Seb Coe on Running Style

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From a book by Peter Coe I believe, copied from a blog by Madmike a while back.

This article is locked by SPR


Everybody runs in a different way, and most runners, unless they are reaching for the heights are unlikely to modify their style very much. Activities depending upon fluent movement, like ballet and gymnastics as well as running, need the faults ironed out early on, and the correct movements practised as soon as possible. At some stage it becomes too late to start correcting ingrained faults, and for older fitness runners correction becomes so difficult that there is a danger of it becoming counter productive. But this does not mean that style is not important in running, or that it is not worth examining the the running body in detail.
In engineering, particularly on the design side, there is an old saying that goes like this: "If it looks right, it very likely is. If it looks wrong, it certainly is.” This is equally true of running style. A good style does not guarantee that you are a great runner but a bad style almost certainly guarantees that you are not. There will always be a few exceptions to this rule, but not many.


This should be well poised on the shoulders - not too far back, as in exaggerated effort - this restricts breathing and at the same time causes the stride to shorten. Keep it still, the head must not turn. Running head down also restricts breathing, and as the head is a heavy weight, it will alter the line of carriage just to balance the body.


A well poised head is easier to balance, therefore the muscles have less work to do and neck strain is considerably lessened. Neck strain soon shows with the sterno-mastoid muscles standing out like tight cords. Remember neck strain does not contribute to forward propulsion.


“To every force there is an equal and opposite reaction” In high speed running one depends more on the reaction of the arms to offset the drive of the legs, and when you are running with a fast cadence, contra rotation of the shoulders to any degree is hardly possible. Whenever the fast runner is tiring, though , he starts to labour and roll the shoulders, but at slower speeds some contra-rotation is natural because the arms cannot move with as much vigour. Again, this must not be excessive. Overstriding, which is mechanically inefficient anyway, will tend to distort shoulder movement. While running do not stick out the chest by forcing back the shoulders - it creates tension, which means wasted energy.


A very essential part of running. Upper-arm development is important to all runners. Sprinters need good muscular development to provide the mass for the reaction to the powerful leg drive required for their event. Middle distance runners have to attack hills, which requires a good knee lift and a vigorous arm action. Long distance runners require endurance-toughened arms that do no drop with fatigue. At any cross country event, and on hilly sections of long runs, you can hear the old party-cry “use your arms” or “drive with your arms” often directed at schoolboys and attenuated ectomorphs who have neon-tubes for arms. The under trained and/or under equipped can often be seen dropping their arms from the sheer fatigue of maintaining the arm position and action.
Steady fast running requires a vigorous action with the elbow unlocked. The angle between the upper and lower arm should be about ninety degrees, but not with the elbow locked. During the backward motion the arm should be slightly extended, and then slightly flexed to something less than ninety degrees on the return.
The carriage of the arms should be low, for two reasons. First, it is less strain on the shoulders if the arms swing close to the body with the upper arm hanging more or less vertically, and the elbows in rather than sticking out spicily. Secondly, arms cannot be lifted into the driving position if they are already there. In the driving position the arms are best moved in a plane parallel to your direction (the sagittal plane) but in distance running, with it’s far less robust action, the arms will want to swing slightly across the body.
A clenched, high arm action is more tiring and mechanically does not provide the same reaction as the lower arm carriage. The wrists should be loose (though without the hand flapping wildly), fingers should be relaxed, usually with a light curl and with the thumb resting lightly on the index finger. Clenched fists betray unnecessary strain.


The part played by the hips is not readily seen except through the general carriage of the runner, and especially in his stride length. When runners lack flexibility in the hips they often attempt to attain a good stride length by increasing the forward lean of the body. This tends to be self-defeating, because it hinders front knee lift and toe-off comes earlier. While some rotation takes place, the accentuated hip rotation cultivated by the race walker is not desirable in a runner. It often shows as an exaggerated roll as a runner reaches for stride length, especially when tiredness sets in.


