Tag Archives: running technique

Form Work (or Running Fewer Miles and Why It’s Okay)

I’ve been working on form. Really my “coach” has been working with me on it, berating, spluttering, uncompromising, head shaking, but always ready to start again next time. There in the park, every day. When the form work intensifies, I tend to feel that long runs are not really in the cards. There are a lot of drills, and though the routes are generally short, the intensity is high. The impact of drills will sneak up on you. Something’s got to give. I’m in my late forties, and wary of getting injured. Not being able to run? That would be torture. I can do a long run, but it compromises the intensity of my group runs. So the miles have dropped off. I’d been running about 30 miles a week, and that generally feels good for me. Last few weeks: Just under 20 miles.

In the past, I’ve really struggled with this. Because I want miles. The body drinks them up. There’s nothing quite like that groove of running a little more mileage than you’re used to. The legs start to feel a little heavy, but strong. But I’ve had an intuition that the form work is coming along nicely (“his knees were releasing today!”), and so I just let the miles go for the moment. I’ve got no immediate race (there’s a half in May 2014). And I’m pretty sure if I clean up my form, I’ll get some “free speed.” Recent easy runs seem to confirm this. When I focus on form, even in an offhand way, the pace picks up.

Today I arrived in the park, my first day this week. Six-thirty a.m. No polar vortex, but it is chilly. The runner nearest to me in age and speed has a scab healing around his knee and is walking his dog today. The two fast runners are no show. So two other runners and myself are given marching orders. Essentially two steep hikes, one right past Bee Rock and then another up a sheer hill along a service ladder. Blood is pounding in my head by the end. Then a winding downhill, essentially for recovery and loosening up before the training.

Coach and one of the other runners meet me below one of the main water tanks that dot the park. They both make an unusual comment, “Hey, you look pretty good.” Coach adds, “of course you knew I was going to be watching you.” Coach is a curmudgeon, but I take the compliment. One thing about this group: They will never tell you you’re doing great out of kindness or politeness or some notion of being encouraging. Coach has me run down a steep bank off the main trail, a place we call Piney Slope, and has me run two short, very steep sprints. I imagine this is to activate the muscles or nervous system or something, but I don’t ask a lot of questions. The last thing I need to do is overthink it. I’ve been observing this guy for a year and have concluded he really understands body mechanics, among other things. So I trust.

I make back up to the main trail with some nods of approval. Next he has me run some short downhill sprints. A couple things he wants me to attend to. The right foot is always an issue. Coach and one of the other runners reckon it points out at about 1 o’clock position. I venture a guess of 12:30, shot down. “No way is it 12:30.” Before it was at 2 o’clock position. The other thing is holding the chest and neck high, neck straight. (I was having the hardest time with this until a couple weeks ago when one of the runners gave me a physical prompt, she held my jaw and pressed my forehead back. Something clicked.) And pushing the hips through. And as much as anything else, getting a nice forward lean. I can’t really explain mechanics very clearly. I am kinesthetically challenged. We do a few of short sprints. Coach will sometimes ask me to stop after the first few steps, “No!” You’re doing blah blah. Try this. Let’s try again.

Next, we do a series of short races, about 15 seconds each. We are still focusing on form here, but it’s more an integration of what we’re working on – a race is a race. At this point it’s just me and another runner who’s a little slower. To compensate, coach puts her way out in front. She’s about 10 or 15 meters ahead. Just by feel, I can see that it’s going to be a struggle to catch her, but within reach. For the first few I catch her, and he keeps increasing the head start. He’s happy with what he sees today. “You got up to about 6 steps per second. If we can just get you to relax your back and lift – you should be able to get to 7-8 steps, easy.” I don’t catch her on the last couple. By the third to last race I’m shot, and my arms are doing weird things. “You’re doing that dead bird thing again. You must be tired.” Then we walk for a bit and the talk turns to cooking (certain topics are standard recovery cues — or that the workout’s over, it’s never clear which. Another common topic is football. That usually means the workout is done.)

