By Christopher Williams
Because I hate articles that make you read everything before giving you the meat and potatoes, here is the 6 step process to running lazy. Then you can laugh at my high school non-athlete stories and get more details about why your body hurts after running.
- Relax arms and shoulders. They’ll move naturally as you start running.
- Stand upright with hips in a neutral position (you may have to physically reposition them).
- Slide your right foot forward so it just barely clears the ground. Keep the toes pointing roughly forward (don’t let the foot slew in or out).
- Plant your right foot when it gets to a comfortable distance in front of you (normal stride distance).
- Tighten the right glute to pull your body forward so it’s directly over the right leg (at this time your right leg is straight down and your left leg is behind you).
- Repeat steps 3-5 with the left leg, then right, then left, then right…
I used to be a horrible runner. In high school I joined the track team because I had the bright idea that being an athlete would be cool and I’d get to wear a really awesome letter jacket. This of course ignored the painfully obvious (to everyone around me) fact that I had no coordination whatsoever. I was also very thin at that point in my life. I believe the comparison was a coat hanger with crepes dangling off it. In any case, my thinness made the coaches think that long distance running was a good fit for me.
My first long distance practice ended with me showing up over an hour after everyone else got back. I had seriously considered hitchhiking back to the school gym. My knees hurt, my back hurt and in my mind, I was the only 15 year old in the history of medicine to have 9 heart attacks back to back and somehow survive to walk back to the locker room. Needless to say once they saw how useless I was, they told me to go jump hurdles. That couldn’t be too hard.
In my first race, in public, in front of people, I made it over 4 of the hurdles. The last ones (and I forget how many) I didn’t quite clear. I say this with the same emotion of a driver who didn’t quite make that hairpin turn on the road going up Pikes Peak. One foot caught in the top of a hurdle which tripped me forward. Upon getting up, I realized the first hurdle was still around my ankle, a little detail that explained why it was impossible to get over the next hurdle. With my leg looking like a track and field version of a macaroni necklace, I fell out of my lane and got disqualified. A few days later the coaches decided my feet were a total write-off and told me to go throw discus and javelin, thus transferring the problem to another department.
Research = Film Yourself, Cringe At What You See
Why did I tell you these stories? Hopefully you got a good laugh out of them, I know I do whenever I think about them. But I also want you to know that I’m the farthest thing from a natural-born athlete. For years after the track incidents I tried to run. I don’t mean marathons, but a mile or two. The lowest point came when I was getting destroyed in a 5k by all the girls in college who smoked. I guess their cigarettes were made of oxygen pellets instead of tobacco because they literally caught up to me, looked me over with disappointment and left like a Camaro bouncing a Civic. That’s when I realized something biomechanical had to be wrong.
I began studying my own gait and quickly realized a startling but not surprising fact. I didn’t know how to run. I filmed myself running on a treadmill and outside. After watching it a few times, I wrote down my conclusions and burned the tape. It was that bad. It’s not really anyone’s fault so the study was not a finger-pointing exercise. It’s just that when we are growing up, our parents teach us to walk and usually running comes quickly afterwards as a natural progression. There is no class in school on how to properly stride or why external rotation changes how your foot impacts the ground. But here was the evidence: knee pain, back pain and the inability to breathe comfortably while running.
My legs were somehow not working enough, but what little work they were doing was working against me. My arms thought they were way too important and by proxy, my shoulders and traps thought they had something to prove as well. Add in the lack of timing and coordination and the impact forces with each step made it a wonder my knees didn’t just hand me their 2 weeks notice and quit. Watching other people made me feel a little better since a large portion of them were in various stages of energy wastage, but I wouldn’t be okay until I had figured out a way to modify my own form and be able to teach it to others (being a trainer who can’t run 3 miles without needing assistance from laughing EMTs is embarrassing).
The biggest problem when we run is that we’re trying WAY too hard. The only way to run is to do it as smoothly and efficiently as possible. That is what minimizes impact forces on your joints, allows you to breathe at your own tempo and saves energy for longer runs. Pumping arms may look good on movies but other than sprinters who are like rockets that expend all their energy in very short periods of time and need that assistance, there is little use for that in most runs over 400 meters or so (depending on what you’re trying to accomplish). Relaxing the arms also helps to relax the upper body, which translates to less pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.
