Running should be one of the most natural actions of the human body. But however simple it may seem to put one foot in front of the other, debate rages over the most efficient way to run. In fact, poor running technique could hamper your speed and dramatically increase your risk of injury.
The running community's recent focus on biomechanics (how different forces act on the body, including gravity) means a confusing parade of running crazes - including barefoot running and the Chi or Pose techniques, which boost speed by exploiting gravity as well as your muscles.
But you needn't be baffled by your body - sit down for 60 seconds and discover how simple activities can improve your running technique.
Good posture is key to efficient running. Carrying poor posture from your working day into your training regime will place extra strain on the leg muscles and can contribute to back pain and shin splints. Running tall makes it easier to run efficiently and control your breathing.
For a quick fix, focus on keeping your head upright. Imagine yourself as a puppet, with a piece of thread pulling upwards from the top of your head. Looking straight ahead rather than down at the ground will also improve your posture.
Foot striking perfection
Unlike the majority of amateur runners, many elite athletes land on their forefoot rather than their heel when running. In recent years this method of running has come to the fore - it's even possible to buy running trainers designed to help you make the transition.
Advocates of Chi and Pose running stress that forefoot running is more efficient, produces fewer injuries and greater speed. However, if you're a natural heel-striker and wish to transition to forefoot running you will need to do so gradually and consider consulting an expert to avoid any risk of injury.
Although the benefits of forefoot striking are still being debated, all the experts can agree on the dangers of overstriding. If your foot lands in front of your knee then you are overstriding. This means that your foot lands far in front of your centre of gravity, producing a 'braking effect' and an increased risk of injury. For running efficiency and pain-free training, aim for your foot to land directly under your front knee.
Try to land lightly, and spend as little time in contact with the ground as possible - this will reduce the risk of injury and increase your speed. Increase the efficiency and energy return of your landings by trying the skipping exercises loved by boxers. Start with 20-second skipping intervals and land either with both or alternative feet, increasing the speed you turn the rope and length of interval as you progress.
Perfecting your leg movement is important, but don't forget your arms. Efficient arm movement can improve your rhythm, aid balance and increase your speed.
Relax your shoulders - tension can hinder you from moving your arms correctly. Copy elite athletes by keeping your elbows bent at 90 degrees, and allow arm movement to flow forward from your shoulders rather than pushing with your forearms.
Although it might look odd, don't be afraid to occasionally drop your arms down to your sides and shake them out to reduce tension.
If you're a Pilates or yoga devotee, you'll already be familiar with the diaphragmatic breathing technique which works best for running. Inhale through the nose while pushing your abdomen out, then exhale through your mouth.
Deep, rhythmic breathing is the most efficient way to absorb oxygen - and it helps your body to relax. Before leaving for a run, take a moment to focus on your breathing patterns. Regular practice will make efficient breathing come naturally, even in hard runs and races.
And After All That...
Only practice and time will help you develop the running style that suits you best. While this quick guide should point you in the right direction, if you're frequently injured or want to transform the way you run, there's no substitute for a gait or biomechanics analysis from a professional.
Although focusing on 'correct' running technique is a great way to break bad habits, exceptions exist to every rule and your top priority should be comfort. Paula Radcliffe's famous nodding and Haile Gebrselassie's crooked left arm (a habit left over from his childhood, when he ran to school every day carrying books) show that you don't have to run 'perfectly' to perform exceptionally.
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