You can find runners with all these different characteristics in the same race, but which is the best "form" is usually decided by who wins. We tend to copy winners, and as a result ignore what could be a more effective technique for each individual.
It is simple to say everyone has their own pace and runs their own style. To some extent, this is true. Your body can decide what "feels best." However, this may not always be the best technique for speed. The reason is that you are not born with correct running technique, it must be learned.
Runners are often discussed in terms of their style. Style is an individual characteristic, and should not be used as a measure of how well you run.
Style refers to whether you cross your arms in front of your body, or whether you bring them straight up or off to one side. Style also refers to how you raise your knees, and to other physical characteristics.
While everyone has his or her own style, there are basic elements that everyone must have for the most effective running technique. Only then can you have the correct techniques which ensure safe and productive running. How these basic elements are executed can still be an individual matter.
For example, consider the forehand stroke in tennis. If you watch some players, you will see their back swing brings the racquet up and back, while others bring it back level with the ground. Still others lower their racquet and bring it back in an underhand motion. But the key element is they all bring the racquet forward perpendicular to the ground when they hit the ball (except when they put a topspin on the ball).
Consequently, all the players make good shots because their racquets were doing the proper thing when the balls were struck. This is good technique.
The same concept applies to running. There are some things you must do, while other things can be done in the many ways that determine your style.
A key element of running which shows many differences between runners is the touchdown (or footstrike), which is how your foot makes contact with the ground. Some runners land on the balls of their feet while some land flat-footed. Others land on their heels.
With some exceptions, sprinters usually land on the balls of their feet. Flat-footed landings are more common in middle-distance runners (two to three miles). Heel landings tend to be standard for long-distance runners.
The key element which makes all these landings safe and effective is pawback. Pawback is the name given to the movement in which you bring your foot back just prior to contact with the ground. The term comes from the move a cat makes on a scratching post. If you watch, you will see cats reach up and out slowly and then pull downward, hard and fast, to grab the post.
In running, you bring the swing leg up and in front of your body, and then bring it back for your landing. You do this for an important reason; it reduces the braking force of your landing. Keep in mind, when you are traveling forward your body has inertia (or momentum) like a flywheel. This means that while your body is in motion, it will continue in that direction unless it is prevented by some other force.
If you landed on your heel in front of your body, it would block your forward progress. As a result, you would experience a shock to your body which, if repeated many times, will lead to an injury.
Further, if you land on your heel with your feet pointing too far upward, this means you did not bring your foot back in a pawback motion. As a result, the inertia of your body goes into your foot, which creates tremendous landing forces. To prove this, take a small running step and land on your heel with your toes high (don't take a big step, because you can jar your body severely). You will now understand the big force you can experience with this faulty technique. This is why running shoes have built-up heels. They must absorb this force.
From the forward leg position, if you bring your leg backward you will find you can still land on your heel. But it is the front part of your heel, rather than the back part. In this case, immediately on landing you will feel much less force.
In addition, you will bring into play the muscles in the buttock and back of your thigh to push you forward during the support phase (while your leg is in contact with the ground). Because of this, you will run faster.
These muscles help to bring your center of gravity forward, so that when you push off with your ankle the forces will be directed forward, not upward. For example, sprinters who use pawback effectively have only about an inch and a half of vertical movement of their bodies.
Sprinters bring their leg back so powerfully that they land on the ball of their foot when it is directly under their center of gravity. Not only does this create greater forces to push their body forward, it produces no braking force. In other words, the speed of their leg pulling back equals the speed of the body moving forward.
Landing on the ball of the foot instead of the heel creates greater loading on the calf muscles, which must contract. These muscles absorb the landing forces from the body and, because they are like elastic, give some of them back in the push off. This is why sprinters do not want shoes with great energy-absorbing properties. Shock-absorbing shoes would reduce their driving forces and slow down the runner.
For distance runners
Similar principles apply to distance running. With pawback, your body passes over its support on the ground as quickly as possible. This allows maximum loading of your muscles with the lowest braking force. But this will not happen if your shoes absorb all the forces!
In summary, although there are different ways to land, each touchdown should follow pawback. The slower the pawback (as in the marathon), the more you land on the back of your heel and slightly in front of your center of gravity. The faster the pawback (as in middle distances of, say, 1,500 to 3,000 meters), the more you land flat-footed and almost directly under your center of gravity. In the fastest pawback of the sprinter, you land on the ball of your foot exactly under your center of gravity.
These are biomechanical basics of running. Most successful runners use them, although there are individual variations. Unfortunately, you can't see all these details of landing even with an experienced eye.
A careful analysis of these features can follow only if they are captured on film and played back frame by frame. A biomechanics lab at your local university and a number of sportsmedicine professionals can give you a video analysis of your gait. If you have been plagued with injuries, this may be a worthwhile investment.
Michael Yessis, Ph.D. is a specialist in biomechanics and kinesiology. He works with runners doing biomechanical analyses of running form and prescribes specialized exercises for the individual. Visit his Web site for more information at www.dryessis.com or check out his book, "Explosive Running: Using the Science of Kinesiology to Improve your Performance."
Volume 9, Number 2, Running & FitNews
Copyright The American Running Association.