Your core is also critical to this movement. Ideally, you should have a natural posture that doesn’t tilt forward all that much. When do you see professional long distance runners lean forward? Only to get their nose across the finish line first. Most of the time they’re nearly as upright as if they were standing still. Bending over at the waist only serves to put more pressure on your lower back with each step’s impact. Running is not bad for your back, but leaning forward is (Leaning backwards is just as bad, this being a reaction to people saying “You’re supposed to run upright so don’t lean forward.” So some people took to arching their back and running that way. Don’t do that unless you want back pain to be your alarm clock every morning).
Now to the hips, which is a huge issue for most people in our office-bound society. If the flexors (muscles on the front of the hips, directly opposite the glutes) stay in a seated position for a long period of time, they tend to get stiff. You can stretch them out again just like any muscle, but it is pretty uncomfortable the first few times. Also, sitting stretches the glutes, who’s main purpose is to contrac,t providing you guessed it…hip extension. You can tighten the glutes up but it takes a bit of squatting and or deadlifting.
Why is the hip area an issue for running? Well if your flexors are tight and your glutes don’t really want to contribute to the effort, how do you think your torso is going to align itself? Forward at the waist. What’s going to be powering your stride? Not your glutes and not your flexors. Probably your feet or knees in some weird Frankensteinian movement that causes you pain and to swear that running is bad for you. No it’s not. Just loosen your flexors and tighten your glutes. Posture and running form will both improve.
Jumping down to the legs, these are either the biggest energy wasters or the best energy conservationists your body has. Compared to your arms, you legs are huge. Which means any misalignment or error will be magnified exponentially. You cannot run long distances with your feet slamming into the pavement at 3Gs every other second. Astronauts riding the Space Shuttle felt 3Gs of force over their entire bodies for only the last 2 or 3 minutes of the 8.5 minutes it took to get to orbit. How long was that last 5k run you did?
Just Tell Me Already
Okay so how do you get the legs to stop wasting energy? It’s easy. Be lazy (you knew that was coming)! Each step you take should barely clear the ground. As you run faster that clearance may increase but not substantially. If you’re lifting your feet more than about 6 inches (average, depends on your leg length, stride frequency, etc) you’re probably wasting energy. In fact, try not to think about lifting the feet at all. Instead, think of throwing your leg forward.
Each step you take should consist of throwing one leg forward, letting the foot roll onto the ground and pulling yourself forward with the glute on the side that’s in front. Then repeat with the other foot. Practice moving your feet and legs in this way by walking like a 1970’s gangster. Slide one foot forward just clearing the ground, plant it down, squeeze the glute and come forward. Slide the other foot forward just clearing the ground, plant it down, squeeze that glute and come forward. Ad infinitum. That’s it. When done properly, your head and torso will just barely move up and down even when running at high-speed (as opposed to some people who look like they’re jogging on a pogo stick).
Still having trouble getting this to work? Don’t feel bad, we run for years the wrong way and it takes time to deprogram. For one exercise, pretend you have two cups of hot soup in your upturned palms. Start running and try not to spill any imaginary soup while you run(because if you use real soup I’m going to have to laugh at you and then remind you that I’m not liable). Smoothness will become easier as you do it more often.
Breathing becomes very comfortable when you aren’t slamming into the ground constantly. Find a breathing tempo that you like and stick with it as long as possible, trading breath volume for breath frequency…breathe deeper instead of faster. Eventually you will have to breathe faster as you go for longer distances, but don’t start panting after 500 feet. Control your breathing or it will control you.
Some people complain of nausea while running, probably due to food sloshing around in their stomachs. While I don’t recommend going to a buffet with $6.95 and a dream right before running a half-marathon, you will notice less discomfort in your abdomen (that includes cramps too) when you use less force in your stride.
Want to go faster? Don’t stretch your stride wider, just increase the frequency of your steps. Keeping your stride roughly the same distance is a wonderful way of conserving energy if you have to accelerate or slow down. It also makes you appear to glide to other people who may be watching you run, which is kind of cool.
For years I wasted energy and time because I was trying too hard to be something I wasn’t by running like a maniac. Turns out that if I had known how to run I probably would have stayed on the long-distance team. Which means I wouldn’t have went to throw javelin and discus and would never have started lifting weights. Which means I may have never become a personal trainer, you wouldn’t be reading this and tomorrow your knees, shins and back would still be hurting you.
I’m glad I didn’t know what I was doing back then.