Short term loss for long term gain

Growing up I drank my tea with sugar. It was a lovely sweet taste. Someone asked if I wanted a cuppa, I said “Yes” (being a teenager there was rarely any sign of a Please although there was usually a Thank-you when it was delivered) and it got drank quickly.

When I left education and started work in computing, we had tea and coffee rounds where seemingly every hour someone in the department would be wandering off to the vending machine to get them in for the team. I eventually dropped out of the rounds because I wanted to drink on my own schedule not someone else’s. I got a sense it was frowned upon because it was a rejection of their generosity and I was setting myself up as a non-team player but on reflection, I don’t care. I realise I was listening to my body. I was drinking tea when I felt thirsty not because someone was forcing it on me.

About eighteen months into this I realised I was drinking seven or eight cups per day. They were only small vending cups yet I knew that with each cup I was putting unnecessary sugar into my body. Multiply those eight cups per day across the week, across the year and on through a lifetime and it was probably mounting up for tooth rot and unnecessary calories. These were the days long before anyone worried about an obesity crisis or dangers of too much sugar. I suppose I was ahead of the curve!

I made a rational decision – I would stop drinking tea with sugar to save myself from all those extra lifetime calories. And so I went cold turkey and it was horrible. The tea became tasteless, like chewing on cardboard or paper. And being cheap, 7p per plastic cup tea, it was probably low quality anyway but I persevered. For months, drinking tea became a joyless experience. Then one day, either by accident or on purpose I had a cup with sugar. Ugh. It tasted horrible too. Far too sweet.  So I was now between a rock and a hard place – tea without sugar tasted horrible, tea with it tasted horrible. Either way forward or backward was going through pain. In the end, it was about a year before I started to enjoy drinking tea again but now, looking back from thirty-odd years in the future it was a good decision given how many cups of tea I still drink each day.

Recently I’ve been working on building my shoulder muscles. I noticed last year my left pectoral muscle is beautifully square whereas the right pec has a slight curve to it. A little wiggling of my right shoulder forward and backward identified the underlying root cause of the aesthetic displeasure. There is a slouching, slumping of the right shoulder which when forward causes the pec to sag slightly.

While this is not devastatingly obvious or problematic, like the tea in sugar, I feel it’s worth correcting for when I’m older. Old people often become round shouldered and then hunched which then causes further issues. I already notice sometimes when I am sat typing or driving in the car that the right shoulder is slumping forward and it feels ungainly and may even ache a little. Getting my pec square is a goal not for the aesthetic but because it will indicate the shoulder muscles are working correctly to keep it in position. Of course, unlike the tea drinking, lifting some weights twice per week is hardly painful or something I couldn’t stop.

My training philosophy is that, while everybody is subtly different, each muscle in the body works in a certain way and for a certain purpose. If the shoulder muscles have got used to sagging then, if I can easily correct them with a bit of strength work and conscious repositioning then going to be worth it. In time they will start to hold the joint correctly and strengthen themselves.

It’s easy for muscles to weaken and stop working and the body to compensate with other muscles which aren’t best for the job. A simple example is lifting a heavy object, the best way to do it is by bending the knees and using the leg muscles whereas poor lifting technique has people bending over at the waist and straining their back muscles.

It’s the same with running. We have an array of muscles in our lower bodies which contribute to movement. Some runners power their runs predominantly using their glutes, others use the thighs while some tap into their hamstrings or calves. While my training approach is not interesting in changing form to look good, I do believe it’s worth spending a little time each week to try and improve form through drills and strength work.

My belief is twofold. By using the right muscles for the right job, you get maximum power applied when you are running. If the wrong muscles are doing the job, they aren’t going to be as powerful at it. Secondly, they may already be fatigued when they are asked to do the things they are good at which means you get less out of them and it might even lead to injury. At best using the wrong muscles is a power leak. At worst, you’re unnecessarily fatiguing muscles that aren’t then able to handle what you want them to do. You’re not getting the best out of yourself. Bear in mind, I’m not prescriptive about what is good or bad form, only that we need to get the right muscles firing in the right sequence to maximise our own physiology.

But change takes time and with a complicated action like running, where there are many moving parts, adopting new form doesn’t necessarily come quickly. Small improvements in one area can lead to a change in another area that may or may not be desirable. If change was easy, top class runners would all have amazing form but they don’t.

