Jun 5, 2013

Three Laps and Three Cues to Better Form Running

Well, today is national running day here in the US so I hope you all get a chance to get a run in! Today's post goes back to a personal event from about three weeks ago...

I work at a small private college as a certified athletic trainer and I was covering some end of the year practices for the football team as they prepared to go on an overseas trip. Like many football fields, there was a track around the outside perimeter and the public would use this to run laps during the day and even during practice.

In the midst of a lull during practice I looked up and noticed a college-aged male running laps with form resembling that of the "Don't Be That Awkward Runner" video from YouTube. I watched him run a few laps in horror. He carried his arms completely extended and at his waist, had a major crossover gait (meaning that both feet ran on one straight line and there was no distance between potential foot prints in a medial/lateral fashion), and he was running directly on his toes without letting his heel touch the ground.

It was also at this point that I noticed he was wearing what appeared to be some brand spanking new Merrell Bare Access 2's on his feet. I figured he had read somewhere about how great it was to run on your toes and in minimalist shoes but didn't know much more than this. I could have been wrong and he could have always run like this and I really didn't want to be that guy and say anything to him but I couldn't let him continue to run like that. I didn't want to let him become another unnecessarily injured runner.

As he approached my side of the track on his next lap I kind of moved near where he would eventually run. As he neared I spoke out and said, "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions quick?" He stopped and said sure and I began to ask him how long he had been running, how long he had been running in minimalist shoes, and if he had any problems yet.

He told me that he had just gotten them about a week ago, his friend had told him to run on his toes or the front of the foot and he had hurt his ankle and calves the first week of running in them. I told him who I was and about my profession and I asked if I could give him some running form advice and he looked interested much to my surprise. I pretty much expected him to tell me to "Eff Off" but I guess I was polite with my inquisition.

I decided I would give him three small but major cues in my mind to help his running form. I didn't want to overload him with too much advice or too many cues. I gave him each cue and then would have him run a lap to watch as he tried to incorporate each one. These are not universal cues for everyone and there is no perfect form but they would have been beneficial in his case and given him "better" form.

1)    "Let your heel touch the ground and stop trying to run directly on your toes, just let your foot fall naturally where it wants to for now."

I wanted to get him to stop purposefully running on his toes and I feared he was working on a metatarsal stress fracture. I told him that he was wearing a zero drop shoe and that alone would help him with his proper foot placement and thus he shouldn't focus on it so much. Just do what feels normal and make sure you let your heel touch the ground eventually.

2)     "Run with the lane line between your feet. Only let the first and second toes of each foot touch the line. The rest of your foot must remain outside of the line."

This was an attempt to work on his crossover gait. I really wouldn't have expected this to fix much if he had been running this way for a long time but he sounded like he was a pretty novice runner and didn't have much experience so his motor program should have been easily influenced.

3)     "Bend your arms at the elbow and try to keep them bent to at least 90 degrees or even more bent and don't let them swing across the mid-line of your body. Keep them moving in a relaxed but short and quick arc that moves from hip to nip."

 I hoped that this cue would accomplish a few things. First, it would get his arms tucked and not dangling at his hips like limp noodles. Secondly, your upper and lower bodies act sort of like a pendulum while running. So I hoped that him keeping his arcs shorter and quicker would have the impact of a quicker but shorter cadence at the feet. Third, by eliminating the excessive rotation I hoped that the need for proper balance and postural alignment would start to come from a better activation of his hip and core musculature.

Luckily, this guy was a quick learner. With each lap he was able to incorporate each cue with relative ease and add another cue for the next lap. Each subsequent lap looked like a light bulb was going off in his motor homunculus. I really didn't expect to see such a quick change so I was surprised as well. I then stopped him and gave him praise and he returned some praise to myself and shook my hand.

I gave him some parting advice about transitioning to a minimalist shoe and taking it slow and easy. I also pointed him in the direction of Dr. Mark Cucuzzella's "Principles of Natural Running" video. So that way he would have some guidance for drills and a visual example after we parted.

I want to take a second to point out something. I drastically changed how this guy ran and did so very quickly. This was a change to his kinematic variables of movement or how it looked. It was impossible for me to know if I had any influence on the kinetic forces of his body. He very easily could still be on the path to injury if he has inappropriate kinetic forces acting on his body or runs so much that he is exposing himself to too much too soon. This goes for any runners trying to work on their form or changing their footwear. You also don't want to get injured from not being used to a certain running form and doing too much, too soon so I lectured him on that fact as well.

I didn't talk to him again for a while but I noticed him about two weeks later when I was cleaning up after football practice. He was back running laps and essentially had the same form as after I gave him some advice that first day. I was astounded and before I could even ask him how he had been doing he gave me a cheesy grin and a thumbs up as he ran by me.

This was an anecdotal piece of evidence showing that it is possible to influence a person's motor control program for running form and show some semi-permanent learning 2 weeks later. However, it's important not to nit-pick too much, if you search hard enough you will find something to change with everyone. A person may be able to run more optimally with their current running form.


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All content on this blog is meant as instructional and educational. The author and guest authors of this blog are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result. Always consult a physician or another proper medical professional for medical advice.
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