Running (technique) — simple, complex or just complicated?
Shouldn’t running just be about going out the door and putting one foot in front of the other? There is an old saying in soccer that it is ‘a simple game, complicated by idiots’? Have we done the same to running? As the science around running has expanded and the commercial interests in the sport with it, we have seen a vast array of new theories arise along with ever more equipment, gadgets, types of events and races and topics of discussion deemed relevant.
This question of whether ‘we’ (coaches) are making running too complex was a question that arose out of our ‘Road running is not to blame, YOU are’ article. This question often arises along with the opinion that running is individual and should not be learned. On the other side is the argument that running is complex and must be learned like all other human locomotor skills. It is interesting that only running technique coaching creates these strong opinions whereas teaching the technique of soccer, tennis or swimming is taken for granted. Before I examine the reasons for that curiosity I would like to first position the two polarised opinions into what is called a ‘dialectic’ or two opposing views, so we can examine them in a balanced way and arrive at something closer to the truth:
Thesis Antithesis Running is a (complex) skill and should be taught Running is simple and everyone runs differently, technique should not be taught
In our experience both of these statements are, ironically, true (to a point) which means there is a ‘synthesis’:
Thesis Synthesis Antithesis Running is a (complex) skill and should be taught Running is a complex skill, relative to earlier stages of human motor development, developed through motor skill milestones. It needs to be taught or retaught where this process has been compromised or sabotaged Running is simple and everyone runs differently, technique should not be taught
Because our beliefs shape our actions and therefore the way we train, the two polarised theses on either side of our synthesis will produce two stereotypical runners as shown below:
When presented this way, as a clear dichotomy between ‘not thinking’ and ‘overthinking’, most of us see the issue with adopting either stance and our attention is instead brought towards the middle somewhere in the synthesis of the two views shown below:
Before we talk ‘besides each other’
To avoid confusion we also need to define the key terms of this debate:
- Simple: easily understood or done. Presenting no difficulty. Composed of a single element.
- Complex: consisting of many different or connected parts
- Complicated: consisting of many interconnecting parts, intricate (i.e. ‘complex’) or ‘make something more difficult or confusing’
- Technique: A way of carrying out a task. Skilful or efficient way of achieving something.
- Skill: the ability to do something well.
When you skim the definitions above, its easy to see that often the two sides of the debate miss each other because the term ‘complex’ is used interchangeable with ‘complicated’. Running should not be complicated (meaning difficult or confusing to learn) but this does not mean it is not complex (i.e. that running is not a skill composed of many different interconnected parts). As coaches we need to ensure simplicity in our coaching of running while ensuring everyone understands that running, from a movement and biomechanics perspective, is ‘complex’ rather than simple because it is composed of many interconnected movements.*
* If you believe running is neither complicated nor complex, bear with us for a moment as I will address this in the next section
What running technique is ‘better’? What is ‘better’ anyway?
‘Running technique’ is simply the ‘way we run’ whereas ‘running skill’ means ‘the ability to run well’. To get the answers we need we therefore need to agree what we mean when we say ‘running better’ . Is a running technique with less joint torque or a less abrupt impact spike upon foot contact ‘better’ and therefore more skilful if it causes more overall tension in the runner? Is a running style ‘better’ because it feels natural and relaxed but it puts the runner at higher risk of injury? Or is ‘better’ dependent on the context and goals of each individual runner.
A great article about this was written on my new favourite blog ‘Running in systems’ where the author argues that the ultimate test ‘good’ or ‘bad’ running technique is the ability to create POWER. Not concepts like efficiency and economy which tend to confuse people. If you have ever read a study that claims changing running technique reduces or increases efficiency (studies have shown contrary evidence here), read that article and I think you will walk away convinced that it is the wrong focus of this important debate. It’s worth noting that the runners who have to generate the greatest amount of power (sprinters) are the most focused on technique. Coincidence?
