Wednesday, 2 October 2013

How to Run: Re-engaging and Re-aligning

Running is one of the simplest, cheapest and most accessible sports in the world and really requires little in terms of special equipment and gear.

But what I’ve come to realise, through my recent injury and related research, is that performing it in a risk-limiting, ergonomic and efficient way, actually demands a highly complex skill set which can take months, if not years, to learn - akin to the skills needed to ski properly, play football and even drive a car.

As a child, I was always told to keep unnecessary movement to a minimum when I hit the track. Any excessive, knee or arm lifting, any overexcited hip or waist rotating, will just consume more calories and tire my body faster, impacting performance.

Now I know that this is probably the worst supposed truth that could have been drilled into the receptive teenage mind of a budding athlete.

If we try to minimise our physical movement, we’re denying ourselves of forces that naturally and physiologically help to propel us forward when we run. And unfortunately, we’re all guilty of it – not just runners.


Think about walking. How often do we stride along with a mobile phone pressed to one ear, a handbag clutched under our elbow or a coffee in hand, unable to let our arms swing freely and naturally by our sides without spilling coffee, dropping our purse or appearing anti-social?

Whenever we do that, we’re creating imbalances in our bodies, hunching slightly to one side, cramping our limbs, slumping our anatomy and not activating key primary muscles.

We start moving through life in the laziest possible way, meaning that our core muscles fail to engage and we start putting pressure on parts of our anatomy that are not designed to deal with these kinds of stresses.

It seems like the most comfortable way to move, but as we age and time progresses, the aches and pains of overexposure, strains and imbalances become apparent; painfully and – unfortunately - sometime irreversibly.


So how can we condition out bodies into running efficiently and injury free?

According to a BBC article that cites speed, conditioning and rehabilitation coach Mike Antoniades, it all comes down to the nervous, muscular, skeletal and cardiovascular systems adopting the right motor patterns and becoming used to them.

We need to ingrain a map in the brain, which ensures that we perform movements in a physiologically efficient way that engages the right muscles at the right time.

Antoniades says that all accomplished and elite runners run on the balls of their feet.

 The foot, he says, should strike the surface with the ball, in a dorsiflexed position, with toes pointing forward and not downwards. This, he explains, prevent s “breaking" motion from unnaturally exerting pressure on the foot. The heel, meanwhile, shouldn’t touch the ground at all, encouraging us to lean ever so slight forward.

As the foot comes into contact with the surface, it should be "light" not heavy, and should then "grip and scrape" the surface.  The knee should be slightly bent on contact with the surface and the foot should land below the centre of gravity, just below the hips, Antoniades says.  


If this is all a little hard to imagine, just think of cycling. When you run, your legs should move in a similar circular pattern, engaging hamstrings and gluteus maximum constantly. As the foot comes up behind you, the heel should almost touch your buttock, in flicking motion.

When the thigh moves forwards, the power should primarily come from the quads and hip flexors and as the foot drops again, remember to land on the ball - as before.

Throughout the whole cycle, the hips and waist should be steady without excessive side to side movement, but at the same time, it would be wrong to cramp up or be totally static. Similarly, your back should be straight but relaxed, with no excessive inward or outward curvature of the spine and crucially, you should not bend at the waist.

Your shoulders should be relaxed too, with arms bent at approximately 90 degrees. The swinging motion in your arms should come from the shoulder and not the elbow or forearm and the angle at the elbow should remain relatively constant: don’t be tempted to bend the arms more as they move back and straighten them when they come forward.

Finally, your palms should be facing inwards and not downwards. If you prefer to hold your hands in a fist, the thumb should rest on the forefingers but make sure that they remain relaxed.  


As with any new skill, when you try it, it’s going to feel unusual and unnatural.

As you adopt a new running form, you will likely tire faster. Thinking about your posture and anatomical alignments is going to consume more energy than if you were just running the way it comes naturally to you and, let’s face it, it will probably be less fun at first.

My physiotherapist recently told me that adults need to repeat something up to a thousand times before it becomes natural to them. That means it might take four to six weeks of training before you run the way Antoniades instructs, but dozens of studies have shown that putting the hours in is worth it. 

Tonight I’m going out for a 5k. Only the second since my four-week running hiatus and probably the last before I take on a ½ marathon at the weekend – in just over three days time. 

My objective tonight is to think about Antoniades, bicycles, the balls of my feet and my lazy hamstrings and inactive gluteus maximus.

I’m going to think about aligning, about the right angles in my arms, my relaxed shoulders, my straight back. Even if I feel ridiculous - like an intoxicated camel or wobbly gazelle - I will try to break bad habits and befriend new.

A thousand is a lot of repetitions, but if my hips and knees feel better for it, then even a million wouldn’t be too many.

For the full BBC article citing Antoniades’ advice, click here.
(Image: courtesy

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! I have a cramp in my left foot if I run too much. I have to take breaks every now and again... It's this weird muscular thing. Wonder what it is? haha

    Keep writing! I like reading your stuff! Nick