Perfect Your Running Form

You probably think running is the easiest of the three triathlon disciplines to master. You may be right, but there is always room for improvement



by David Tilbury-Davis

running form
runners a and b

In a triathlete's world, winter is when you take stock of the season just gone, think about the season to come and keep working to maintain your fitness. But there is something else you can be doing, something that could bring considerable improvements to your speed and efficiency on the last section of a race: you could learn to run properly.

It's all about what we call 'form and function'. As thrilling as it sounds, you need to understand it and that begins
with knowing what your body ought to be doing when you're on the move. Running is not simply a matter of quickly and repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other, though that's more or less how it looks. Your whole body comes into play and when the various components work in harmony you will run strong and you will run fast.

The Ups and downs

Your upper body has the job of maintaining good arm swing (utilising a strong 'elbow drive'), holding good posture (courtesy of strong core muscles), breathing, directing (line of sight), focusing (the brain) and hydration. Quite a lot, when you think about it. Your lower body has the job of maintaining good leg swing and drive, appropriate foot strike and placement, heel lift during the drive phase, shock absorption and weight-bearing. 

There are also some simple principles of physics you ought to consider. First, the more a body oscillates its centre (known as centre of mass) when moving forward the more energy is required to move that body. What this means is that the more your body moves up and down and sways left to right the more energy your body must generate to keep you moving. This is why commentators use awestruck terms such as "gliding" or "floating" over the ground when referring to top distance runners. These athletes are keeping their body as still as possible while their legs are pinwheeling away, powered by all that energy they're not using above their hips.

Second, the further in front of the centre of mass, in relation to the ground, that the foot lands the greater the braking, impact forces and vertical oscillation that occurs. Allow me to illustrate:

The two figures above are derived from the running style of two real triathletes - A is a novice and B is a Kona-qualifying Ironman athlete. The braking (blue) forces occurring with runner A are far greater than they are with runner B. This is because runner A has longer loping, bouncing strides. These lead to an aggressive heel strike and considerable impact forces when the foot lands, which could cause injury. Runner B has developed his stride so that it stores more energy and then returns it to the muscles and tendons of the lower leg. It is a more efficient run in every respect.

The received wisdom

Let's clear up some misunderstandings about running technique:

  • It is often said that you should always land more midfoot or forefoot rather than with your heel. This is not necessarily the case. It is better to say that your foot should land nearer the centre of mass in relation to the ground (as with Runner B). Whether you land on your heel, midfoot or forefoot will be dictated by your personal biomechanics.
  • You should run at a cadence of around 180 steps per minute but don't focus too intensely on that goal, at least initially. By planting your foot nearer the centre of mass, in relation to the ground (Runner B), the automatic result will be a shorter stride. Your cadence will then be dictated by the velocity at which you run and your new, shorter stride. You will find it easier to achieve that 180 cadence.

We can all achieve better running economy with some simple drills and technique work. Click on the link below to go to the exercises.

We all know that running immediately after cycling is tough on the legs. For most of us the run is an exercise in durability. From my point of view as a coach to age-group and professional athletes durability means the capacity to maintain an efficient run technique while fatigued, and the generation of power at lower overall run speeds.

To achieve this we need our bodies to be efficient when fatigued and to remain strong in order to generate that powerful leg drive. By adding 10-20 minutes of running straight after one or two bike sessions you will familiarise yourself with those race-day feelings in your legs and aid recovery from the bike sessions. The pace doesn't have to be hard - a comfortable endurance pace is fine. 

Off you go

Once you've tried this workout for a few weeks you may even want to inject a little fun into your training and have a go at an off-road duathlon. These events are a great way to enjoy the English weather as spring hints of its arrival. If you have a mountain bike and some racing kit that will keep you warm, don't be afraid to have a go. Learning to handle your mountain bike in an off-road environment will also improve your bike-handling skills.

Other durability work you should consider is off-road or cross-country running, and the more undulating and hilly the route, the better. Practise running off-road at a comfortable (able to talk/70-75 per cent max heart rate, if known) aerobic pace, whatever of the gradient. This may mean you need to slow to a near-walk on steeper hills: this is fine. Short powerful steps going uphill will help develop your run technique. There is no need to make the hills hard efforts just yet; that increase in effort can come as race season approaches. For now, use them primarily to develop your technique and strength rather than your aerobic ability.

If your outdoor running is restricted, treadmill workouts at the gym can develop your technique and durability. Treadmills are perfect for improving your running posture. As an exercise try to run close to the front of the treadmill - this makes it impossible to over-stride because you'll run out of running belt if you do. At the same time you can simply and easily adjust your foot plant and practise the 'quiet running' technique (see right). However, remember to set the treadmill to a one
per cent gradient when practising running on the flat, because this incline mimics the physiological stresses of running outdoors.

To spice things up on the treadmill you can practise hill work: keep individual efforts to one minute and allow yourself no more than three minutes to recover. The gradient should be challenging (6-10 per cent) but slow the speed down so you can work on your technique and leg strength. Start with five reps and build up to 10 if possible.

The best way to put all this together at this time of year is to ensure that 50-60 per cent of your running is enjoyable, comfortable aerobic work, the kind of pace/effort you could still chat at and a perfect opportunity to think about one of those techniques. A further 30-40 per cent should be spent focusing on strength/durability work, and up to 10 per cent of your time should be spent purely on running drills. These percentages may vary somewhat for those with specific early season race goals or those who want to concentrate on a specific physiological weakness.

Training at this time of year should not be based on a 'no pain, no gain' philosophy. Relax, enjoy your running and focus on technique and strength. You will notice a difference in the summer race season. 

Looking to fix your form? Try these four simple drills now. 


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Perfect Your Running Form: The Drills
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