I don’t catch the other runner for the last race either. But after the workout coach says my knees were really coming up quite high and forward, unusual for me and something we’ve been working toward. The posture was good, erect. Hips coming through. For some moments today I had a good lean forward and imagined I might even resemble an athlete. This is very gratifying as previously my form was very jogger-ish. I’m simply not someone that ever thought of myself as an athlete.

“That was some pretty good running.”


Champion Workouts and Other Miscellany

Just less than 4 weeks until my half marathon. Naturally thinking about where I am in my training. It would have been great to run a 10K today as a “tune up” race. That would have been an excellent indicator of fitness, allowed me to calibrate my goal pace. Instead, today ran a very challenging series of sprints, what Greg McMillan calls a “champion workout”.

Normally, I’m a strong proponent of control in training — the opposite of the Champion’s Workout concept. In nearly all workouts, you should work hard but not too hard. None of this “Give it the ol’ 110 percent” stuff. I say train at 90 percent of what you could do in workouts and you’ll find that your racing is better. It was with this in mind that Pete Magill used the same fictional workout from Once a Runner as a negative example in his January 2013 article, “The Dirty Dozen: 12 mistakes (even experienced) runners make.” But there’s a time and a place for going all-out in training, to remind yourself that when it gets tough in races, you can dig deeper.

Of course, I don’t really know if McMillan would have considered this a champion workout or not. But it was intense. Eight sets of 5 15-second sprints, with 30 seconds recovery between sprints and 90 seconds recovery between sets. The whole course took us all the way along a service road, Vista del Valle, to the water tank where we usually end such workouts, but then, somewhat mind bogglingly, uphill toward the “pass” that leads to the other side of the park, the Hollywood side. After a brief break, the instruction was to go full steam down the winding hills back to the parking lot.

I liked the way one of the runners, new to the group and who has served in the armed forces, described the workout: “It was insane.”

The sprinting part, with the rests taken out, amounted to 2.23 miles run in 11:13 — an average pace of 5:02 — well above what I could ever expect to run for any longer distance. Coach wants us to run 800 meters (a half mile) in 2:30. Which is, of course, this pace. That we were sprinting at this pace, he would say, means we are running too slowly. And he would shake his head.

Though not entirely a self-satisfied character, I was happy with my workout today. I was the first one back to the parking lot. I worked hard. I didn’t let myself crap out like last week. When it became painful, I focussed on what was good, concentrated on pumping the arms or thought “I’m good uphill!” I, err, went to the well. So I seem to be on a fairly good schedule with my training, if I don’t let up. I managed to get 29 miles in during this past vacation week (I even got some running in at elevation 7000 feet. Finding: You breathe harder.) It was a well timed rest week as I’ve been working on an increased dose of 40 miles a week for the last few weeks (43.8, 41.2, 41.8, 40). The body seems to be handling the increase without any obvious signs of explosion. (I might add that I napped twice today, took a bath with epsom salts, ate an obscenely large breakfast, and spent quality time with the foam roller.)

And I am fascinated by this edge of where the optimum training is, and when prudence might be cast aside. After a plateau of increased mileage, a spate of body weight exercises to keep the body strong, perhaps a champion workout? Perhaps an all-out race? Alex Hutchinson has touched on the issue in a great article in The Walrus — when it’s proper to cast aside the time you know you can responsibly run based on your training and just go for broke… In this story, he looks at Reid Coolsaet’s attempt against a field of Kenyans, and how it affected his standing. It’s a great read. Really top notch journalism, in my opinion, had me running over to his website to find other articles of his. Even the non-running ones.

Having A Moment


Coach had mentioned, two weeks back, that I should come during the week to work on form. So today managed to make it happen. We started with some exercises, pushing the foot into the ground and moving it forward, getting the hips to engage. Did some sprints. Some skipping. Some single leg bounding.