When we start getting the right muscles to fire correctly they may be too weak to carry the training load we’d previously reached. We may have to run slower or train a little less until they strengthen up enough. It takes conscious effort and a willingness to accept a short-term loss for a long term gain that will hopefully last a lifetime. Just like when I gave up drinking tea with sugar.

I Discovered a Muscle

Full disclosure – I didn’t make a ground-breaking medical discovery; I simply found a new muscle .I’d never heard of. Running along the prom last Tuesday, with my legs pepped up, I found myself springing forwards almost effortlessly. As the run progressed, I began to feel an ache in my buttocks in a place which had never ached before. There’s nothing untoward in this, muscles fatigue and this leads to aching. But late in the run, when I focused on readopting my early run form, the muscle ached more, my stride improved and the springing returned. I’d discovered a new muscle!

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me in recent weeks. When I began doing squat workouts in October with the goal of being able to do pistol squats, I found a weakness on the outside of my hip. I took a look at the medical dictionary i.e. Googled “buttock muscles” and concluded it was probably the Gluteus Medius or Gluteus Minimus being activated. While I already knew of the three Glute muscles (the other being the Gluteus Maximus) and the Piriformis, I failed to notice the Obturator Internus hereby referred to as the OI (or its companion the Obturator Externus, the OE). My self-diagnosis of where the ache was leads me to believe it was the OI I’d discovered but it might be the OE.

Posterior Hip Muscles 1
Courtesy of Beth ohara~commonswiki, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reading up on the OI and OE muscles, it seems they’re used in hip extension and rotation. That explains why I began to feel an ache as my stride lengthened out. Over the past month I’ve been doing sprint drills twice per week for just ten minutes and these have been helping me to learn how not to (excessively) rotate my hips when running. Running along the prom I could actually feel my core holding the hips square as I pushed off with each step. The sprint drills have helped correct the motion and along with the strengthening effect of the squats the consequence is the OI/OE muscles starting to ache. On Wednesday’s drills and strides, I found myself powering along like I’ve rarely done before. I remember perhaps two occasions, in my whole lifetime, when I felt like a sprinter – running on air.

Update on my 800m training – Oct 2021

The time had come to run another 800m time trial and find out whether JackD’s plan was working. 

A quick recap – last December I ran 2:58 to set a baseline. In April, after following Jack’s plan for a cycle, it reduced by only five seconds to 2:55. I then did six weeks of endurance training and it reduced a little more to 2:53 in early June. This was where I started my second cycle of Jack’s training from. The summer was then spent following the plan as best possible allowing for hamstring strain in July and a fast parkrun in August. I did all but three of the scheduled sessions.

So here I was back at Poole Park and having gone through my usual pre-run routines, this time I ran 2:50, maybe 2:49. Still no significant improvement. This was highly disappointing given I thought I was capable of breaking 2:40. Back in early September I ran 1:58 for 600 in training – that’s 2:40 pace so I should have been faster on the time trial. But it wasn’t to be. Realistically when I got to the October time trial I’d already passed my peak and was on the way downwards hence the poor showing on the day.

There’s no doubt I’ve generally got faster and fitter from the training but it’s not resulting in faster times over 800. If anything all I’ve done is brought the average of training up. I’ve not got significantly faster in the top-end speed – I ran 37-38secs for the first 200m of this time trial, back in December it was 39-40 secs. That two second per 200m improvement simply reflects what’s happened in the time trials.

World class 800m runners are easily capable of running twenty-five seconds for 200m – even the women. I’m nowhere close to that, maybe thirty-five seconds at best. So I’ve got to find a way to improve top-end speed because if you start running 200 quicker then the subsequent sections all get quicker. Even with a drop-off 400 is covered in under a minute and so on.

Endurance rebuild

Following the time trial, I knew I needed to let my legs recover. I spent a week doing very easy jogging. And that’s all it was – jogging. I’ve come to realise that when I’m past my peak it’s because my body has begun switching Intermediate fast-twitch fibres over to anaerobic mechanism and these can only be rebuilt through endurance training – lots of easy running, no speedwork.

My first Sunday run of the rebuild saw my heart-rate barely going over 130bpm during the entire run. Yet it still felt effortful in its own way which always highlights a drop in endurance. In the following days the pace picked up but I was still only barely running 8-min/mile until my legs came back. Yet by end of month I was beginning to see some miles closer to seven minutes and even putting in a couple of 6:50s on Steady runs. My final Sunday long run of the month was close to where I’d been in late August. Theoretically I could have picked up the 800 training again but I want to spend the winter on endurance as all world-class runners have a large aerobic base.

