In most any sport, improvement comes from two areas: technique and fitness. It was about three years ago that I realized that technique was probably the larger issue holding me back in running. Despite having run cross country as a kid, I’d never actually been coached on how to run, only what sorts of workouts to do. Without a better place to start, I began watching really good runners. Being mostly a distance guy, video clips of athletes like Anton Krupicka, Dean Karnazes, Scott Jurek and Heather Fuhr are really inspiring, and so is seeing seeing local PNW runners like Uli Steidl and Miguel Galeana at area events.
More recently, in June I volunteered at Ironman Coeur d’Alene and Reid and I had a good time watching the run. Two pros stood out because they looked effortless at crazy speeds, Craig Alexander and Caitlin Snow. Julie Dibens was the opposite. Her gait was not smooth and she looked like she was suffering. Interesting too that Snow’s run split was nearly 24 minutes faster and almost down to the magic 3 hour mark. Dibins clearly won the race on the strength of her bike and despite her run.
So there are lots of people out there with good form, but there are a couple of problems trying to learn from them indirectly like this. They’re fast so it’s hard to see them for more than a few seconds at a time. Unless you’re stalking them on the course with a high speed camera, it’s hard to actually come away with interesting facts about their form other than “smooth” and “wow”.
Even so, as soon as I started carefully watching these people, a couple of patterns were clear. They ran with little vertical motion in their upper bodies and they were not heel striking. My own form was quite the opposite so I figured I needed to stop hitting the ground with my heels and I needed to minimize bouncing up and down on every stride.
That’s not a bad place to start, but how to accomplish this? At first, it was trial and error. When I got frustrated, I made up excuses like “Those people run so fast they’re almost sprinting so it has to be a different technique. When they run slow, their form is probably not far from mine”.
Of course that can’t be true. The fastest times at Western States are just over 15 hours. That works out to an average of a little over 9 minutes per mile. Fast pace and very impressive for 100 miles, but that’s still a slow running pace. What’s the trick to running smoothly and efficiently at any pace? Sure, Anton Krupicka can run sub-6 miles comfortably, but he’s clearly running at a wide range of speeds during an ultra.
Despite the frustrations, I was able to somewhat reducing vertical motion in my stride and lessen my tendency to heel strike. Along with these form changes, my race times dropped and I ran those faster times on lower heart rates and felt better afterward. Ultra-distance running started to seem possible and even fun, but I still didn’t feel like I had even the beginnings of truly efficient running form figured out.
In the end it turned out my observations were right, but they weren’t the key problems to solve, only symptoms.