Contrary to what some folks think, there is a right and wrong way to run

Credit: Matt Turner/Allsport
Maxim No. 1: Form matters.

Like most of the truths in running (and life) I hold most dear, I used to believe the antithesis. Runners naturally adopt their most efficient form, I thought, and one shouldnt tinker with individual style. I was wrong.

No two people run alike, and to claim that someone has perfect form is merely opinion. There really is a lot going on when we put one foot in front of the other. While some of the basics cant be changed, there are plenty of things with regard to form that we all can do better.

The first thing we need is objectivity, be it from a friend or a plate-glass window. Tucson, Ariz.-based running coach Randy Accetta evaluates his charges with the benefit of a slow-motion video camera, which may sound extreme if youre not at his camp. But the next time youre at some nephews birthday party, ask the host for 10 seconds worth of film time while you air it out in the back yard.

Most runners cant believe what they see, Accetta says. In their minds eye, they think they look like Carl Lewis. The reality is more like Jerry Lewis.

Accetta stresses the importance of maintaining forward momentum.

You dont want to waste effort moving side to side, he says. Arms, legs and torso should all be moving forward. This sounds obvious, but too many runners amble almost crab-like in their locomotion. Thats just wasted energy.

Much of proper form stems from a proper mindset.

Youve got to consciously think about your form, particularly when youre tired and good form comes less naturally, Accetta says. Think quick turnover, quick legs and quick hands.

Authors Scott Douglas and Pete Pfitzinger take a close look at running form in their book, Advanced Marathoning. They isolate common form problems and explain how to correct them, using relaxation, drills and visualization techniques.

Upper-body tightness, they say, is the most common technique problem among runners constricted shoulders, neck and back. Learn to relax consciously rather than waste energy keeping those muscles flexed.

Likewise, tight arms or maintaining a fist wastes energy and inhibits a natural and more efficient running motion. Again, conscious relaxation is key until a more flowing upper-body carriage becomes natural.

Leaning forward from the waist or projecting ones head forward as if lunging at the finish line are two other common form problems. Strengthening abdominal and gluteal muscles can improve running posture. Regular stretching before and after running even shaking ones arms and torso during a run can also improve flexibility.

More difficult to correct, but also more rare, is an excess of vertical movement while striding. Some airborne time in any stride is essential, but too much verticality means the runner is fighting gravity and wasting energy.

Overstriding and understriding are relatively uncommon maladies and often the result of a runners earlier tinkering. So if thats your problem, runner, heal thyself.

Finally, a caveat to the discussion: Consider Michael Johnson, world champion sprinter famous for his upright, i.e., poor, form. With a drawer full of Olympic medals, Johnson can be forgiven for his unorthodox style.

In the end, all runners must find their own style, make a conscious effort to refine it, and then let it take them as far as they care to go.

Jim Hage has been running and racing for 25 years. Reach Jim at hagejim@hotmail.com.

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