Form drills

Recognising my top-end speed isn’t good enough, I started looking at how to improve my general sprint speed without resorting to hillwork which usually overpowers my endurance. As I detailed in Stride Length, I’ve been thinking about how to improve this and started doing more drillwork – marching, A-skips, B-skips and straight leg bounding – to try and improve my running form. And boy, did it improve.

From the first day of drills I could feel my left glute hasn’t been working, my knees haven’t been lifting enough and my lower legs (the calf) have been inhibited in extending the stride. That inhibition has come from previous attempts to improve form where I looked to get rid of heel striking. There is so much conflicting information out there, most of it by people who are interested in very, long distance running rather than speed.

Given it’s ten minutes after an easy run twice per week, I’ve really enjoyed doing the drill work. I think it’s a new challenge and I can feel it’s going to help. The disappointment of the time trial has quickly gone.

Pistol squats

When I was researching exactly how to do sprint drills I came across heptathete Chari Hawkins doing a pistol squat.

Trying one I couldn’t get anywhere close even hanging onto my kitchen counter! It occurs to me that at the bottom of the pistol squat is very much the sort of position sprinters push out of from the start blocks. Developing it must be useful for getting faster especially as Chari Hawkins can run a 24.4sec 200m.

So I’ve begun doing daily squat work and discovered my left leg is weaker than my right. Much of that is related to muscles around the left hip which has impacted my running stride in the past. Doing the squat work has begun to strengthen this.

Combined with the drill work, my running form has changed massively in a couple of weeks. I’m feeling stronger and more balanced in my running. I’m sure my stride length is increasing simply because I have a stronger push off.

Coming up

The next block of dedicated 800m training is a long way off. I’m going to use this winter to build endurance. I feel that’s also holding me back. The best 800m runners in the world all have big aerobic systems which reflects in their easy runs being in the 6-7min/mile range – currently that’s top end aerobic running for me; not easy. I need to build mine up while maintaining contact with my speed.

I’m hoping to maintain speed through a fortnightly fast parkrun (as well as drills and strides). It’s a long time since I went to parkrun and ran fast regularly. I feel sometimes I’ve got so focused on training that I don’t get the reward of actually racing fast. My first fast parkrun on Oct 23rd came in at 21:20 at Upton House. While it was a four second PB over August, I know there’s much more to come as the legs were fatigued from a big week of running.

The other thing I’m looking forward to is Christchurch 10K in mid-December. While I’m not intending to do any specific 10K training for it, I am focusing on it and will taper for it. After that I will probably look to run a decent half-marathon next spring before resuming 800m training again. It’s all a long way off and yet it’ll fly by!

More stride length – Eliud Kipchoge

Previously I talked about the stride length of 400m hurdlers, 800m runners and 10K runners. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at Eliud Kipchoge – the world’s premier marathoner.

Kipchoge is famed for his excellent running form and economical stride and in Oct. 2019 he became the first man to run a marathon in under two hours. I found footage of the run on Youtube and watched a section from the last kilometre to calculate his stride length.

How to calculate stride length manually

You can skip past this section if you’d rather not get into the details

As we know Speed = Stride Length x Stride Frequency.  We can rearrange that as Stride Length = Speed divided by Frequency. And because Speed is actually the distance covered in a time period (e.g. miles per hour); we can convert it to a Pace (e.g. 15mph is 4min/mile because 60mins / 15 = 4).

We need to find out how fast he’s running and how many steps he’s taking in a set period to be able to calculate the stride length.

Step 1 – Watching the footage I found a section where the camera showed Kipchoge for a decent length of time; the longer the better as it gives a more accurate sample. The particular segment lasted twenty seconds.

Step 2 – I counted the number of times his left arm swings. It doesn’t matter whether you count armswings or footsteps they’re going to match. Generally though I find armswings are easier to count. I counted thirty armswings.

Step 3 – As this was a twenty second clip, I had to triple it to get the cadence for a minute (3×30 = 90). But this was only for the swing of one arm so I doubled it (90 x 2 = 180) to get the total for both arms. Given arms and legs swing at the same rate, it gives the number of steps per minute – 180. Very conveniently it’s also three steps per second.

Step 4 – The marathon was run in 1:59:40 – an average pace of 4:34/mile. I remember Kipchoge was very consistent in his pacing so I’ve got a high level of confidence that his is how quick he was covering the ground.

