Running technique Part I  //  The philosophy of how we run

25 Sep 2007 Posted by

Yesterday, we began a series of posts looking at running technique. We’ve received questions, comments and some of your insights on the post already. All this serves to confirm is that we’re approaching a relevant and easily discussed topic. It could well border on controversial, and I’ve no doubt that some of what I write will be arguable, and probably criticized. That’s fine, we’ve never been averse to some controversy, shying away from it is not our game. So we move ahead and hope that the series will provide for good, objective discussion, which is after all our goal from this site. All we ask is that people weigh things up and acknowledge that we can’t cover EVERYTHING.

So looking ahead, this is a vast topic, and we can never do it justice. We can’t, for example, explain exactly what Pose and Chi are about, all we can do is make reference to their sites and touch on the broader concepts. So what we’ll do is break this topic into perhaps four parts, to make it easier to read and digest. These four parts will examine the following topics:

  1. Part I – What do the techniques promise? Do we run ‘incorrectly’ without these techniques? Is “natural” incorrect? A philosophical debate on the merits of natural vs taught.
  2. Part II – The biomechanical basis for good running technique. What does Pose actually say? What is Pose running? (sorry for the bias, it’s just easier to discuss based on my knowledge – the last thing I wish to do is speculate out of turn)
  3. Part III – What scientific evidence exists to support or refute these theories? We evaluate the evidence for and against Pose. Basically, this post asks “Does Pose (and Chi) work?”
  4. Part IV – Practical recommendations for good running. Should you try to relearn how to run? What do you do with this overload of information.

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Part I

The promises, implications and a philosophical debate on running technique

Today, in Part I, I’ll look at the promises or guarantees made by the two major running techniques, Pose Method and Chi Running. As I wrote yesterday, I’m far more familiar with the Pose Method, and there is scientific research on Pose that can be used to argue from (none on Chi that I know of, and anecdotes don’t constitute scientific evidence), so the emphasis is certainly on that that technique. I’ll look at the Chi method in less detail, but the problem there is that because there’s a lack of hard evidence, it becomes a “he said, she said” type of debate, neither party having sufficient data or information to argue a point conclusively. So that’s something I’d like to steer clear of – controversy is great, but it must be objective, so that’s the priority. To begin with, we look at the promises made by the techniques…

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The fundamental principle of Pose and Chi Running

Now would be a good time to introduce what these two running techniques claim. The following paragraphs are taken word for word from the respective websites of Pose Running Method and the Chi Running Method.

Pose Method

The Running Pose is a whole body pose, which vertically aligns shoulders, hips and ankles with the support leg, while standing on the ball of the foot. This creates an S-like shape of the body. The runner then changes the pose from one leg to the other by falling forward and allowing gravity to do the work. The support foot is pulled from the ground to allow the body to fall forward, while the other foot drops down freely, in a change of support.

This creates forward movement, with the least cost (energy use), and the least effort. The end result is faster race times, freer running and no more injuries!

Chi Running method

There are countless books, courses, and classes on how to improve your golf swing, your tennis game, and your cycling technique, but none teaching how to run properly. The ChiRunning program fills this void by teaching people bio-mechanically correct running form that is in line with the laws of physics and with the ancient principles of movement found in T’ai Chi. ChiRunning technique is based on the same principles and orientation as Yoga, Pilates, and T’ai Chi: working with core muscles; integrating mind and body; and focused on overall and long term performance and well-being.

Whether you’re an injured runner, a beginner runner, a marathon runner, a triathlete, or someone who runs to stay fit, ChiRunning has helped thousands improve their technique, reduce injury and achieve personal goals. ChiRunning helps reduce and eliminate: shin splints, IT band syndrome, hamstring injury, plantar faciitus, hip problems and the most famous running injury of all: knee injury.

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Reading between the lines – do we run incorrectly?

We will look at the theory behind the techniques (especially Pose) in tomorrow’s post, but looking back over these claims, the implied message is that we run incorrectly. In other words, something has happened to the way we perform an activity that we usually do without thinking that has increased our risk of injury and made us slower. As soon as the creators of these techniques claim “Run better” or “run with lower chance of injury”, they imply that we are currently at fault. This is a pretty important concept to consider…

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Is it possible that we all just get it wrong?

The concept that we might run ‘incorrectly’ is not too radical when you compare running to other sports activities – no one picks up a tennis racquet and just happens to learn the perfect forehand – it requires coaching, or we learn bad habits and technique. But from a philosophical point of view, we tend to think of running a bit differently. Running is such an automatic activity – we progress to running from crawling and then walking, and we thus tend to think of it as innate. Whether we learn this ability incorrectly (or non-optimally is perhaps a better word), is key to the whole argument, hence this somewhat philosophical post! (Tomorrow will have more ‘facts’ and scientific discussion on the techniques, for those who are into that! Promise.)

