Cadence, relaxation, stride: the technical aspects of good running

Credit: Robert LaBerge/Allsport
Today I did a double run. I don't get to do that much these days, but when I was "runner" I used to do it a lot.

My second run is always of a higher quality than my first because the morning run serves to warm me up, and I'm just physiologically stronger in the afternoon and evening always have been.

Today I ran on a new (for me) trail system, and my sundown run in the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve between Temecula/Murrieta and Camp Pendleton in Southern California was spectacular. I saw a pair of well-fed, full-grown tarantulas on the way out, and three fat and healthy coyotes crossed just in front of me on my return. I rate this area very highly, and it wouldn't take a lot to move me out here permanently.

Perhaps (I thought as I ran) it would be good to write about the technical side of running. I've always resisted doing so because there are so many disparate, yet effective, ways to run that endeavoring to change someone's technique can sometimes do as much harm as good.

Running is like sex: You don't want to be thinking about your technique. Somehow that ruins it. Besides, running (like sex) requires only primal skills. Everybody's circuits are prewired with all the essential info.

On the other hand, there are a few stylistic habits most good runners share although even at the world-class level there are some exceptions. I'm going to list the things a non-runner may want to consider, and the impetus for this came last week.

I was visited by one of America's best Olympic-distance pro triathletes, who comes from a non-running background. It wasn't until we spent time together and talked about how one approaches running that it dawned on me that I take some of this information for granted.

Before I get to specific points of technique and habits, I'll mention a general approach that I suppose might seem exceedingly simplistic to some, but it really is a foreign concept to others even to certain extremely accomplished athletes.

In swimming, one is used to the concept of exertion, of the specific attempt at muscle recruitment and contraction. Your constant question is, "How can I get this muscle to work as hard as it can through its fullest range of motion?" The idea is to make as big a pulling surface as possible, and to pull it as far and as hard as is possible while reproducing the effort with the other arm with no or minimal delay in one's forward propulsion.

In running, the approach is the converse. One's mindset is not set on work and contraction, but upon relaxation. You're not "thinking" your muscles into working, you're thinking them into relaxing. Furthermore, you're not interested in keeping that muscle working through its fullest range of motion. The bane of swimmers is the premature interruption of the pull. The bane of runners is the overextension of the stride. Overstriding is probably the single biggest and most common technical problem in running.

Relaxation and economy are therefore first on the list for a runner. This is tough, though, because it's qualitative. It isn't a measure, but a state of mind. Empirical it is not, but it is still the item a runner must keep on the top of his or her brain.

The art of relaxation becomes crucial in a race when you are challenged by a runner who's performing slightly above your ability. The monologue one has with oneself is: "I can't hold this pace. But if I can find a way to relax a little to 'think' my pulse, or effort, or exertion, just a bit lower perhaps I can hold it."

A smart, alert, sensitive runner can adapt and recruit a more efficient technique even during a race.

Right on the heels of relaxation is the concept of cadence. This actually is quantitative, but I never precisely count my cadence in running as I do in cycling. Still, cadence is a key to relaxation and efficiency in running, just like it is on the bike (and maybe more so). One thing I believe is that running cadence should never change. When you slow down, just do so with a shorter stride or with lesser effort.

If you were to pick up your cadence say, go from 80 cycles per minute to 90 cycles it is axiomatic that your stride would be less full, less long, than it was at the slower cadence. Which part of your stride are you "losing" in such an exercise? Ideally, it is everything above and beyond that point where the ball of your foot is in front of your knee.

At this point it may begin to dawn on certain triathletes how much running and cycling are parallel. A relatively high, constant cadence of, say 90 revolutions or cycles per minute is a pretty good number in both sports. Also, the concept of "knee over pedal axle" is much like it is in running. The idea in cycling is that in road riding, i.e., with your road race bike, not your tri bike you should more or less be set up so that when your foot is most forward in the pedal cycle (the 3 o'clock position, for the right foot) the pedal axle is directly underneath your knee. In other words, the ball of your foot which is about where the pedal axle is is directly below your knee. In running it's precisely the same. Your foot need not ever really plant itself in front of your knee. To do so is to overstride.

I'll take a brief time-out and say that the "knee over pedal axle" doctrine in cycling does not apply to steep seat-angle tri-bike setups. The whole body and bike complex is rotated forward, and the "clock" that your crank makes is likewise rotated forward as well.

Also, realize that when I'm talking about running here it's distance running I'm discussing. If you want to know how this relates to running a 44-second quarter-mile, I'll refer you to John Smith or Tom Tellez.

Overstriding which for the purposes of this discussion I'll limit to the practice of a footfall that lands in front of one's knee has a lot of bad consequences. First, it's just a plain slower way to run. Beyond that, it's a recipe for injury. The longer the stride, the more pressure one's skeleton must absorb. Knees, arches, hips they're all going to take a bigger beating.

Unless you've got a perfect footfall and really, even if you do there's an anatomical weak link that's going to be exploited. Perhaps it's your patellar tendon, or your iliotibial band, or plantar fascia, whatever something is going to "complain" if you're an overstrider.

There is a remedy for this: a drill. It requires a willing participant or the stealthy use of a clueless partner. Either way, you need another person for this. The drill is to run either directly behind another person or right on this person's "shoulder." Run as close as you can without a collision. You'll find that when you do this on a regular basis you'll end up chopping your stride, and it's a great way to get used to running with a technique that is altered only insofar as an overstride is concerned.

I used to like to practice this during track sessions during, say, quarter-mile repeats or mile repeats, really anything where I was running at or above race pace. You can practice it under any circumstances, but since you're most likely to lapse into an overstriding habit when forced to run faster than comfortable or customary, this is a good time to practice this.

This sort of drill is also an excellent opportunity to practice relaxing while running relatively fast. Giving somebody the job of setting the pace gives you the chance to concentrate only on relaxing. If I might be forgiven for overusing the same metaphor (but it just seems so handy for the illustration), holding a pace while running takes tremendous concentration. Like sex, you can't have another thought rolling around in your head when so engaged.

That is why runners are employed as rabbits in big footraces where a fast finish time is desirable. It isn't primarily wind resistance that makes a rabbit necessary. Rather, it is almost impossible to concentrate on holding a pace while also concentrating on relaxation. A rabbit takes the pressure of holding the pace and the follower can focus on relaxing. In that sense, the world-class runner is asking himself the same questions during his world-record attempt that you will ask yourself: Am I relaxed? How do I feel? Can I relax more? Am I running as relaxed as I can? Are there muscle groups that are unnecessarily tensed?

This may sound like a lot of stuff to keep in your head, but if you take a step back and consider it as all of a theme, you'll see that they're all connected. A good footfall that is not subject to an overstride will serve to shorten a stride and, in so doing, increase your cadence. That saved effort will help to make you relaxed and will save energy.

Next: Upper-body specifics

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