According to a new study, running technique is everything.
For years, there has been some debate about how much a runner’s technique really matters. A 2013 Runner’s World article about maintaining good form acknowledged the lack of research, stating: “How do you determine whether your form needs fixing? As long as you’re running comfortably and injury-free, there’s no reason to believe it does.”
This past spring, Dr. Jonathan Folland, professor of human performance and neuromuscular physiology at the Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences in England, came to a different conclusion after conducting extensive research.
According to Folland, there are correct and incorrect ways to run. Certain techniques, according to his study, will improve your running economy (the energy cost of running at a given speed) and distance performance.
“It is well known that runners move with diverse running styles and techniques. However, the consequences of these techniques for running economy, the efficiency of running, and distance running performance has not been clear,” Folland said in announcing the study, which was published this March in the British journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. “This study demonstrates that running technique is an important component of running performance and highlights the role of several novel aspects of technique.”
The study recruited 97 endurance runners with varying levels of fitness to run on a treadmill in the same series of speeds. Then, the researchers used 3D analysis to examine the runners’ bodies, focusing on 24 different components of technique.
From the research, Folland found that technique allows for 39 percent of the difference in running economy and 31 percent of the difference in performance amongst runners. Simply put: better technique gives you better running economy, which improves performance. No previous study has documented how dramatically this process works.
Matt Belfield, University of Vermont’s head coach for cross country, track and field doesn’t doubt the results.
“I’m not going to say there is an absolute ideal, correct way to run for everyone, but there are certainly biomechanical principles that will improve efficiency, and therefore, performance,” he said. “Each human being has a unique mechanical and physiological structure that will impact their ability to achieve the ‘ideal’ that biomechanists might suggest.”
So in that case, what’s the correct technique? Of the 24 components Folland studied, he found that one adjustment might make a big difference: running with a minimum horizontal velocity of the pelvis, meaning keeping your pelvis (often the center of mass) steady. The body can push itself forward most efficiently with horizontal motion. When runners bounce, it tilts the pelvis and detracts from that forward motion, causing the runner to become less efficient.
“Essentially, the runner wants to use as little excess movement as possible while moving forward,” Belfield said. “Since running is an energy-based activity, with all other things being equal, the most efficient athlete will win.”
If humans had wheels instead of legs, it would be possible to move forward without moving vertically at all, but since that’s not in the cards, runners should try to minimize vertical movement to see improved running economy and performance.
But that’s just one example. Folland studied many techniques, such as vertical bounding of the pelvis, knee bend during ground contact, minimum forward velocity of the pelvis, shin angle at touchdown, duty factor and trunk forward lean.
The takeaway? Runners who haven’t studied technique have much to gain. Small adjustments in gait and body movement could take runners farther, and help them cross the finish line sooner. And while you’re focusing on the techniques you learned on the high school track team–keep your knees in line, keep your elbows bent, push off the ground– you can add one more: mind your pelvis.