Copying others

By Keith Bateman

Watching what good runners do is an excellent way of assessing what you might have to do to improve your running. But what aspect of their technique do you look at, or try to copy?

Good runners:

  • run fast
  • run smoothly without an apparently excessive vertical oscillation
  • spend less time on the ground
  • tend to have a cadence in the 180-190 range
  • have knees and feet higher off the ground than others
  • frequently have their forefoot touch the ground first
  • appear to be leaning forwards
  • have strong glutes, hamstrings and core.

The problem with copying good runners

Of those runners who do think of technique, many follow advice that is based on observations of what happens with good runners – things like a naturally higher cadence, feet flying higher off the ground, less ground-contact time etc. However, working on any these observations in isolation and at your speed, not theirs, is like thinking the tail wags the dog! These are a CONSEQUENCE of good technique and trying to copy them singularly is not helpful.

  • Running fast
    Actually this is perhaps the best one as you will generally run better if you run faster, but it won’t change your basic running action much for lower speeds, and it’s not sustainable. Also, poor technique leads to injuries and running faster with poor technique increases that risk.
  • Smooth and apparently staying close to the ground
    Smooth is correct but actually good runners get high off the ground. Top runners look smooth because, although they are high off the ground, the arc of their flight path is flattened because of their speed. Running is about flying, about having both feet off the ground, not walking (at least one foot on the ground at all times) and if you try to keep your hips low to the ground you will be walking (and look silly).
  • Less time on the ground
    If you reduce your over-stride you will spend less time on the ground since your feet will be landing closer to your body. This is therefore another consequence of good running form and practising rapid foot lifts will not replicate this good running form.
  • Cadence in the ‘magic’ range of 180-190
    Changing your cadence will make you do the same wrong action more times. In any case, the cadence varies throughout a run according speed, technique, fitness and terrain – how would you know what cadence to set at what time?
  • High knees and feet
    The key here is that, although the runner’s feet fly high and their knees are well off the ground they are not lifting So what should you do?them and nor should you. As the runner goes faster their foot So what should you do?gets left further behind them each stride, and so their foot is pulled off the ground faster. Since the leg muscles are elastic, the foot will spring forward and the leg will bend, and then the foot will fly ahead before dropping with gravity to the ground. The runner is well off the ground but because of their speed it doesn’t look like it. The bending leg raises the knee up considerably and when you add this to the height of the runner’s hips off the ground the knee is a long way from the ground, but it hasn’t been consciously lifted – don’t try that.

    So, do not lift your feet, or ‘pull them up’. If you lift your feet it will act against lifting your body and you will end up with a walking action – possibly even a silly ‘prancing’ style like a horse doing dressage – it’s not running! And, like artificially changing cadence (see above), how do you know how high and in what direction the foot should move, at each speed or acceleration?
  • Forefoot touches first
    The foot contact point is directly under the hips when you are standing still, but in front of your hips when you are moving (otherwise you would fall over). The contact point moves farther forward with increased speed but ‘contact’ doesn’t mean significant pressure or for significant time, so don’t start ‘forefoot running’. Rather, the top runner is getting most of the landing force downward and conserving a remarkable amount of speed through not pushing on the ground in front of them causing braking.

    They are also getting a good rebound off the ground to maintain their long stride length. The foot-landing-angle can also vary slightly (forefoot touch, heel touch, whole foot touch) on each leg and under different ground conditions and still give the experienced runner a good rebound.
  • Leaning forwards
    While this idea might be a useful cue for someone who leans back a lot (in order to get them to land nearer to vertically aligned, balanced), runners cannot constantly lean forwards. Someone who has worn raised-heel shoes for a long time might get a sensation of falling forwards once they get into flat shoes and adjust their technique but in reality it is physically impossible; if you start and finish your run standing upright then the total of your forwards leaning equals the total of your backward leaning.

    If you are leaning forwards while at constant speed, there are only three possible outcomes, none of which are conducive to finding efficient running form:

    1. you bend at the waist and walk your legs under you to balance,
    2. you kick your feet up behind you to counter-balance your torso,
    3. you fall on your face.

    ‘Leaning forwards’ is an illusion. Everyone has to push off to some degree when running, and this requires them to bend at the waist. And everyone must take off forwards of vertical. These two things together give the impression of the runner being tilted forwards.
  • They are strong
    Sure, they are strong but being strong doesn’t make you run well. On the other hand, if you run well you will get well over 10,000 muscle-building landings every hour – calves, glutes, hamstrings, core, lower back – from foot to head.

So what should you do?

In my lessons, which have developed over thousands of clients and almost a decade, I take the ‘common denominator’ – the thing that remains constant in good-form running regardless of speed, body shape, strength, and other variables. This addresses all the symptoms of poor technique in one go. It’s all about learning to land as close to vertically aligned as possible when at constant speed. If you land balanced like this (not leaning back) then you have minimum braking, minimum impact from that braking, and maximum rebound off the ground to maintain a long, smooth stride.

The lessons in the book and the online videos describe exactly how to do this, and how to transition, allowing your muscles, tendons and ligaments to adjust over time.