Now I calculate how many steps Eliud covers in his 4:34 mile. In four minutes he covers 720 steps (180×4) and then in the remaining thirty-four seconds takes another 102 (34×3) for a grand total of 822 steps per mile.

Step 5 – As a mile is 1,609 metres and we know Kipchoge takes 822 steps to cover it, it works out that his stride length is 1.96metres  (1609 / 822).

NB This final step has an implicit conversion from Imperial to Metric measuring systems. I could have gone metric earlier as I know he was running at 2:50/km, so he was taking 510 steps per km (1000/510 = 1.96) to get the same stride length.

Kipchoge’s Stride Length

If you skipped straight down here, let’s recap …. at his marathon pace of 4:34/mile, Eliud Kipchoge is taking 180 steps per minute with a stride length of 1.96 metres. What’s interesting, and defeats those people who say they have little legs, is that Kipchoge is only 1.67m tall (5’6”) – his stride is over 15% longer than he is tall.

I also found video of 18-year-old Eliud Kipchoge winning the 5000m gold at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. His running form looks a little less smooth than these days but he was still able to win in 12min52. I counted steps for one of his 400m laps close to the end of the race – he completed it in a touch under 1min05 – a pace of 4:21/mile. He took 202 steps and that works out to a stride length of 1.83 metres. Surprisingly it was shorter than he ran for a whole sub-2 marathon but may begin to explain why his form looked less smooth.

Nonetheless whichever race you look at Kipchoge’s stride length is bigger than he is tall and that’s worth thinking about.

Stride Length

Like all runners I want to get faster. How you do this is, of course, the difficult part. Having a coach or following a plan takes you through the workouts you need to do to improve speed, stamina and endurance appropriately to your event.

There are certain guidelines for what you’re trying to do; for example, 100m sprinters are working on top-end speed and trying to be as efficient with their running form as possible.  Marathon runners are training to improve their aerobic efficiency and top-end speed isn’t too important to them. Everybody in between is working on some variation between these.

Paula Radcliffe still getting air time at mile 25 of 2002 Chicago marathon

But even when you think the marathon is more about endurance than speed, you discover world class marathoners are fast. Take Paula Radcliffe, she can run 4min25 for a single mile where most parkrunners can’t even run 200 metres at this pace.

When I benchmarked my 800m last December, my peak pace was 5:02/mile. That is, of course, dependent on the accuracy of my GPS but nine years ago I was hitting 3:38/mile in my finishing sprints at parkrun. I wanted to figure out how to rebuild this.

The Formula

The simple mechanical explanation of speed is that it’s the amalgamation of how quickly you move your legs and how far you travel with each step. More commonly this is quoted as a formula of Speed = Stride Length x Stride Frequency. I first learned about this in the mid-1990s but never really thought about what to do with it.

On the stride frequency (cadence) side there’s a lot of talk about how the magic number of steps to take is 180 per minute. I’m not going to dig into that here today as it’s much discussed around the internet, only to say there is no magic number to achieve. It’s the Stride Length side I’m currently interested in.

What is Stride Length?

Around the time I learned the formula, I started to hear about how the great 400m hurdler Ed Moses had a stride length of 2.70 metres which enabled him to take thirteen steps between each hurdle.

When I looked up what a stride was it, it was defined as two steps e.g. right foot then left foot or vice versa. So by that definition your stride length would be how far you cover from when your left foot hits the ground to when it hits the ground again. That would suggest each single step by Moses was only covering 1.35 metres yet when I did the calculations that didn’t seem right.

It turns out when runners, coaches or commentators talk about stride length they’re using the term interchangeably with step length. For runners, stride length is the distance you cover with one step. If you stand with both feet together and step onto the right foot, it is the distance you’ve covered in this step.

If you’re going to try measuring it, remember to measure consistently from the heel-to-heel or toe-to-toe. Often though you can find out from the stats produced by GPS watches – if they’re capable of measuring cadence.

Garmin stats from a run – avg stride length highlighted

Elite stride length

400m hurdlers

I said that Ed Moses is famous for his 2.70 metre stride but it’s not just him. When I was watching the Tokyo Olympics over the summer, I switched onto the final of the women’s 400m hurdles. The commentators were discussing how Sydney McLaughlin – the world record holder – runs 14 steps between the hurdles until the final one when she increases to 15 steps because of fatigue shortening her stride. I found out the distance between the hurdles is thirty-five meters making her long stride is 2.50 metres and drops down to 2.35 metres when she tires. That’s big and it’s stunning.

