By T.J. Murphy | Photo by Michael Rauschendorfer
Famed Nike coach and USATF 2009 Coach of the Year Alberto Salazar believes in tinkering with form. A former Boston and 3-time New York City Marathon champion, he saw his career flare out while he was still in his 20s. “The way I ran, it wasn’t sustainable,” Salazar told the New Yorker in 2010. “The attitude at the time was: if you were gifted with perfect form, great. If you weren’t, you were just kind of stuck.” And being kind of stuck, Salazar argued, fast-tracked you toward chronic injury problems. “The knee injury, the hamstring injury—in hindsight, these were the things that killed me.”
More recently Salazar is known as the coach of the Oregon Project. Dathan Ritzenhein, Kara Goucher, Galen Rupp and Mo Farrah have all been runners that he’s worked with or is continuing to work with.
Salazar was wary of messing with the form of his runners. That said, he noticed something when watching Ethiopian 5K and 10K world record holder and Olympic gold medalist Kenesina Bekele racing on TV. What caught Salazar’s eye was how Bekele’s back leg didn’t lope upward slowly between strides. Rather, it fired like a piston. “While all these other runners had long, trailing legs, his foot was coming right up to his butt,” Salazar said. “I thought, is that just coincidence? Or could that perhaps be part of why he’s so good?”
Salazar brought in Lance Walker, an expert in sprint mechanics, to work with his distance runners. Walker analyzed Bekele’s form and concluded that here was a distance runner—the fastest ever at the 5k distance—who was running like a sprinter.
Walker and Salazar found that the best runners slapped the pavement so quickly and lightly with their forefoot that contact seemed incidental. Walker said it was like a “pogo stick with a stiff spring.”
Salazar became a believer in developing good form. “You show me someone with bad form, and I’ll show you someone who’s going to have a lot of injuries and a short career.”
Salazar referenced himself as an example. “There has to be one best way of running,” he said. “It’s got to be like a law of physics. If you deviate too much from that–the way I did in my career–it can be a big handicap. You can be efficient for a while with bad form–maybe with a low shuffle stride—but eventually that’s not good for your body. It’s going to produce tightness and muscular imbalances and structural problems. Then you get injuries, and if you’re not careful—if you don’t take care of the muscular and structural issues—the injuries can put you into a downward spiral.”
As Salazar began aggressively adjusting and improving the form of his athletes, his runners went on a spree of breakthrough performances. This culminated with Galen Rupp’s Olympic silver medal in the 10K in London. It was the first Olympic medal for an American in the 10K in 48 years. And who won the gold? British runner Mo Farah, another of Salazar’s athletes.
Power Speed Endurance founder and coach, Brian Mackenzie, entered this discussion when he started thinking about why so many runners get hurt. (MacKenzie also developed the CrossFit Endurance program). Racing an ultramarathon was so destructive he would spend most of the following week laid up on a couch. He wanted a solution.
His solution was a blend of strength training, mobility and running technique. Both with his own running and triathlon racing, and with the athletes he coached, it worked wonders. This was reflected in how quickly he could bounce back from a long, hard run.
The skill of running, for MacKenzie, boiled down to a series of principles.
1. Develop a rapid cadence. Ideal running requires a cadence that may be much quicker than you’re used to. Shoot for 180 footfalls per minute. Get an electronic metronome (or download an app that contains this), set it for 180 beats, and practice running while syncing your leg turnover to the chirp of the metronome. Developing the proper cadence will help you achieve more speed, as it increases the number of push-offs per minute. It will also help avoid injury, as you avoid over-striding and placing impact force on your heel.
2. Develop a proper forward lean. With core muscles slightly engaged to generate a bracing effect, the runner leans forward – from the ankles, not from the waist.
3. Land underneath your center of weight. Rather than heel striking out in front of your body, MacKenzie drills his athletes to make contact with the ground as their mid-foot/fore-foot passes directly under the center of mass of their bodies.
When runners become proficient at this, the pounding stops, and the movement of their legs begins to more closely resemble a wheel spinning.
4. Keep contact time brief. “The runner skims over the ground with a slithering motion that does not make the pounding noise heard by the plodder who runs at one speed,” legendary coach Percy Cerutty once said.
MacKenzie drills runners to practice a foot strike that spends as little amount of time as possible on the ground. His runners aim to touch down with a light sort of tap that creates little or no sound.
The theory is that with less time spent on the ground, the foot has less time to get into the kind of trouble caused by the sheering forces of pronation, or foot rolling.
5. Pull with the hamstring. To create a rapid, piston-like running form, the CFE runner, after the light, quick strike of the foot, pulls the ankle and foot up with the hamstring. Imagine that you had to confine your running stride to the space of a glass phone booth—you would naturally develop an extremely quick, light and compact form to gain optimal efficiency.
Practice this skill by standing barefoot and raising one leg by sliding your ankle up along your other leg. Perform up to 20 repetitions on each leg.
6. Maintain proper posture and position. Proper position and posture, MacKenzie says, shifts the impact stress of running from the extremities—such as the knees—to larger muscles in the trunk, namely the hips and hamstrings. The runner’s head remains up and eyes focused down the road. With the core muscles engaged, power would flow from the larger muscles through to the extremities.
Adapted from the New York Times bestselling book, Unbreakable Runner. Velopress Books. https://www.velopress.com/