Seen from the front the knees should not describe a circle, but should move in an arc parallel to the sagittal plane. In an all-out drive in flat-out running, or when attacking a hill, the knees should allow the leg to straighten fully in the driving phase. A good knee-lift is an economical way of preserving stride length. It increases the flinging effect of the loose-hanging lower leg so that it flicks forward easily but not too far at the end of the recovery phase. If the leg is fully straightened, at this stage it throws a stress on the knee joint as the leg snaps out straight, and the runner over-strides. Over-striding places the foot strike too far in front of the centre of gravity of the body. This has a retarding effect, tends to promote a heavy heel strike and unnecessarily jars the body.
Knees should also allow for a high heel lift of the swinging leg - the faster one runs, the higher the heels. When the heel is tucked up close to the buttocks the leg is folded into half its length and this brings the centre of gravity of the leg closer to the pivot point, which is the hip joint. Now the leg is a much shorter lever, and the effort required to swing the leg forward to take up the supporting phase is much reduced. Further, when the heel is dropped it falls freely under gravity and being free to swing is easily flung forward without effort. Remember, good style promotes efficiency.


The requirements of the ankle exemplify the basic requirements of all athletic endeavour: strength with flexibility. The ankle is at the receiving end of heavy loads with shock, tension and bending combined. The ankle must be strong to cope with uneven ground, with slipping or with any other accident, but in the context of style our main concern is with flexibility, because of the effect it has on stride length.
When the foot hits the ground the ideal foot-strike is the one that makes contact with the ball of the foot but allows the heel to lower and kiss the ground immediately after the touchdown, when the leg is then in the supporting phase, slightly bent at the knee. Meanwhile the body is continuing to move forward so that the runner with the greatest range of movement in the ankle will be the one who can leave the foot in flat contact with the ground the longest. This delays toe-off to the very last moment and extends the duration of the driving phase in which the very powerful calf muscles can contract and contribute to forward propulsion rather than pushing the body upwards.
The fault of over-striding has been emphasised. It is in the driving phase where stride length is effectively increased.


By this we mean that as the heel begins to lift it should be driven by the forceful contraction of the calf muscles, rather than just being a foot lifted off the ground. The drive should be continued right through to the toes, which should maintain driving contact until the very last moment. Place the foot flat on the ground and note the position of the ankle bone by placing it in line with the leg of a chair or table. Then still leaving this foot flat on the ground take a stride forward. See how far you can stride with the stationary heel still in contact with the ground. As soon as you feel the tightness in front of the ankle or in the calf you will realise that with more flexibility the stride could be longer. Now slowly raise the heel from the ground and the ankle bone will lift and move forward. Continue this movement until the ball of the foot is off the ground and only the toes are in contact. The distance the ankle has moved horizontally from the chair leg is the distance you have added to your stride. Since this also depends upon the range of movement allowed by your ankle it is easy to see the contribution to your stride that ankle flexibility provides.


When running, feet seldom make contact with the ground in such a way that a line drawn across the ball of the foot makes instant contact along its whole length. The side of the foot is the first point to touch, after which the foot rolls to flat contact with the ground. This is called pronation, and is only safe and allowable over a limited range. There is a considerable risk in distance running from excessive pronation and here prevention is much better than cure. Orthotics -inserts in the shoes - may be necessary.


Generally, seen front on, a runner should progress in a straight line with the knees moving smoothly in a vertical plane and not seen to move in and out across the body. The heels, too, should not be seen to move inwards during the toe-off. It is, in fact, often seen in an exaggerated form with some sprinters during the start and early acceleration - and it is wasteful. Style is not merely a matter of aesthetics, it is harmonising a series of separate movements into a single economical effective motion.
Seen from the side, the main features we would look for would be: head well poised, trunk either erect or with just the slightest forward lean, arms held easily, hands and neck relaxed, a clean knee lift, good foot plant, with the knee nicely bent on contact under the centre of gravity (or just a few inches in front) and generally a smooth flow.

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May 2011 SPR
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