There’s a lot of technique to running well. It turns out that knowing how to do it right can make it almost effortless, and practically elminate muscle strain, along with virtually any chance of injury. In a word, running can be fun! Who knew?
Originally published 2011
I recently got a terrific video on running technique: Evolutionary Running. Found out that most efficient running takes place at 180-182 steps per minute, regardless of your height. When you do that, and run on your toes, the tendons/muscles in the plantar fascia (bottom of foot) and calf act like a hinge that absorbs energy and releases it, so the muscles do a minimum of work. In addition, there is no landing shock on the heel, knees, and hips. And there is no “braking” with your heel to slow you down.
Run with style, for mile after mile.
Also, as you land with your foot under you (as you have to, to run on your toes), the ideal technique has your foot already moving backward as it touches, and then kicking up. So instead of extending the leg for propulsion, which pushes you up (wasted energy) , you “pull through”, using the glutes and hamstrings rather than using the quads and stressing the knee.
You know when a horse is anxious and pawing at the ground? That’s a good running stride. You’re using hamstrings, glutes, and hips to pull the leg backward, rather than using the quads to extend the leg and push yourself forward. Then (because you’re leaning forward), you quickly put the other leg in front to keep from landing on your face! So running becomes like, controlled falling.
The interesting result: If your quads hurt when running flats, you’re doing it wrong! (They only come into play when running uphill.) That’s an interesting observation. I love the elliptical trainer, but my quads definitely ache when I’m using it. So obviously I’m not running at a quick enough pace to get the energy rebound. And I’m pushing with my quads instead of pulling with my hams, hips, and glutes.
If your quads hurt,
You’re doing it wrong.
The video included a couple of drills to get you in the right form: Run in place and bounce on your toes. Doing them with a metronome, to get the right pace. Terrific way to warm up, I’m thinking. (Found a great clip-on metronome, too. Perfect for running.)
Using an Elliptical Trainer:
Elliptical trainers are great, but most have a fixed stride length. One observation on the DVD is that when you start running this way and don’t shorten your stride, you find yourself working very, very hard. For two ways around that problem, see Elliptical Trainers!
Finding Your Running Tempo
The DVD state flatly that 180-182 steps per minute was the only really efficient running speed. That’s such a narrow range, I figured it must have a physiological basis. On the other hand, it did feel pretty fast when I was running it. As I began to warm up and get into a groove, I found that I wanted to go just a little slower than that tempo.
Waiting for a couple of books to arrive , I found a slightly slower pace recommended at the Elliptigo site, for a mobile elliptical trainer:
Some prefer 140, while others feel more comfortable at 150-160.
Of course, that was for an elliptical cycle, which doesn’t tend to focus on toe-running technique. But since I always used to enjoy running slowly for an hour or two, I’m thinking that I might find the pace that is right for me somewhere between 140 and 160, rather than the 180 pace the Olympian runners use. (Of course, it may not be as mechanically efficient. But it may be more tolerable for the cardiovascular system, especially at first.)
When the books did arrive, one had nothing useful to say on the matter. The other was by Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, Barefoot Running Step by Step. That book, too, recommended 180 steps per minute — but not for the reasons I expected.
I was thinking there must be some biomechanical basis for that recommendation. Maybe that’s how many microseconds the legs muscles and tendons can store energy to rebound with, before it dissipates. Something of the sort may still be in effect, but the reason given for the recommendation was rather more pedestrian: Cyclists tend to ride at 90 RPM, which equates to 180 steps per minute.
The most efficient cruising rate for most people
would seem to be 160 to 180 steps per minute, depending
on cardio-vascular fitness and how far you’re going.
But my understanding has always been that people are most comfortable riding from 60 to 90 RPM. That translates to anywhere between 120 and 180 steps per minute. That’s a pretty big range. Checking the web, I found the following interesting tidbits under “The Importance of Cadence”, at kenkifer.com/bikepages/touring/gears.htm:
- Beginners tend to ride at 60 RPM
- Touring cyclists tend to prefer 80 RPM
- Racers spin at 100 RPM (e.g. Lance Armstrong, when he won the Tour de France)
That widens the range even further! But it does tend to suggest that faster rates are more efficient, but are at the same time more demanding on the cardio vascular system. So the most efficient “cruising rate” would seem to be somewhere between 80 RPM for long distances, or 90 RPM for short ones — or 160 to 180 steps per minute.