The ‘Running in Systems’ author also asks readers to consider whether being slow is actually your body protecting your from injury caused by your poor technique. I urge anyone who feels slow to read this and consider the truth of the argument. You may be slower than you should be simply because your technique is not optimal. It is ‘simpler’ to continue to do what you do, in the same sense that is is always ‘easier’ to continue doing what you are doing that making any change. Making changes to life takes effort. But bad habits are bad habits and worth the effort to break.
Before I go on: some readers will want to stop me here and say ‘look, runners are just too lazy to run with good technique, don’t bother convincing them/us otherwise’. That question would take us off track a bit so I have addressed it in this short piece ‘Are runners just too lazy to practice technique’.
Question #1 — Is running simple?
Let us have a look at the definition of ‘simple’ to see if running qualifies. We can ask whether running is:
‘Easily understood’: A human child takes 3 to 5 years to develop the necessary fine and gross motor skills to begin running and even then their running still generally needs further years to be fully refined. Academically there is still much disagreement about how exactly to define running.
‘Presenting no difficulty’: The rate of injury with running is consistently has high as 80% per year. Running training also does not consistently provide endless streams of personal bests. It would be a stretch to say that ‘running’ presents ‘no difficulty’ for the majority of people.
‘Composed of a single element’: Running is classified as a ‘gross motor skill’ which roughly means large movements of whole limbs or the entire body.
Also finally we need to take Einstein’s advice under consideration: it is possible to over-simplify things. There is every reason to believe that the advice to ‘just run’ or ‘running is just putting one foot in front of the other’ is too simplistic causing us to miss important facts about running which can later cause us problems.
Question #2 — Is running complex?
By the correct definition of complex as meaning ‘consisting of many interconnected parts’ running is a complex motor skill. We can explain this in less technical term. Look at the motor skill development chart below. We know it takes the human child 3–5 years to begin to properly refine running and that it takes it even longer to condition and perfect the movement from there. Then consider this:
- Running happens on a tiny point of support (one foot) requiring you to balance all the segments of your body with great coordination
- Your head, as an example, weighs roughly 5 kilos (10–11 pounds). Any slight shift in head position requires us to counterbalance to stop from falling
- Running ground contact ideally happens in as little as 150 to 200 ms.
- In running you experience 2–3 x your body weight (sometimes more) on each impact which you have to manage sometimes well over 180 times minute
When we break running down like this we can see that this deceptively simple movement is one of the pinnacles of human movement achievements: we are the only truly skilled bipedal (two-footed) runner in the animal kingdom perhaps with the exception of the ostrich (all our ape cousins are clumsy runners). Most great running animals are quadrupedal (four footed) which creates a much wider base of support, more points of contact and a much lower centre of gravity to manage. This ability to move ‘truly erect’ only seems to have arrived 200,000 years ago with our ancestor Homo Erectus.
Working backwards we see that this complex skill can be damaged — if basic skills like creeping, crawling, squatting, standing and walking do not develop properly — or regress due to injury or poor movement — then this damages the more complex skill of running. So, yes, by the definition presented here I believe we have no choice but to consider running a complex skill.
If you are still not convinced, have a read of ‘Why motor skills matter’ from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. A taster quote below:
Many people believe children automatically acquire and perfect motor skills, such as running, jumping, and throwing, as their bodies develop, that it’s a natural process that occurs along with physical maturation — Why matter skills matter
The Great Counter-Argument: My running style is terrible but I train a lot and never get injured
It would be easy to dismiss the argument in the section title above on the sacrificial alter of ‘n=1’ (each person is a unique experiment) and ‘anecdotal and observational evidence is the lowest quality of information’ but some interesting truths lie ready to be discovered behind the statement. However, in running today we do attribute too much weight on such statements — we look at champions and try to deduce training principles from there achievements while forgetting that they may very likely represent the outliers in the human population or have grown up in a very different context from yours. This means we can be impressed by their feats but have to be extremely careful copying their training methods or drawing general conclusions from them.
