Is running form really that important?
We spoke to Martin Haines, Biomechanics Coach and Chartered Physiotherapist, about the importance of running form. Here's what he had to say:
The way you run can be the difference between fulfilling your potential and never quite being as good as you’d hoped. However, running form/technique/style is very personal and depends upon a number of factors which should be assessed by an experienced coach familiar with biomechanical principles or by a Biomechanics Coach, such as Anthony Fletcher (Fletch). There is little evidence that the alignment of various body segments statically or dynamically alters your injury risk or indeed improves performance, in fact you will see some runners in your group who demonstrate personalised styles and have techniques that include, for example, buckling knees, flailing arms and flat feet and some seem to get injured no more than those who run with a more orthodox style (and sometimes injured less frequently!)
There are also a number of running coaches who encourage you to run using ‘their method’. Their method may coincidentally suit you and work well, but unless you are analysed carefully and the results find that particular style is suited to your mechanics and anatomy, it may cause you more problems. Don’t be seduced by pseudo-science suggesting one style suits everyone – you are an individual and deserve to be trained as one. One size does not fit all. Find your own style that works for you; and that may be simply going out and running, doing what you feel is comfortable.
How can the upper body influence running form?
Typically the upper and lower body are synchronised to optimise your running style. So, if your legs have a personalised style your arms will likely move differently too to accommodate and visa versa. So, if you had a stiff upper back or a long-term shoulder injury for example, it is likely that your upper body movements will accommodate the resulting mechanical issues. This will likely cause some form of compensation in your hips and/or legs too. This shows how important it is to make sure you deal with the causes of the movement style issues before you correct the style issue itself. Also, any change in arm movement style should be accompanied by suitable measures to understand the likely hip/leg compensations and then exercises to help them adapt should be provided.
Is there a hierarchy of things that I could work on? And where do running form adaptions sit in that?
It is difficult to say with any certainty that injuries or running styles are linked to a particular body part. We perform any movement based upon learned patterns, movement experiences, our anatomy and past injuries. However, there are occasions when a ‘system re-boot’ is helpful. We are born with unconditioned reflexes that enable us to perform movements seemingly without thinking about them; such as when we are babies - lifting our head, rolling, lifting our hands to our mouths to feed for example. Then as we get older we perform tasks that are less natural; such as sitting in chairs rather than sitting down on our haunches. We also get injured for various reasons and perform unusual movement patterns to protect the injured area – these movements can become permanent if you’re not careful. All of these problems cause something called conditioned reflexes*; ones that our bodies have created to enable us to move to compensate for pain or unaccustomed stiffness or weakness. Our bodies were not originally designed to move in this way and so further problems can result due to the causes of these unnatural movements. One way of identifying these causes is to be screened or tested – the resultant exercises to help with any issues can be thought of as a ‘system re-boot’. Biomechanics Coaches such as Anthony Fletcher (Fletch) or a Physiotherapist skilled in the science of Biomechanics could help you with this.
Martin Haines DipRGRT MCSP SRP IBAM
Founder and Director Brytspark Limited
If you'd like to read more on our Running Form series, check out Martin's articles 'What is Gait Analysis? Can it Improve my Running?'
Martin Haines is a Biomechanics Coach and Chartered Physiotherapist. He has worked at the highest level in Professional Football, International Rugby, McLaren Formula 1 Racing, professional skiing and with Olympic athletes. In the field of elite sport, Martin is currently engaged as Advisor to the European Tour Medical Advisory Board.
*Karel Lewit. Manipulative therapy. Published by Churchill Livingstone, 2010