But I wouldn’t rule out 140 steps per minute, either, for a lazy afternoon excursion. That was the bottom of the range the Elliptigo people observed. And 200 steps per minute might be feasible, if you’re a well-conditioned racer. That’s a lot wider range than I was first led to believe! So the rule would seem to be: Experiment to find what works for you.
Ken Bob had an interesting take on the metronome. Rather than being told what tempo to run by a metronome, he would rather monitor the tempo he’s running at, like he does on his bicycle. That makes a lot of sense. If a device like that existed, if would be possible to find out what tempo you like best. (Inventors, get busy!)
Avoiding Calf Injuries
I started running barefoot while working for a short period of time in Kansas. I was introduced to the subject by a co-working ultra-marathoner. (I can see him, but the name escapes me.) I was out in the middle of a field one day, having a great time, when I suddenly pulled up lame. I had pulled a calf muscle. (See “Sparefoot” Running for Health and Fitness.)
If your calves hurt,
You’re still doing it wrong!
Two years later, inspired by the video, I go out for a run with this great new technique and make it all of 7 minutes before I am sidelined for several weeks once again by a calf strain. (I think it’s the same calf.)
When I looked on the web, I found someone who said their calf injuries came from doing it wrong. But I didn’t quite believe that. Then along came Barefoot Running, and I became a believer. His explanations were so clear and simple, there was no doubting them:
- Bend your knees
- A lot
- Just before you land, so you land softly.
- Land toe-midfoot-heel
- In almost instantaneous sequence
- But do land fully on the foot before taking off again.
- Run upright.
With that combination, Barefoot Ken Bob assures us, the calves stay relaxed. If they are called into play at all, it’s only for a short part of each step. But mostly, they’re reserved for sprinting.
Bending the knees as you land absorbs the shock in the upper leg, instead of the calf. Landing fully on the ground gives everything a chance to relax for a moment.
The admonishment to run “upright”, meanwhile, squares with the posture I observed in the video — the torso is upright; only the hips are leaning forward. With one leg extended behind, the posture looks like nothing so much as a “quotation mark”–a gentle curve from toe to head, with the head pointed straight up to the sky. That posture helps to keep everything relaxed, so you’re not straining muscles all over your body in an effort to stay balanced.
The first time I used the efficient running technique, I found that my heart and lungs were working hard! Knee injuries had sidelined me for so long that my cardiovascular fitness had suffered. So while the technique itself is maximally efficient, and while it let me run without stressing my knees, there was still a limit to how long I could do it!
There is also a strong tendency towards calf strains, using this technique. It’s an ok trade off, because the calf is a muscle that will heal and grow stronger, while the knee that will just get more worn. But eventually, it’s necessary to get to where you “fall forward and kick up ” instead of “pushing off”. When coupled with the other tips mentioned above, strain on your calves should be effectively eliminated. But until you have everything working just right, you’ll need to limit the amount of time you spend on your toes!
The solution is to combine that technique with the run/walk intervals that Jeff Galloway recommends. That way I was running with great form during the exertion interval, while giving my lungs and heart time to rest during the recovery interval.
For an indoor exercise session or for warm-up, you can run in place during the exertion interval, and stretch during the recovery interval.
Jeff Galloway is a noted runner, Olympian, and running coach who advocates a combination of walking and running. In an article published in a muscle-building magazine I picked up at the Vitamin Shoppe. (That’s one good thing to come out of that store, at least. See What’s Wrong with the Vitamin Shoppe?)
In that article, Jeff suggested a set of ratios to use in a marathon, depending on your typical running pace. It looks like a good progression to use to achieve a given running pace, when you are just getting started. Pick your target for the session, and then head out the door!