Measure out 2.50 metres and you’ll realise why I still harboured some doubt about whether I was understanding what stride length is. Were elite runners really covering the length of a small car in one step? Or was their stride the technical ‘two step’ definition? I went looking for direct evidence.

David Rudisha – 800m

I found some decent Youtube footage of David Rudisha running the 800m at the London Olympics. It’s the race where he set a new world record. As he crossed the line he was well ahead of the rest of the field and there was a good angle on it.

And below he is one step before! It seems unimaginable how he will go from toeing off at the red triangle next to the Olympic logo and ending up on the finish line but he does.

Here’s a combined picture to make things simpler. We can see it’s quite some distance.

Rudisha is recorded as being 1.88m tall so let’s put some lines on the photo and estimate how long his stride is.

He’s not standing fully upright so the yellow line is around 1.75m. The red line is just above his knee and, fortunately as I’m the same height, I can estimate it to be around 70cm. That’s a total of 2.45m.

The exact measurement doesn’t really matter, what’s important is we now have visual proof that a world class runner takes well over two metres with a single step.

Finally here’s a look at his last two steps, he’s easily covering the better part of five metres. His black shorts make it harder to identify which leg is forward or backwards but if you look at this shoulders there’s no doubt about it. And you can also see how far his body moves over the top of his support leg as he pivots from landing up to toe-off.

Women’s 10K

So far I’ve talked about the stride length of the 400m hurdler and 800m runners. These shorter distance track athletes always have a longer stride than distance runners because the speeds they run (around 3 – 3min30/mile) are that much quicker.

Last weekend the BBC were showing the Great Manchester Runs. A friend who was watching the women’s 10K race messaged to point out the difference in running styles of the two lead ladies – Eilish McColgan and Meraf Bahta.

It was clear McColgan has a long, bouncy stride with a high back kick – probably because she’s still doing shorter track races – whereas Bahta’s stride was shorter and flatter. By flatter I mean she’s staying more level with the ground, less bounce.

Rewatching footage from the second kilometre I counted their respective cadences. McColgan was running at 172 steps per minute, Bahta up at 200.  It’s a notable difference and knowing that they were running together slightly faster than 3min/km (4:45/mile) you get an indication of their stride lengths –  McColgan’s is 1.97m and Bahta’s 1.70m.

Ordinary runners

McColgan is impressive but it’s Bahta who really makes the point. Even for a high cadence runner, she still has a stride length far above that of most runners. Most of the ordinary runners I know have short stride lengths according to their Garmins. If it’s much over a metre on a general run that’s unusual. Of course you can’t big stride all the time but I doubt many have the strength and technique to extend their stride out when required.

My 10K races have an upper end value of something like 1.4m when I’m fresh and usually drop into the 1.30s by the end. I’m sure I’m not unusual in this respect and of course I’m not running world class pace so it’s naturally going to be shorter at my slower race paces.

Most ordinary runners work on their cadence with no thought for improving their mechanics or top-end speed to create a longer stride length. This is a mistake because as we’re seeing with someone like Bahta, that longer stride length is still beneficial when you have a high cadence.

The way you develop a decent stride length is by pushing off more powerfully. You don’t reach out in front of you, you launch yourself forwards through the air with each step. Think of it like being on a pogo stick using the spring to load up and travel forwards for as much distance as possible. As a runner when your leg is behind you, you extend your hip, your knee, your ankle to push forwards. Learning this technique is best done during strides or hill sprints. Short efforts where you’re not concerned about running out of energy or fatiguing.

One last picture of David Rudisha to marvel at. It’s during the flight phase of the last step. His foot is a good half metre or more before the line and looks like he will land there yet somehow he travels on., His effort at toe-off propels him forwards the extra distance before his foot hits the ground. It happens quickly and horizontally. There is very little drop which is what the white line is there to help see.

The white line is lined up with the word “Kenya” on his vest and level just above the black tape by the finish. Take another look below at the finish line photo and you can see he’s only dropped a matter of inches to now be level with it.

When he was in the air, he wasn’t actually high off the ground. His effort goes towards pushing him forwards not up into the air. If you watch slow runners they use a lot of energy bouncing up and down rather than going forwards – this is bad.

If you want to marvel at Rudisha’s running, here’s the video of his 2012 Olympic run. There’s a good, slow motion close-up at the 7min10 mark.

I wrote another article looking at Eliud’s Kipchoge’s stride length and detailing how I calculated it here.