Similarly with runners who superficially seem to run ‘badly’ yet are not injured Firstly, we know this is not the norm because more than 80% of runners are injured every year. Any runner who is not injured, whether they run badly or not, is already exceptional purely from a statistical point of view. We know that correlation is not causation from our previous article and this holds true here too: just because someone is injury free AND have bad running form does not mean that they are injury free BECAUSE they have good form (in fact, I am sure most of us would find such a statement absurd and conclude they are injury free IN SPITE of their poor form).
Rather it is likely that these runners are injury free for other reasons that make more sense logically: perhaps they progress there training very gradually or they run very little. Perhaps they were gifted with genetics of extreme resilience or they are simply lucky. Ido Portal, the great movement teacher, is an expert at using gradual exposure to non-optimal and misaligned movement patterns to create resistance to movements that are not ideal from a biomechanical perspective. So it is very possible to be resilient in a bad movement if the training is progressed at the right rate and the body is inherently adaptable enough. But the more vulnerable the athlete the more likely they are to be exposed to weaknesses that they do possess — including bad technique.
We also cannot discard that being injury free is not the only compelling reason to approach running as a skill. If we accept that the ultimate goal of athletic performance is ‘power generation’ (in running terms ‘more speed’) then we have to care about technical execution because some running shapes can generate more force quicker than others. This is not a subjective topic as I mentioned in the earlier article: landing closer to centre of mass creates less braking force and forces the athlete to spend more time on the ground. Both are barriers to optimising an athlete’s ability to generate force. The individual athlete needs to make a call on whether they feel it is justified to optimise themselves to such a degree. It is the same problem as an elite golfer may ask: ‘Is it worthwhile investing X hours and a period of time readjusting my swing if I only gain 1%’. Like any decision in life you need to weigh up the potential benefits versus the potential costs of focusing more energy on changing your running technique. If you are regularly injured or you feel you are far off your potential then you have a lot to gain. If you are currently uninjured and smashing personal bests left, right and centre, then you may have more to lose.*
* Our stance is that any athlete can benefit from running technique training but the degree of interference needs to be chosen based on how likely it is to make the athlete worse rather than better — so a risk/benefit assessment between coach and athlete. When we teach coaches, the very first PowerPoint slide, we present, reads ‘First, do no harm’. That is a cardinal rule of coaching and technical coaching in particular. Where there is high risk of making an athlete worse with little benefit, we do not generally intervene directly in running technique. In such cases we prefer to focus on subtle drills that improve the athlete’s conditioning and challenges the body to improve purely at a subconscious level. This approach is basically risk-free and from the athlete’s perspective it feels ‘simple’ and ‘not complicated’. Generally our approach focuses on ‘removing unnecessary movements’ and removing ‘limitations in the body’ rather than ‘adding’ new movements. Some running technique training methods grew overly complicated by trying to add too much to the runner or by ‘drill inflation — basically drowning athletes in new exercises to do and creating robots in the process.
Not all that doesn’t glitter is not gold
A final point of warning when judging your own running technique as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ is this: a lot of people do not know what to look for and many subtleties of the running stride are invisible to the naked eye or the untrained observer. Someone might be told that they ‘slap the ground loudly’ or otherwise have ‘bad style’. But superficial impressions can be deceptive. Some runners we see look reasonably good on paper but once you put the fine camera on them you discover potentially very damaging movement patterns that are just very subtle. This effect works the other way — you may have a runner who has an overactive landing or makes other small mistakes that causes a very ‘audible’ slap landing. But this runner may otherwise possess very good running technique — their posture may be excellent, their rhythm elastic and their landing may be very close to centre of mass. Such a runner is not necessarily at high risk of injury, because they do more right than they do wrong.
A World Without Technical Coaching
Should we be able to ‘live the dream’ of simply going out for a run and learning perfect form through running? To an extent, yes, this should happen. But I say to an extent because there is an important caveat: the mindless execution of any task no matter how simple will never yield as satisfying results as purposeful practice of that same activity.
But in a world where children grow up into very active lifestyles and either barefoot or in footwear which does not alter the shape of the feet, we would need very little technical coaching on running later on. What training we would require would be very small refinements designed to bring out the very best in each athlete. We may find an athlete with slight lack of explosiveness whom we can improve through a few simple rhythm and plyometric drills. We may find another athlete where a small postural correction brings out the last 0.01%.
