaching at a small college has forced me to expand my knowledge base well beyond what expertise in physiology to include that of biomechanics. As I have come to realize, however, so much of performance relies technique or form. Whether it be your stroke technique in the water, or position on the bike, or overall form and force application in the run, biomechanics can be the bottleneck for one or more areas. Moreover, your technique, may be related to strength, motor control, or both. In other words, its not just a matter of what your muscles can do, but how and when they do it. Therefore, when it comes to running technique, perfect practice does make perfect! In the second installment of my XTerra series I discuss why “strong” running is key to XTerra performance, and how you can get there.

Born to Run, but not necessarily well

I like to tell students that humans evolved to become mediocre runners at best, at least from an absolute speed view, but highly competitive long distance runner. Evidence supports the theory that humans are great walkers, but seem supremely adapted to long, relatively slow running, with specific adaptations for upright running, that other primates lack, including:

  • Short muscles connecting to long tendons and the plantar arch returns a substantial amount of energy through all phases of running.
  • Unlike quadrupeds, humans increase speed by increasing stride length, while maintaining optimal cadence
  • Humans have larger articular surfaces on bones like the tibia and femur relative to our body size
  • Greater forward lean
  • We have very large butts, relative to any other primate, which is essential to running at any speed
  • Our upper bodies move independently of our hips, unlike other primates
  • Smaller trapezius and neck connections also allow the head to move independently
  • Smaller faces and an inner ear designed to keep us stable and upright.
  • And, probably most importantly, an enormous capacity to cool the body via sweating

Bramble & Lieberman, 2004

If all this is true, why aren’t we all supreme runners? I mean we are all born to run! The reality is that while we all have the basic equipment, not everyone is born for running, and even fewer moved from walking at age 1 to running miles a day, like many Kenyan children. We not only lack the basic form, but much of the strength needed to run our best. I meet too many runners who focus more on miles than method, which not only leaves them slower, and all to often injured, especially when running on gnarly trails with tired legs. I would also argue, that too many XTerra racers consider running a necessary evil, that simply must be survived, rather than the leg where they can make the race. So if you’re serious about stepping up your XTerra game, here is how to revamp your run.

Find your form

Any good running coach will argue that good running goes beyond just putting shoes on and training hard. Yet, while many age-groupers spend hours splashing in the pool, perhaps endlessly looking for the perfect stroke, few take the time to perfect their run form. Unlike swimming, though, it is far easier to improve your running technique on your own, than it is your swim stroke. There are numerous resources on line to help with this, and I’ve have linked some of my favorites below. However, if you’re just getting started on all this here are the top things to look at:

  1. STAND TALL and LEAN FORWARD: a strong upright stance is essential to good running. Biomechanically speaking, running relies on a mass-spring model where the loaded leg landing on the ground stores and releases elastic energy. All of this occurs most efficiently when center of mass (just above the abdomen) remains in line with the head, the hip and the ankle. Moreover, maintaining a straight torso, minimizes muscle contraction to maintain stability, while the forward lean helps propel you horizontally [forward], rather than up and down. Running coach Bobby McGree has a great description of good running form here.
  2. SHORTER STRIDE, HIGHER CADENCE: One of the misconceptions about running is that the foot must land directly under the body. This myth was discussed on Sweat Science recently, where a recent research paper examined runners during a 5 k race and noted that the foot actually lands about a foot (30 cm) in front of the center of mass. While this seems to debunk the myth, the advice remains sound, because it emphasizes the need for novice and sub-elite runners to shorten their strides, which inevitably leads to a higher cadence. Why does this matter? As I outlined above, humans prefer to increase running speed by increasing stride length, while maintaining an optimal running cadence of 170 – 180 steps per minute. Such a high cadence minimizes ground contact time, thereby increasing the time spent in flight. A shorter stride also reduces impact forces for the heel strikers, improving their ability to roll forward off the heel; more important than trying to change your foot strike. For more tips, keep reading.
  3. MOBILITY leads to STABILITY: One cannot achieve optimal stability, without adequate mobility. The fact is, great mobility is essential for achieving optimal joint range of motion (ROM) for good running technique, as well as allowing for optimal joint stabilization. In XTerra trail running, stability is key to running fast and safe! However, good mobility comes from more than just flexible muscles, and may take some time to improve. However, good mobility starts in your warm-up, so if you want to move well in your run try adding 5 – 10 min of a combined foam roll, stretching, and muscular activation routine, like the one outlined below; I’ll discuss warm-up more in part III. Coupled with running drills, you may find yourself running better in just a few weeks.
    • “Mobility is the prerequisite movement parameter to absorb and adapt to the ever changing trail.” Don Reagan, DPT Mountain River Physical Therapy
  4. DRILL BABY, DRILL: There’s no way around it, if you want to run better, then you need to add some specific running drills to improve your technique. However, unlike those masters swim sessions, where you spend 100’s of meters doing drills you may not even be doing correctly, most run drills are simple, and can be easily added to either the warm-up, mid-run “shake-out”, or cool-down. For specific ideas on drills, checkout the ESP Podcast Youtube compilation here.
  5. XTerra is about Strength: While many XTerra athletes tend to view the run as an afterthought, others can mistakenly view it from the perspective of the road triathlete. Outside of the pro’s, I’ve found the XTerra run to be far less about speed, and more about overall strength and mental fortitude. I use the term strength here figuratively more than literally, but at the end of the day, a strong body will maintain that good running posture better than a weak one. Similarly, XTerra runs can require far more mental focus and motor skill than any road triathlon ever requires. As I touched on in my XTerra pacing article, the XTerra run comes after both swimming and mountain biking, which is far more physically and mentally demanding than steady state road cycling. All this means that your legs and upper body may be tired, sore, and maybe bruised. Add to that the stochastic nature of the trail, and you can find it very challenging to ever find your running legs. This makes a good strength training designed to optimize your run form essential. No time to strength train? Some simple exercises a few times a week may be all you need. Here’s my short list to get started:

In part 3 of my XTerra series, I’ll discuss how to convert better running form into better training, and then take that training into the races!

* Running Prep

  • 5 min of foam rolling combined with dynamic ROM stretching for the calves, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors; dynamic stretches aim for repeated movements with short hold times and increasing ROM.
  • 5 min of easy jogging (optional)
  • 5 min of running drills including three or more of the following: side skip, skipping, carioca, hamstring kickouts, butt kicks, ankling, and high knees.

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