Short sprint – Tappity-tap

A while ago I wrote about how noisy I am as a runner – it’s been a lifelong trait. So you can imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago on my long run I suddenly noticed an absence of heavy plodding.

It was 5:30am on a Sunday and being so early in the day there was an absence of traffic. I’ve come to love getting out early in the summer at the crack of dawn. I actually woke up an hour earlier because my curtains are thin, but I elected to have something of a lie-in. Eventually I recognised I should get out there while it was quiet, before it got hot, so I could be home by 7am and still have the whole day ahead of me.

Running this early is so peaceful and quiet. Sometimes the sun is just rising, there can still be a slight chill in the air but you barely notice it once you’re off down the road. The birds may be singing their dawn chorus and there can be fog in the fields or, as you cross over the bridge into Wimborne and look up the river.

But I digress. I was about twenty minutes into my run and began to go up the hill at the back of Merley and suddenly realised all I could hear from my feet was a tappity-tap. Each footfall was noticeably quieter than usual. I continued on and didn’t think too much more about it. My focus was on keeping the run genuinely easy and not kicking up into a higher gear.

I ran up Lower Blandford Road into Broadstone and, with the final few metres hitting a steeper incline, I found my legs go a little wobbly from the surge of lactate it manifested. On into The Broadway I went but now my feet were noisier. It was highlighted by two guys outside the papershop noticing me before I reached them.

I thought nothing more of it until I reached home. After uploading my run to Garmin I noticed the cadence graph had many blue dots in the first half of the run. They turned to green as I reached Darbys Corner and began to run up into Broadstone. Blue dots indicate a cadence of 174, green indicate it’s lower.

While I’m not someone who gets tied up about running at certain cadences, I have been working on improving my form over the past decade. Ten years ago my cadence was usually 150-155, maybe topping out at 160. This morning it was heading for the mid-170s when I was light on my feet and barely make a noise.

The latest form work I’ve been doing has been to use some sprint drills to improve knee lift and get my glutes working better. It would seem these may now be beginning to have an effect.

Short Sprint – Listen very carefully, I shall write this only once

My Sundays orienteering were spent with my best friend, Malcolm. On a couple of occasions our friend Steve joined us but it didn’t last, I suspect Malcolm’s parents didn’t want the responsibility of all three of us. I was enough to handle as the add-on and Steve had kind of self-invited himself so he got the boot. One thing I recall is him pointing out how noisily I ran, I think his words were “sounds like a baby elephant” and in fairness he wasn’t wrong about it.

I’ve never been a quiet runner. Sometimes I’m aware of this more than at others. I noticed it on my Sunday long run a few months back as I ran up into Broadstone Broadway and my feet were slapping so loudly on the pavement that an old woman looked round and commented that she’d been expecting a herd of runners to come through!

Another morning, as I was warming up on the way to my 800m speedwork session, I was hammering down the road closing in on a slower runner. She looked round well before I reached her, I assume because she heard the commotion, so as I passed I could only think to comment “Yes. I’m a noisy one, aren’t I?”

The problem with being a noisy runner isn’t so much being embarrassed by other’s opinions (although it can be); it’s that making a loud noise implies there is a big force going straight into the pavement rather than being used to propel you along. It’s said that a group of Kenyan runners will go past with a light tappity-tap sound. Of course it would be useful to be able to see this “noise as ground force” quantified in the lab but that’s the realm of university departments which few of us have access to.

After all these years of running I’d come to the conclusion that perhaps I’m simply a noisy runner, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing anything wrong. But then one Sunday morning my legs were relatively fresh and I noticed I wasn’t as noisy as normal. I thought about it for the first mile or so, noticing what happened on the first incline (stayed relatively quiet) before my attention shifted to rising breathing and heart-rates.

Three miles into the run I’d reached Gravel Hill and bumped into Mike and Nigel from Poole AC. Naturally I tried to look relaxed with good posture as we passed each other. But once past, with the road empty at that early hour, I noticed I’d become noisy again. I was on a downward stretch so I wondered if that could account for the difference, Realising I was stretching forward for each step, I experimented by tilting my pelvis back slightly and the noise disappeared. I returned to the lighter tappity-tap which I’d begun the run with. I also noticed that my left glute began to ache as it became more engaged.

I tried to maintain this feeling of pelvic tilt and glute engagement through the rest of the run. By the time I reached mile eight, I started to get a pain in my core muscles to the right of my belly button but it disappeared after a minute or two. I pushed through the rest of the run concentrating on my form.