Then I have to admit my heart sank a little when I realized we were headed over to a piney section, where we do sprints up a very steep trail. It just requires so much power (and technique) to get up that hill! After two sprints I was “having a moment” had to take a break. There was just nothing left. I have to give him credit, he knew. He didn’t even ask. And he knows when to say, “That’s ridiculous.” And when to back off.

After recovering we ran a downhill sprint and then some very focussed hill bounding. Marked of a section and counted the number of bounds it took (24 for me to start) to get there, uphill. We did this section several times, quite deliberately. For me, it’s all about planting the right foot squarely, I’m not using the whole foot, and so getting less power.

Then we coasted round a few bends to a relatively flat section, which ends at the spot above, of which I just happen to have a photo. At the flat section I was used as a rabbit while the other runner focussed on form. And I was encouraged to pick up my cadence when the other runner passed me, which he did. And I did. That was a good sprint. He said I got up to 4 steps a second, which is “good for a beginner.”

More and more, I’m convinced this guy knows what he’s doing. He claimed, offhandedly today, that when he was nationally ranked, he was coached by Gordon Pirie. And that Pirie’s nickname for him was “the fuckup.” Says Pirie got things out of him he didn’t know were there. I don’t doubt it.

All in all, it was only 2.5 miles. But I’m sure I’m going to feel it. And I’m going to feel it in my shoulders, ribs. Weird places. During my long run tomorrow, perhaps.

Strengthening the Hip Flexors

It’s hard to describe what proper running form should look like and include, and beyond that there’s a fair amount of disagreement. (I found some great sites that address some of these questions.) It appears there are a few key elements, having the foot land (more or less) under the body, not ahead of it. If the foot is landing ahead of the body, then you’re putting on the brakes the whole time, which is both inefficient and stressful.

And then there’s the mystery of the hips. The motion of the hips, I have on good authority, is critical to form. Perhaps you are already convinced of this. Maybe not. Here’s an excerpt from The Science of Sport blog, the authors, Ross Tucker, PhD, and Jonathan Dugas, PhD, published a book entitled The Runner’s Body in 2009. This taken from one of their excellent posts on running technique:

The hips are, as described by the Pose website, one of the more important parts to consider. This is where Pose theory is particularly strong. Ideally, the hips should be as far forward as possible (within reason) because the hips are more or less where the centre of mass is. As we described the other day, if you land well in front of your centre of mass, you decelerate. That’s one reason why when you run downhill, you feel like you are jarring much more. If you want to speed up on a downhill, you know what to do – simply lean forward. Not at the shoulders, but by getting your whole body tilted forward just a little. That means getting your hips in front. In otherwords, all runners know that when running down hill, they can control speed by moving their hips. Slowing down involves “sitting back”, or dropping the hips slightly.

Applying the same principle to running every where else, if you can just learn the habit of keeping your hips “high” then you will always be in this position. In otherwords, don’t “sit” and run at the same time – get your centre of mass up and forward, if you can. This is not easy, it requires quite strong core muscles, and so that’s why runners often benefit from some Pilates or gym training in this area. But the take home message is the same – get the hips up and lean forward if you want speed.

One of the biggest mistakes made by runners is to lean forwards at the shoulders. The problem if you do this is that you hips actually go backwards! This means that by putting the shoulders forwards, you even less likely to be in a position to harness gravity to go forward. This is most noticeable on uphills, where the temptation is to lean forward, hunched over. Not only does this hinder breathing, but it actually destroys your efficiency. Rather concentrate on leaning from the ankles, so that your hips are forward. It sometimes even helps to pull your shoulders back, as though you are standing in the upright, soldier ‘at attention’ position.

If one accepts this, how can one strengthen the hips, or improve mobility of said anatomical item?

Well, for one, you could check out the video of this little warm-up sequence, the Myrtl routine, posted by one Coach Jay, an ex-runner that “coaches several elites in Colorado”. The whole things looks to take about 6 minutes. It looks like a good warm up.

Besides, who could resist doing a few clams, donkey whips, or fire hydrants?

