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Running Safer and Faster

It’s a sad day when you learn you’ve done something wrong all your life. Especially when that something is as rudimentary as running. How much, after all, is there to running? Move one foot in front of the other. If you want to run fast, move one foot in front of the other fast. And if you want to beat someone in a foot race, move one foot in front of the other really fast.

Watching endurance athlete, Jason Jablonski, work with Brad Fitzgerald, a recreational runner recovering from knee issues and training to run a marathon, I’m learning there’s actually a lot to know about running safely and running fast.

Jablonski raced mountain bikes professionally from 2000 to 2005.  Then, in 2005, he got the bug to try triathlons. “I’d never run much, but I gathered all the information I could from books, magazines, and coaches about proper form and efficient techniques. I practiced those techniques from the start.” Through a studied approach it didn’t take Jablonski long run a PR on a 10 km course in 31 minutes 18 seconds (a touch over 5-minute miles). “My first few triathlons were for fun, but I did well enough that sponsors wanted me to compete as a professional.”

It’s easy to attribute Jablonski’s results to superior genetics, but he says proper technique and proper training are vital qualities needed to excel. “My first mountain bike race I came in dead last.  After that race, I promised myself I wouldn’t occupy that position again.” Since then, Jablonski has become a student of the form and training needed to succeed at his sports and the approach has worked for him.

In 2008 Jablonski stopped racing professionally but he’s still using his knowledge to coach others. This session with Fitzgerald is called a ‘Run Analysis.’ Fitzgerald has warmed up, stretched, and has been running on a treadmill at a fast pace for 15 minutes. That pace has fatigued Fitzgerald and as his form starts to reveal chinks, Jablonski turns on a video recorder and tapes his subject from the side and from the rear. The footage is then loaded into a program called Dartfish Video Analysis.

In this program, a specialist can speed up, slow down, or view the runner frame by frame. More importantly Jablonski can place markers on points of interest (chest, hip, knee, ankle, ground…) to measure important angles. This reveals important information about how safely and efficiently the subject is running.

In Fitzgerald’s case, his recent bouts of knee pain were diagnosed by a physical therapist as the side effects of hip issues. Hip strengthening and hip stretching has gotten him back to running regularly without pain. Now Jablonski uses his video tools to evaluate Fitzgerald’s progress, analyze his form, and perhaps improve his performance.

From the rear-view footage Jablonski measures angles when the feet strike. The angle between the right ankle and right knee is 7.5 degrees. While not catastrophic, an angle under 6 degrees would be better for the long-term health of the knee. Furthermore, Fitzgerald’s right foot whips sideways slightly between the end of one stride and the beginning of the next. Some of Fitzgerald’s underlying hip problems contribute to these issues and he’s told not to let up on the hip strengthening and stretching. He might also concentrate on his foot placement and consciously build a straighter line between ankle and knee.

Other components of Fitzgerald’s stride are fairly safe: His knee flex when his foot strikes is about 20 degrees (good), his hips are not dipping noticeably while striding (good), and other ankle measurements are within desired parameters. However, one of Fitzgerald’s techniques, like so many recreational joggers who run for fitness and the occasional 10 km run, is both inefficient and adds some wear and tear to the leg. Jablonski goes frame by frame to isolate the telltale sign. He stops the video at the exact moment of guilt, “See how your heel strikes the ground first?”

Photo: Check the front foot. What a heel! You wanna be a toe.

Most recreational runners with cushioned shoes run this way but Jablonski emphasizes, “If you ran barefooted, you wouldn’t run on your heels – that would hurt. You’d run flat-footed or on the balls of your feet. Then your metatarsals, ankles, and knees would all be engaged in absorbing the forces. Using the balls of your feet will keep you running longer into life.”

It will also have you running faster. Jablonski uses the Dartfish program to highlight other angles. With heel strikes, a runner’s center of gravity is behind the knee when each foot touches down. This brakes the body with each step; then the body needs to be lifted and propelled forward, which wastes energy. Jablonski says efficient running places the chest directly over or even in front of the knee and toes. Now a runner’s mass is actually falling forward and the legs are moving simply to catch-up to the falling mass. This shifting of weight not only saves energy and improves speed, it automatically forces runners onto their toes for better ergonomics.

Next, Jablonski addresses Fitzgerald’s cadence. Cyclists know that using gears to maintain the correct RPM helps them ride faster and longer. Serious runners are equally serious about maintaining the right cadence. For Fitzgerald that means learning to run at about 88 rpms (i.e., having the left foot hit the ground 88 times per minute) -- his current pace is about 80. With more forward lean and shorter, faster strides, Fitzgerald will cover more ground with less effort. On hills Jablonski says the goal is to climb maintaining the lean, the toe running, and the cadence. The only difference: each stride will be shorter. 

Moving from the way Fitzgerald runs today to the way he ought to run is not an overnight transformation. “It takes time to strengthen the foot and calf muscles needed to support toe running,” Jablonski says. “Run short parts of your run with forward lean and at a faster cadence, and build up slowly over a multi-week period. It’s easy to overdo it and hammer your legs.”

Hours after observing all this, I put into practice what I witnessed. I concentrate on forward lean and catching up to my falling body, which forces me onto my toes. I use a quicker cadence, shorter steps. And I run a timed route faster than I’ve run it in years. It’s a sad day to come face to face with how wrong I’ve been running all my life. Tomorrow will be another sad day-- I’ve ignored Jablonski’s recommendations of gradually incorporating of these new techniques and my calves are softball-sized knots. Tomorrow I’ll be hobbling rather than running.

Details, Details: Running More Efficiently

  • Lean forward. Fall into your run rather step into your run. Keep your chest over your knees and toes as each foot strikes. Sprinting employs more forward lean. Olympic sprinter Hussein Bolt uses about 13 degrees of forward lean.
  • Get off your heels, run on your toes or flat footed.
  • The recovery portion of your stride is more efficient if the foot comes up to about a right angle in back and is then brought forward (less swing weight than keeping a straighter leg and shuffling it forward).
  • The recommended cadence for good running is 88 to 92 complete revolutions (i.e., each foot hits that many times). Competitive runners use an even faster cadence (92 to 95). Shorten the stride so you can achieve and maintain your cadence. On hills, shorten your stride but maintain the cadence.
  • Adopt these practices incrementally to your running over the course of several weeks. Start with just a few minutes of toe running and build from there.  
  • If you shuffle, run with an irregular throw of a leg or arm, have a foot that whips during the recovery phase of a stride, or your form exhibits some other irregularity, it’s likely you have a mechanical issue that’s worth addressing. A Run Analysis will point this out but a physical therapist should be consulted to treat the problem.
  • Jablonski charges $55 for a Run Analysis. For more information, contact him at jason@setcoaching.com, 509-663-7733 (work), 509-679-6793 (cell). His website is www.setcoaching.com.