Now I should point out that what worked for me is not an instruction for others. It may be useful but it depends on what they’re already doing. When I say that I tilted my pelvis back, it may be that it was already tilted too far forward (“posterior pelvic tilt”) and needed to be tilt to get more neutral. For another runner, making an adjustment from neutral would give them an undesirable anterior pelvic tilt.

The important thing to understand is I did two things which both revolve around awareness. Firstly I was listening to how noisy and slappy my feet had become so I played around with my pelvic tilt. Doing that I was then able to find a position which reduced the noise and where I could feel more engagement of my left glute. Using awareness in this way can be a great way to improve your running. It remains to be seen how this affects my running in the longterm but I’m hoping I can get the swiftness and lightness of a gazelle rather than the baby elephant!

On form – excessive rotation

Sprinting into the finish of Lordshill 10K, I was overtaking other runners and feeling strong. Yet my Garmin only recorded a Best Pace of 4:45/mile, which while useful, is slower than Kipchoge runs a whole marathon. Looking at the races photos of my sprint finish, I began to see why and started to think about some form changes. Sadly I never got a copy of the photo so I can’t reveal its horrors but this one from the 2010 New Forest Marathon begins to hint at my lack of form. Here, I was only running at eight minute mile pace, not even trying to sprint.  If I hadn’t mentioned it you might not see much wrong. But there’s issues, notice the heelstrike of the right foot.

At least I look as if I’m enjoying it!

Below is another picture I came across as I was reading through my backlog of Runner’s Worlds. It’s a happy photo, you can see the joy of the runners. I’m guessing they’re approaching the finish as they’re spaced out and smiling, not overwhelmed by already having run for two hours with many more miles left to do. But my eye wasn’t drawn to the runner’s joy, it’s another photo where heelstriking is visible. (This isn’t criticism of the ladies in the image, they’re simply demonstrating something which is common among runners, myself included, that can even be seen at the elite level).

But heel-striking isn’t the focus of this article. That’s because it isn’t caused by, or easily corrected by adjusting, how the foot lands. Heel-striking is simply a reaction to a chain of events. The foot is connected to the ankle, which connects to the shin, to the knee, to the thigh and on up to the hip and pelvis. This is where the problem is really occurring. The pelvis is rotating forward, thereby flinging the leg forward, so the only place the runners can land is on the heel.

It’s hard to see pelvic rotation because the hip and thigh muscles obscure it but there’s another way to identify it. Here’s a close up of the same picture with some lines added. You’ll see I’ve highlighted the shoulders because this is where the issue is obvious. Shoulders also rotate around the spine, which is the centre axis connecting the upper and lower bodies. Whatever happens in the lower half is mirrored in the top half, for example as you walk or run, your arms and legs swing in opposite time. Unless you consciously block it, or have your hands in your pockets, your arms always swing back and forth when moving.

Lower half travelling forwards, top half turning

When there’s excessive pelvic rotation you get excessive shoulder rotation. In the RW photo, the runners’ arms aren’t so much swinging as being turned. If you look back to my photo, you’ll see the opposite shoulder is coming around, emphasised by the arm moving towards the middle of the body. The disaster photo from 2017 of me sprinting, shows an even more pronounced rotation of the shoulders and hips. I would hazard to say my shoulders were 45 degrees to the square – but I’m trying to mask this by swinging my arms straight forward and back despite the turning! I really wish I had the photo to show you how bad it was.

A good way to see why this is a problem is to imagine yourself riding a bike along the road. If you begin to wobble the handlebars then the front wheel wobbles. You end up zigzagging in danger of falling off, continuously understeering and oversteering to try and keep stable. When you keep the handlebars steady your bike travels effortlessly straight. It’s the same issue for the runner. Keep over-rotating the pelvis and you’re constantly fighting to run in a straight line. No longer do the muscles which are most efficient do the work, but lots of auxiliary muscles have to compensate which is both energy costly and puts you at risk of injury.


If you compare this to any world-class sprinter you’ll see their shoulders and hips stay relatively square. Of course some rotation has to happen, we’re simply interested in avoiding excessive rotation. Here’s a video of a sprinter doing 26+ mph on a treadmill. Helpfully, the university researchers have put reflective dots on the sprinter’s body which allow us to see the rotation of the upper and lower bodies. Or rather the lack of it.