Some Time at 7:00 min/mile Pace

Today’s run: 

I wanted to spend some time at 7:00 min/mile pace. Don’t ask me what that pace represents as I’m not sure. Steady state? Threshold? 5k race pace? Probably somewhere between 5k and 10k pace. I’m not sure about my paces at the moment. Though I did get some time in at pace, much of the time I was focussed on form — keeping the hips forward, posture up, shoulders relaxed, etc.

1:19       9.21 miles     8:36 min/mile

First, the warm-up:

min/mile (pace) splits     8:36   8:33   8:31 (.5 mile)

The rough goal was to run the pace about half a mile at a time, with some kind of slow recovery. The first couple recoveries were just two minutes, but I was having trouble finding the right pace so I switched to 4 minute recoveries (roughly the time it took to run the half mile at that pace). It was still tricky to find that pace — not a sprint, but still quite fast for me.

7.51 (.54 mile)   9:34 (.26 mile)   7:22 (.51 mile)   9:27 (.23 mile)   7:06 (.52 mile)   9:41 (.44 mile)

7:03 (.5 mile)   9:54 (.45 mile)   7:02 (.51 mile)   9:49 (.47 mile)   7:34 (.35 mile)

I knew I was cooked at this point and switched to cool down.

9:48 (1 mile)   9:09 (.92 mile)

In the end, I suppose the “some time at” ended up being about 4 x .5 mile @ 7:00 min/mile pace. Given that’s hardly a blow out, I think I’ll still attempt some quarters tomorrow — but I’ll be doing them on dirt rather than on the tarmac, and my goals will be modest, given today’s workout.

Jazz Hands

A very technical workout today. Coach asked me and one of the faster runners to accompany him, while the rest of the crew headed on the usual route. He took some pains to focus on the motion of the hip bringing the knee forward in something like a springing motion. Think of the hip being a whip handle. (I can’t explain what he was doing, but I began to get a feel for it, and apparently executed the concepts.)

Then there were a series of gradual uphill sprints. Then something almost like a slow motion crawling exercise, again focusing on the motion of the foot relative to the knee, through pine needles. Then some uphill sprints.

“What do you think, Kent, was that hipster or just limp dick?”

Then focus on pushing the hips forward and relaxing the shoulders while running downhill, keeping a falling motion. After initial “jazz hands” and “somewhere over the rainbow” verdicts, I managed to fall into a nice rhythm where I could feel the difference and the hands were tamed.

The whole thing was less than 2 miles of running, but very instructive. I got some positive feedback along with the abuse and the observation that “I’m learning very quickly that Magnus* does best when he doesn’t think about what he’s doing.”

*And of course, he did not actually say Magnus.

Five Easy Miles

5.03 miles/21.50 miles      48:52/3:57:30       9:43 min/mile

Had a realization that for my afternoon spousal run would be entirely appropriate to don the Vibram five fingers, KSO model. I clearly recall snorting internally when a running shoe salesman told me the Vibrams are “not really a running shoe, more of a tool.” This afternoon I will use that tool for 2.5 miles of slow running with focus on form. The idea being that running with these minimal shoes helps avoid overstriding and other maladies of running form.

I did manage to nail my goal pace today. I was inspired by a (possibly apocryphal) story about Frank Shorter running some of his slow runs very slowly, in the 10:00 minute mile range — and some of this other runs very fast. In any case, I mainly focused on the hands. Running group cohorts have suggested that my hands are coming across the center line a little too often and my wrist is “breaking”. The former possibly adds all kind of unnecessary torque motion to the upper body, and I have noted all kinds of inefficiency there. The latter hand motion possibly sends disruptive signals to the legs, in terms of stride motion. 

I’m considering these factors and, oddly, focussing on the hands more most of the run. I recently re-read a really nicely done section on form from Matt Fitzgerald’s Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running By FeelHe takes a look at the various methods of improving stride, whether it’s even possible, etc. and concludes that the most important thing to do is simply run a lot, increase mileage. The body will solve its stride problems.

Nevertheless, I’m still putting on the Vibrams this afternoon, even if I have to take a little spousal heat for them!