We do not, unfortunately, live in this world. Rather we live in a world that is not optimally conducive to the development of the best possible human movement patterns — neither for running nor for other movements such as lifting, jumping, climbing, crawling and the list goes on. We live in a world that is fundamentally ‘anti-movement’ with chairs, cars, sedentary jobs, escalators and other ‘movement inhibitors’ everywhere. If we could take most of these away, we coaches would not to intervene much less because optimal movement patterns would arise with much greater likelihood. So for the long-term we need to focus both on helping the current generation of runner (through technical coaching) and the future generation (by encouraging our decision makers and shoe manufacturers to create better environments and better shoes). That is my mission: bringing about this environment for the future while undoing some of the damage done to our generation by this lifestyle. If anyone has issue with this, I would like them to hold up their hands because I would be very interested in hearing WHY?
Many mainstream associations now take this view and I was delighted when I read this in a manual on the Northern Ireland Curriculum* website:
‘It is essential that children are taught the correct techniques for running and are provided with rich opportunities to practise running in a range of contexts, both indoors and outdoors.’ ‘Developing Fundamental Movement Skills’,
* We happen to disagree with several coaching cues used in the manual which we believe teach children to emphasize bad technique rather than good technique — including the advice to ‘lift knees’ and ‘take big steps’ likely to lead to excessive lift of the upper leg and overstriding. But that is a difference on ‘how to do’ rather than ‘why’ and ‘what’ we should do
Running technique is not complicated but running technique methods may be
To finish off I think readers benefit from making a strong distinction between ‘running technique’, which is not necessarily complicated (its merely a complex movement consisting of many interrelated parts) to understand, and running technique methods. HOW we teach running technique can be made very complicated or it can be kept simpler. This means that often when people say ‘running technique is complex, keep it simple’ what they really mean is ‘your methods for teaching technique are complicated and I don’t like them’. That’s fair enough! Coaches need to make things as simple as possible (but not simpler! Remember Einstein!).
The first method was Pose Method invented by Dr Nicholas Romanov followed by other methods most of which reused his core principles while dispensing with others (whether they did this independently or failed to credit him is a matter of controversy). to understand the problem with running technique methods we can look to this definition:
“The method part of the name refers to a recipe built around the simplest, most efficient exercises that can help us replicate pose effectively and consistently across distance and time.” — Running in Systems
Using a recipe of the ‘simplest’ and ‘most efficient’ exercises is our goal as coaches at ChampionsEverywhere and the primary reason we use Lee Saxby’s BTR method along with the natural movement systems of Ido Portal and MovNat to retrain our athletes. We believe these methods most closely mimic the way humans learn movement as children and are most consistent with the way nature intended us to move. All these methods try to avoid adding unnecessary or artificial exercises and undue complications.
What is your view on correct technical coaching?
We do not think technical coaching within running has reached its natural conclusion (not by a long shot). There is a lot of wonderful techniques developing for coaching athletes with increasingly subconscious techniques where you almost don’t know what happens. We like to attack this problem from three angles based on the methods mentioned earlier and we call it the ‘Movement Acquisition Pyramid’ as shown in an excerpt from one of our handbooks below:
Explaining this in detail deserves an article in its own right so I want to summarise it here: if we allow runners and athletes to explore their joints, then the body will take advantage of the movement created when it has to. If we make exercises self-corrective by using feedback tools such as weighted bars, walls, hard surfaces, metronomes, mirrors and other tools, then athletes can learn through trial and error with minimum assistance and clearly distinguish right from wrong. By providing an athlete with a sensory experience (i.e. ‘show them how chest up feels’) the athlete can later recall this memory to create better shapes or movements ‘on the road’. But in our experience this pyramid should not be inverted. Too many sensory cues creates robotic runners and creates the perception that ‘running technique training is too complex’. It does not have to be that way.
If you still have doubts that running should be learned as a skill I highly recommend reading the books under ‘further reading’ below.
Originally published at ChampionsEverywhere.