We can see there isn’t much rotation occurring in the hips. I’d estimate one hands width, so maybe 3-4 inches. The dot under the armpit is moving more but we never see the shoulder on the far side coming into view. The stability of the hips is reflected in minimal shoulder turn. And if you look at the footstrike while the leg comes out in front, as the foot strikes the treadmill it’s flat – no heelstrike in sight.

If you see sprinters head on, you’ll see their arms and legs are moving straight backwards and forwards. Coaches actually teach sprinters not to let their arms cross the centreline of the body which happens when the shoulders turn.

Improving your form

I don’t focus very much on running technique, certainly not like when I played other sports.  But I have been working on reducing my hip and shoulder rotation because it’s a cure-all for a bunch of problems. If you reduce rotation you raise cadence, reduce heelstrike, power your running with your glutes and reduce quad involvement which can lead to lower back pain.

Here are some ideas and things to try that I’ve found helpful over the years.


Try running with one hand on your hip and feel how it affects you. The hand on hip forces the shoulders to stop rotating and the other arm then has to swing. Do it for thirty seconds then change over. This exercise isn’t intended to be used to rework your form i.e. don’t go run for an hour with one hand on a hip (for one thing you’ll look silly); it’s to give you an understanding of what the proper form feels like and which muscles should be working.


The problem of excessive rotation is often down to not stabilising the core and not using the glute muscles to power the running. I get runners doing exercises at my sessions in Poole Park when time allows. I recommend Planks and especially Side Planks for core stability. For glutes, try Glute Bridges progressing to the Single Leg version. Also Single Leg Deadlifts. You can find examples of these exercises on the web and Youtube if you can’t make my session.

Glute Activation

Once strengthened you need to ensure the glutes are being activated when you run. Here are simple exercises to do before running, perhaps while waiting for your GPS watch to lock in or a friend to arrive:

  • Stand with one foot out in front, the other underneath you. Then push up on to the toes of the rear foot to rock forward onto the front foot. Relax back down before doing it again four times then switch legs.
  • Imagine pushing a shopping trolley in front of you which doesn’t allow your legs to swing forward while walking. Forward motion has to be powered by pushing away behind. Walk twenty yards then break into a jog and try to keep the same feeling.
  • Standing against a wall, walk away from it by pushing against it with the back of your leg and heel. Do five push offs with each leg..
  • Walking up the stairs at the office or home, push up off the lower foot to fully straighten the leg. Barely lift the other leg onto the next step. Practice every time you use stairs.

In all these exercises the leg that is behind the body does the work, the one in front remains ‘quiet’. Your aim is avoid using the quads to power the exercise. Again, I incorporate this activation work into coached sessions during warm-ups.

Integrating the two – my journey

Last Easter I started an exercise program to rebuild the strength and power I’d lost while focused on building endurance. One of the exercises I did was “Bounding”. Very long loping strides where you hang in the air (like a triple jumper) aiming to cover distance rather than go quickly. Pushing off with each bound, it became obvious if there’s over-rotation going on because you start to zigzag down the road. I started to find myself pushing with the glutes and maintaining hip stability.

In the summer, I started a new core stability programme and the work I did on side planks helped with minimising rotation. I’d always been strong in the core but when combined with improved running form the two things began to work together. I came home from one of my Sunday long runs and found the oblique muscles either side of my core were aching because they’d been stabilising me for the first time ever. You can run for years with bad form and never know it!

But still I wasn’t sorted. As I’ve moved in to 800m training with its emphasis on shorter 200m efforts, I began to notice my right hip was rotating forwards.  I had to work on keeping my hips squared and getting the glutes to fire.

I know I’ve still work to do on this.  It’s slowly coming together. Form change is difficult and tends to be a series of plateaus then improvements as you find something that helps you move to the next level. I started trying to improve my cadence back in 2013 and I’m still working on it. The recent form changes for getting glutes to fire have been a stepping stone for that. No doubt I will be looking again at photos in five years’ time and still finding fault.

A Final Thought

You often see people carrying drinks bottles. I believe it’s something that causes runners to engage in shoulder rotation. After all, if you carry a cup of tea or glass of wine through to the living room, you try to keep it as level as possible, you don’t want to spill any. A correct armswing will cause the bottle to shake up and down and the liquid in it to slosh around putting strain on the arm and shoulder muscles. I don’t know what the answer is for those who want to carry a drinks bottle, personally I’ve never found a need for them even on the longest of runs. My encouragement would be to learn to trust your body can handle running without needing to take a drink. Obviously in hotter, more humid condition this may be unavoidable.