The Gym Boss is a light, inexpensive gadget you can use to time your intervals.
Here are the intervals he suggested :
13 minutes per mile – Run 1 minute, Walk 1 minute
12 minutes per mile – Run 2 minutes, Walk 1 minute
11 minutes per mile – Run 2.5 minutes, Walk 1 minute
10 minutes per mile – Run 3 minutes, Walk 1 minute
9 minutes per mile – Run 4 minutes, Walk 1 minute
8 minutes per mile – Run 4 minutes, Walk 35 seconds
Using his recommendations as a starting point, I calculated the percentage of time spent running at each stage, and created an extended version that allows for an even more gradual progression of the kind that is needed to transition into toe running (or any kind of running, if you’re just starting out).
* This is the amount of time you spend running at your normal pace. Using Galloway’s suggested walk intervals, you’re pretty well guaranteed to be able to finish a marathon — whatever your pace — if you spend enough time training for it.
** 20 minutes/mile = 3 miles per hour. That’s a normal walking pace. If you cannot yet cover a mile in that time, the odds are that running with the extra weight you are carrying will cause more damage to your joints than it is worth. Walk, instead! Use the suggested intervals to alternate fast walking intervals with slower ones. When you reach a minute of each, test yourself by seeing how fast you can cover a mile-running as much as you can during that time. If you still can’t cover the distance in 20 minutes, keep doing what you’re doing, and test yourself again when you’ve lost 5 lbs. Keep testing at 5-lb intervals, until you get to a 20-minute mile! (Then start the run/walk regimen, if it feels good. Or keep doing what you’re doing, as long as it’s working!)
Plan Your Run, Run Your Plan
Use those ratios for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, midweek. On weekends, start at 20-30 minutes. Over time, build up to 40, 45, and 60 minutes, only increasing the duration when it feels good.
The tricky bit is figuring out how to ease into toe-running.
Once you find your running level, I suggest starting at the bottom of the chart with a 10-second toe-running interval, then fill in the rest of the exertion interval with your normal running pace. at a time on your toes. For example, if you’re comfortable running for 45 seconds, and walking for a minute to recover, then:
- Run on toes for 10 seconds
- Run normally for 35 seconds
- Walk for 60 seconds
Do that for at least a week, or 3 sessions, whichever comes first. Then bump up the amount of toe-running to the next level (12 seconds), then 15, 20, 30, etc, until you’re running the full exertion interval on your toes. That way, you’ll spend several weeks building the calf strength to support the technique!
On the other hand, if need to run in a way that completely eliminates the strain on your knees (like I do), then just start at the very bottom rung of the ladder and work your way up, one week at a time. At first, your training session will be mostly a glorified walk with a couple of running bits thrown in. But eventually, you’ll work your way up to an efficient, ground-eating stride that takes no effort and causes no injury!
To make things easy, here’s a schedule to ease your transitioning into toe-running. (I assume you’re walking during the recovery interval, but you can run some, too, if you want.)
Start at the beginning. Check off each session when you run it. Give yourself a day or two of rest between sessions. When you have three sessions at a given level, move on to the next level. And when it stops feeling comfortable, go back a level and stay there a while!
- Evolutionary Running
Terrific DVD that demonstrates efficient running technique.
- Barefoot Running: Step by Step, by Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton
Lucid explanations by one of the original propounders of the idea. Easily the best book in the genre.
Great clip-on metronome for running. Inexpensive.
- Gym Boss
Great dual-time count-down timer for interval training. Inexpensive. Also a clip-on.
- TreeLight Store, Fitness section
Get all of the items listed above.
An elliptical “bicycle”, with stride length that adjusts from 18 to 25.5 inches. So you can find the stride that matches your height, run at the most efficient pace, and use the 8-speed gearing to maintain a steady effort level. Nice! (And you can get a stationary trainer for an indoor workout.)
Other articles on this site:
- Elliptical Trainers!
- “Sparefoot” Running for Health and Fitness
- What’s Wrong with the Vitamin Shoppe?
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