It has been said that it’s Mo Farah’s distinctive running technique that has allowed him to become Britain’s greatest ever runner. And given his success in the London 2012 Olympics, there are high hopes for Rio when he will again be competing in the 5K and 10K events.
If you watch Mo running at normal speed then it can be difficult to recognise his distinct “bouncy” style with an erect body posture and long, loping strides. However, if you watch him in slow motion, these characteristics are easier to spot. Clearly his success can be attributed to many different aspects of his training, but the style he has developed will no doubt allow him to run faster with less effort – and will hopefully give him the competitive edge later this month.
Even to the untrained eye, there is a world of difference between an elite runner, such as Mo, and a jogger in the local park. And these differences in movement are very important because they influence something called “running economy” – which is a bit like the human equivalent of your car’s miles per gallon figure. The more economical you are, the further (or faster) you can run before you become tired and run out of energy.
Clearly, maximising running economy is essential if you are trying to improve performance – and scientific research has shown that runners who are more economical, perform better in endurance running events.
In sports like tennis and football, it is known that technique is key to success – and this is the same in running. Performance can be improved by making subtle changes to running style, and these differences can often give an athlete a “marginal gain” – which can mean the difference between a gold and a silver medal on the day.
How to run
To run economically, good runners must minimise the amount of energy lost with each step. In some ways, running can be considered to be a bit like a bouncing a ball. As it makes contact with the ground, the ball deforms slightly, storing energy which is later released as it flies back into the air. With a bit of practice, anybody can learn to walk and bounce a ball with hardly any effort. To some extent, this is what highly trained runners manage to achieve. They are able to “bounce forwards”, storing and then releasing energy with each step to maximise running economy.
Much like the ball, tendons allow humans to store energy. The main function of a tendon is to connect the muscle to the bone, but because tendons are elastic structures, when muscles contract during running, they stretch, storing energy.
The Achilles tendon is the biggest tendon in the human body, attaching the calf muscle to the heel bone. This tendon plays a key role in running, storing energy just after the runner’s foot makes contact with the ground and then returning this energy in order to propel the runner forwards and upwards just before the foot leaves the ground.
Body position can also play an important role in maximising running performance. Our recent research shows that elite athletes tend to run with a more upright body posture than recreational runners, and other research suggests that this body position may lead to better running economy. One possible reason for this is that a forward lean will affect the body’s centre of gravity and this, in turn, could impact on how far in front of the body the runner’s foot makes contact with the ground.
Our latest research, although still ongoing, is beginning to show that elite runners tend to place their foot closer to their body as they make contact with the ground. This means that their hip is over their ankle early in the gait cycle, allowing them to generate more force in their calf muscle and so store more energy in their Achilles tendon. More energy storage may lead to better running economy, which is why this running style, of foot contacting the ground close to the body, tends to be observed in most elite runners.
Improving your run
Most running coaches believe that, with the right training programmes, running economy can be improved with associated benefits in performance. So, as well as improving overall strength and fitness, elite endurance runners will often perform specific exercises, known as drills, which are designed to perfect coordination and improve running
These exercises have names like “A-Skip and pistoning” and “Scissor drills”. They can be focused on overall body position and coordination or aimed at making very subtle changes in movement during very specific phases of the running gait cycle.
Some athletes will practice running uphill to help develop the correct degree of forward lean, while others will use exercises which encourage them to “bound” – keeping their trunk position steady while ensuring they don’t over stride.
So, if you are interested in improving the way you run, then I would recommend getting in touch with a running coach or using a gait analysis service. A good coach will look closely at the way you currently run and will identify aspects of your running style which could be causing you to lose energy.
By practising the right drills you will get a feel for a subtly different movement pattern and, with practice, you should then be able to integrate these changes into your automatic running technique, hopefully improving your overall running efficiency – just like Mo.
*Written by Dr Steve Preece for The Conversation UK.