If you look at the Pose website, they actually address this very question in a lengthy explanation – Do we know how to run? The argument put forward here is that certain tasks, like swimming technique and hammer throw, require a pretty defined and narrow technique, whereas running has classically been “each to his own.” The biggest argument is that even though there are subtle differences and deviations in how we do any task (Tiger Woods swings the golf club differently from Jim Furyk, for example), but the essentials are the same.

However, when it comes to running, we accept that ‘natural’ is best. As quoted from the Pose site: “So, no matter how you run, it’s ok. If you try to apply this “logic” to any other human activity such as swimming, tennis, dancing, driving a car and so on, it would sound totally strange, but not so for running…” This is the running paradox.

This is quite a compelling argument. It’s made even more compelling by the fact that injury rates have stayed the same despite improved coaching, medical care, and better running shoes, as we discussed yesterday.

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The confounder – not all runners are created equal

The problem with the second argument in particular is that there are several confounding variables (there are always confounders!) that would explain why this is the case. For one thing, the typical runner of today is not the same as the runner of 30 years ago – 30 years ago, runners were ‘born to run’. They were small, lightweight, probably had very similar biomechanics (in terms of anthropometrical measurements, leg lengths, skeletal structure etc.). Today, anyone can run (and does!), from the 50kg elite superstar ala 30 years ago to the 100kg weekend warrior. That’s the beauty of our sport. But it does contribute an explanation to why people get injured – you take a new runner, who doesn’t have the same physical condition or biomechanical traits as the elite, and even the tiniest error in training will cause injury, no matter how they run.

If you consider hypothetical numbers, you would see that 20 years ago, perhaps 1 million people were running, and 500 000 got injured (hypothetical, remember?). Today, 10 million people are running and 5 million get injured. One way to interpret that is to say that we must run incorrectly because the prevalence of injury is the same (50%) despite better shoes and knowledge. This is what the Pose and Chi creators do. The alternative is to say that today, 4.5million more people are running without injury than did 20 years ago! Sure, 4.5 million people are injured, but given that they’re not the most naturally gifted runners, it’s pretty impressive to have the SAME injury prevalence! In this case, the SAME actually represents a pretty good improvement. For example, if we could keep air pollution levels the same even though there are 1 million new cars a day on the road, that would be progress! This confounder is never really addressed properly.

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The evolution of running technique

Is running the same as a tennis swing?

But returning to the first issue, that perhaps running should be taught as a ‘skill’ just as hammer throw, swimming, golf etc are, we have a more philosophical debate. You don’t, for example, have to teach a child how to walk. They just do it, learning from trial and error how to distribute their balance. They fall backwards, they overbalance, they stand in place, but eventually, get it right. You don’t teach riding a bike – all you do is facilitate the opportunity and the person falls over often until eventually they figure out how to distribute body weight correctly! Once it’s learned, it’s natural. Critics will at this point be saying “Where do you draw the line between what is learned naturally and what is taught technically?” And that is the million dollar question.

But one can’t argue that we have this perception that running comes naturally. That perception is what Pose and Chi challenge. But if the Pose and Chi methods are correct and we run ‘incorrectly’ to cause injury, one might wonder, rightly, why we don’t automatically run in the most efficient way possible? That would agree with the ‘evolution’ theory of running technique – we naturally slip into our most comfortable, effective and efficient stride. In that regard, running is different to tennis – no one ever compromised his survival because he couldn’t play a topspin forehand! But if you ran badly, got stress fractures or Runner’s knee, it would have been serious. Remember that humans used to run to survive – either towards the food or away from becoming it! So running was critical to survival – in fact, some of the best scientific papers on running in recent years have come from anthropologists and sports scientists in the USA looking at how humans are adapted to run – the skeleton, the tendons, thermoregulation etc (that would actually make a pretty good sequence of posts!). The point is that running is not an arbitrary skill like swinging a golf club or hitting a forehand down the line in tennis. It’s something that we progress to as children, and to suggest that we default into incorrect is the big issue here.

My personal opinion is that if there was a way to run faster and with fewer injuries that WAS GUARANTEED TO WORK IN ALL PEOPLE (very important – it’s a ‘disclaimer’ of sorts, as you’ll see in the next few days’ posts) then it would be discovered by default. It’s difficult to fathom that millions of people, with different body shapes and sizes and leg lengths and centres of gravity and joint angles could fit into ONE SINGLE PATTERN or technique. Rather, the passage of time would filter out any flaws for each person. But that said, the Pose technique (and Chi running) do make some pretty good fundamental arguments, and are based on what is sound biomechanics. Pose especially has some really interesting and elegant arguments for why it is a good technique. The trick is to distinguish whether they are novel concepts, or simply common sense dressed up ‘in the Emperor’s clothes’ as a marketing tool.

And having wet your appetite for that, I’ll leave it for today, and say read again tomorrow, where I’ll investigate what Pose is, what it means to run Pose, and evaluate the biomechanical principles behind it.

Ross

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