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With the London Olympic Games having drawn to a spectacular close, I've reflected on my own still-evolving journey towards running with better technique.
When the last Games rolled around I was deeply into my running second coming, beginning to put together some respectable performances in the cold, but rarified air of Australia’s running Mecca, Ballarat.
Not long after Beijing I succumbed to yet another running injury – the kind I’d experienced on and off for 20 years and that had always prevented me from fully embracing and enjoying running with any consistency. Since then I’ve researched and written a book about running technique and launched a coaching business focused on helping non-Olympians such as myself to move with a little more purpose.
But where it all began was with the realisation that there must be something that good runners were doing that I wasn’t. After all, my body was breaking running 40-50 kilometres per week; an average Olympic distance runner would have completed more than three times that volume at much higher intensity over a period of many years. To my mind, simply dismissing talented runners as genetic freaks with some God-given, unattainable method of running seemed a cop-out. Surely there was something they were doing that I could practice to help my running?
As it turns out, there was. I wanted to know how they moved, rather than just sitting back in awe and being blown away by the impossibility of it all. I wanted to understand at a deeper level what consistent movement patterns, postures and even muscles were being used at different stages of the running cycle. So through research and observation, this is what I learned.
Benchmarking running movement patterns
Good runners are mostly well-aligned: their thighs running on the tram tracks that are the hips, they very efficiently apply force down and back to propel their torsos ahead of their hips. Twisting and rotation of the legs is minimized, with little energy leaking sideways.
They also maintain flexed (bent) knees as they apply force to the ground – this means the legs and feet act as springy levers. An efficient cycle of loading and release of the muscles and tendons from the hips to the feet means good runners can tap into more ‘free’ elastic energy stored in the tendons and connective tissue structures between muscles and bones.
So if you’ve saved some highlights of stunning performances on the track at the Olympics, have a look through your favourite Mo Farah, David Rudisha, Tirunesh Dibaba, Galen Rupp and Meseret Defar medal-winning moments and see if you can spot some consistent elements that they and their competitors exhibit when running. Looking front-on and sideways in slow motion, you should be able to spot some of the elements discussed above.
Strong, not skinny
All of this requires you to be quite strong. Better runners often appear lean, but it’s not a weak skinny frame that will propel you to Olympic or City to Surf glory: it’s a strong body capable of applying and absorbing force efficiently during running without breaking down. I was interested to note that Alberto Salazar, coach of Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, considered it was Mo’s seven hours of gym each fortnight that was more significant to his double gold medal-winning performance than the 160+ kilometres of running.
Tirunesh Dibaba also mentioned her twice-weekly gym sessions which she says helped her claim a place in the history books by defending her Beijing 10,000m title.
So where do I stand against these benchmarks of Olympic proportions?
Well, not perfect by any stretch, but I’ve managed to put together more than two years of injury-free running – a sign that I’m doing at least a few things right. An early burst of slightly obsessive dedication, hard training and motivation yielded some surprisingly fast times compared to my old manner of moving.
I’m also now able to run five or six days per week without fear of succumbing to some insidious injury. While running faster is always an alluring possibility, it’s actually enjoying my running experience more that brings me the most satisfaction.
To see how the experts do it, check out this video I made of 2008 Olympian Victoria Mitchell running earlier in the year.