We’re born. We crawl. We walk. And when we want to go quicker, we run.
Running is one of the most basic and natural forms of human movement — we do it without thinking. It underpins almost every sport. It’s the first thing most people turn to when they want to get fitter.
But here’s the thing: While almost all of us can run, not everyone is doing it well.
And into that void has come a plethora of information, fads and opinion. For some, it’s an obsession.
Look up running technique on YouTube and you’ll drown in advice on where to strike your foot, where you should land, your stride frequency, what you should be doing with your knees, hips, arms and on it goes.
Some of it is useful, some of it wrong, most of it is confusing.
What does the science say?
There is no “right” way to run, says biomechanist Dr Aaron Beach from the New South Wales Institute of Sport. But there are basic things recreational runners can learn from elite athletes about running more efficiently.
And so, to examine good running technique, we’re doing an experiment.
We’re comparing an Olympic 1,500-metre runner with a recreational runner using the science of biomechanics and motion capture technology.
By slowing things down and methodically plotting joint and limb movements and the forces runners exert on the ground, we can pick up subtle differences in technique.
The data can help us all think about our movements, so we can become more efficient, avoid injuries and get more satisfaction when we pound the pavement.
Jenny Blundell is our elite athlete. She made the semi-finals of the 1,500 metres at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Since then she’s had a series of debilitating calf injuries and is now working her way back to full fitness with a view to making the Australian team for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
ABC journalist Ruby Cornish is our recreational runner. She’s a fit and healthy young woman who runs 5 to 7 kilometres two or three times a week and has competed in a couple of half-marathons and other fun runs.
We’ll be analysing their running styles in detail under the watchful eye of Dr Aaron Beach.
Using data collected from 14 infrared video cameras recording reflections from 39 markers on each woman, he’s able to compile an animation of their running action from any angle.
He also records detailed data on their joint movements, speed and the forces they apply to the ground as they land and push off.
What did we find?
Not surprisingly, given Jenny Blundell is an Olympic athlete with many years of coaching, strength and fitness training behind her, she has quite a different running technique to our recreational runner, Ruby Cornish.
But the differences aren’t always apparent, because not everything is visible to the naked eye. That’s where the analysis comes in.
What also becomes apparent is how much running is a product of the whole body — not a collection of individual movements. Every single aspect of the running stride is intrinsically linked to other movements up and down the body.
One of the key differences between the two women is how long their foot spends on the ground — what’s known as the stance phase of the gait cycle.
Jenny spends 24 per cent of the cycle with her foot on the ground, whereas Ruby has her foot on the ground for 27 per cent of the time.
The less time on the ground, the more time moving forward through the air.
Jenny is travelling 10cm further with each stride, so she’s producing more force in less time and going further.
There are several noticeable differences here. First, Jenny strikes the ground closer to her body. The distance from her hip to toe is 18cm versus Ruby’s 20cm.
Second, Jenny lands on her mid-foot to forefoot, while Ruby lands on her heel.
The landing position and foot strike are related. Ruby is reaching further in front of her body on each stride where it’s more comfortable to land on the heel.
As Ruby lands, there’s a strong downward force on her foot. She’s not able to absorb that force by flexing her ankle, which in turn causes an extra strain on her knees and hips.
That force of landing further in front of her centre of mass also slows Ruby down noticeably. It’s known as braking force.
Jenny actually has a more rapid initial braking force. But that force is flipping her centre of mass rapidly over her foot, so she can start pushing forward.
Jenny is landing on her mid- to forefoot with her ankle slightly in plantar flexion (toes pointed away from the leg).
The ankle absorbs some of the force of the landing by bending forward into dorsiflexion (toes upwards towards the leg).
As Jenny’s ankle bends, the force of her foot strike is stored in her lengthening Achilles tendon like a spring under tension.
Towards the end of the stride, Jenny’s ankle moves back into plantar flexion and the tendon releases its stored energy to help her push off the ground.
This difference in braking force partly explains why Jenny is spending less time on the ground than Ruby.
There is also a marked difference in the hip angles of the two runners.
Ruby is landing with more of a bent hip — it’s called hip flexion.
Ruby’s hip angle is exacerbated by the tilt of her pelvis. It’s a movement where the top of the hip rolls forward, pushing the bottom out and arching the back.
Whereas Jenny remains more upright.
The less the hip drops, the less the energy required to straighten the hip for the next stride.
As Jenny’s foot passes below her centre of mass, she extends her hip behind her body for the last third of her stance, propelling herself forward. By contrast, Ruby is not getting as much hip extension.
The combined effect of Jenny’s erect stance, her neutral pelvis, her foot strike and the position of her foot when it lands means she is “running tall”.
It’s apparent in Aaron’s data, which shows Jenny’s centre of mass remains 1 to 2 per cent higher throughout her stance phase than Ruby’s.
What does it all mean?
It’s not surprising that our Olympic athlete, Jenny Blundell, has a more efficient running style than our recreational runner, Ruby Cornish.
After all, she’s been taught how to run with the assistance of years of specialist coaching and strength conditioning training, not to mention access to this sort of biomechanical data.
Our experiment backs up the notion that running isn’t just about what the feet are doing. It’s about the whole body. Every movement is a result of every other movement.
“The best way to explain the biomechanics of the whole system is that all your joints are like an elastic band,” says Dr Beach. “Each of the joints of your body move together in a big chain to create your technique.”
Richard Windybank is a podiatrist with a master’s degree in exercise and sport science.
Despite being “a foot guy”, he says running is not all about the feet.
In fact, he believes that a good running style begins at the other end of the body.
“Imagine someone is pulling your hair out of the top of your head. Look up at the top of trees. That will drag you up and back,” he advises.
“You don’t see bent-over elite runners. They run at their full body height. You don’t see them hitting the ground and sinking.”
That’s because your posture will affect your entire running mechanics, including where your foot ultimately lands.
And that’s exactly Dr Beach’s advice for Ruby Cornish to help her make her technique a little more efficient.
He says she should target her posture by trying to become more aware of the roll forward of her hips, which will straighten her trunk. That will help to get her landing foot closer to her hip and closer to a midfoot strike rather than a heel strike.
Our podiatrist, Richard Windybank, likes to remind us that in Australia, every responsible parent takes their children to swimming lessons.
“Most kids in Australia end up swimming really efficiently and beautifully, because there’s this very systematic way of building someone’s freestyle stroke’,” he says.
“But no-one teaches us to run.”