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Do we really need to teach new runners "how" to run?

By Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS

"Hi Coach, I want to learn how to run and I'm wondering if you can teach me to how run right?" 


I'm always a little puzzled by that question. It just seems odd to me that a person would think that something as natural as running, something they've done since they were toddlers, would require any teaching at all. It just makes more sense to me that the human body, left to its own devices, would gradually migrate into the most economical and efficient gait pattern all on its own. It seems sensible that if they just get out there and "do it", the most efficient form, the one that's right for them will evolve with time.


Indeed, the way an individual runs is the result of a complex interaction of how they're built, their flexibility and strength, the terrain they're on and the speeds they're hitting.


Until now, there hasn't been much solid data to prove the theory one way or the other, but a study published in the September 2012 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise sheds some light on the issue.


In their article "Mechanisms for Improved Running Economy in Beginner Runners", authors Moore, Jones and Dixon examined new runners to evaluate changes in their running economy following a 10- week running program. This is especially noteworthy, because previous studies of running economy and mechanics have all been done on experienced runners. There has been a lot written about how different gait patterns are correlated with changes in running economy - but ultimately one has to take into account the condition of the runners who are being examined. Is that elite runner fast and economical because of the way he runs or is his gait the way it is just because he is so fast? Would another runner with different biomechanics and a different build who imitates that gait pattern become more economical? Visualize the phenomenal performance of elite runner Paula Radcliffe and her characteristic head bobbing - it works for her but would you make the assumption that it would work equally well for others?


The few studies that have examined how people develop their running gait have found that a shortening of the stride length occurs over time. However, studies that evaluate manipulation of gait in experienced runners have found that self-selected patterns are near optimal for oxygen consumption (VO2) and alterations away from these self-selected patterns are typically met with a reduction in running economy (the measure of the rate of oxygen an individual consumes at a given speed of running). Decreases in running economy mean that an individual is using more oxygen at a given speed, clearly not an advantage for your distance runner!


The authors wanted to see what changes in running economy occur with new runners, and to determine if changes in running economy could be associated with alterations in their gait or with changes in their fitness as measured by VO2 max on a maximum treadmill test.


The subjects were all female, with no prior running training, enrolled in a 10-week beginning running program. They ranged in age from 25 to 43. Detailed gait analysis was performed initially and at the end of the 10-week program. Running economy was assessed at the 3-week mark and again at the end of the study. Researchers used video cameras and force plates and a high tech computer program to make three-dimensional measurements of biomechanics and numerous gait parameters. They also assessed maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) using a graded treadmill test at the beginning and end of the study.

Over the course of the 10 weeks, subjects gradually transitioned from using a combination of running and walking, to being able to run continuously for 30 minutes by the end of the program. They met once a week in a group setting and performed the rest of their workouts on their own. They were encouraged to run at their own pace and were not given any form coaching.

Running Economy and time to exhaustion on the treadmill test significantly improved over the 10 week period. Interestingly, there was not a statistically significant change in maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) as measured on the treadmill test. The authors found that several changes in the runner's gait patterns accounted for over 94% of the improvements in running economy.


The really interesting part is that these biomechanical changes and the improvements in running economy occurred on their own - that is with no form coaching or conscious thought or effort. In other words, the runners got more economical at running just by practicing running!


The authors conclude that during 10 weeks of running, individuals begin to adapt their running style, developing a gait that is more economical then the one they had when they took their first steps. "Previously this was a theoretical concept lacking empirical evidence," The authors write.


This study begins to shed some light on evolution of a gait pattern. Each individual is unique in his or her own biomechanical alignment, strength, flexibility and speed, yet with time and practice they are all able to achieve the "best" running mechanics for the individual.


The bottom line? : Tell your beginners to trust that as awkward as running might look and feel at first, that as they run more, and develop more strength and balance, they'll naturally develop a more economical gait.


Relax, run at the pace that is appropriate for you and don't try to force a gait pattern that your body isn't ready for. You may find that a year from now, your running mechanics look a good bit different than it did when you first started out - and that's the magic of evolution!


So, form coaching... should we be doing this with our beginning runners? Maybe the best form coaching will be what the body does for itself in the early phase of becoming a runner. Perhaps further form coaching should be delayed a bit so that the beginning runner can find their "groove" and then if gait alterations are deemed necessary - because of injury or other challenges the runner comes upon - remember to proceed with caution. Keep in mind that the way you run is the result of a complex interaction of how you're built, your flexibility and strength characteristics, the terrain you're on and the speed you're running. In many ways, running is a beautifully complex orchestration of reflexes!


Go with the flow!


To your athletes ongoing success!

Coach Janet


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: September 2012 - Volume 44 - Issue 9 - p 1756-1763

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Previous Science Updates -

Increasing strength improves running economy

Cadence affects Patellafemoral Joint Forces

Cold Water Immersion and Glycogen re-synthesis

Manipulating Cadence

Temperature affects marathon performance


About the author: Janet Hamilton is the author of the book "Running Strong & Injury-Free" and she coaches runners & walkers through her business Running Strong (http://www.runningstrong.com/). She has a master's Degree in Exercise Physiology and is a Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine and a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association