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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Running technique Part I: The philosophy of how we run

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:

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.

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)

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?”

Part IV – Practical recommendations for good running. Should you try to relearn how to run? What do you do with this overload of information.

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…

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.

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…

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.

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.

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.


Breaking news: Haile Gebrselassie has just broken the world marathon record - 2:04:26!
Check out the splits and race analysis here.


P Gorham said...

>>You don’t, for example, have to teach a child how to walk. They just do it<<

That was me up to age 9. Then I started walking with my father more regularly and struggled to stay with him. (Or maybe he just got fed up with walking slowly at my pace). My sister and I both had to learn how to walk faster.

It took quite some time, but eventually we were walking at his pace and thinking nothing of it.

Now, I find that I naturally walk very fast - it is rare that someone else keeps up with me and even more rare that someone passes me, unless I am intentionally walking slowly.

I would not describe how I walk now as being "natural". It is definitely a learned technique. I'm not sure if it's efficient. But it does seem to work.

As for running, I'm near the front of the mid pack person, but in no danger of ever being confused with a near elite runner. Age 53, generally about 3:30 for a marathon. Can qualify (usually) for Boston. But always looking at a long stretch of runners ahead of me!

Too bad that whatever I taught myself in walking does not appear to have rubbed off on my running. Or maybe it has.

Bottom line. I'm not sure I am prepared to accept that walking efficiently is a natural ability. I do accept that walking is natural. But so is running and throwing a cricket or baseball. Even hitting something with a club (cricket or baseball again?) is something that can be picked up naturally, but like so many other things we do, can be vastly improved with training.

I can throw a ball, but no one has ever taught me how to throw. I know I am very inefficient - so I avoid sports where I have to throw.

All of this is (I think) anecdotal to suggest that even walking, while natural, is not necessarily effected in an efficient manner by all people.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Peet

Thanks for your comments and story! Very interesting! I agree that walking efficiently and thus running efficiently (same type of activity) are probably not immediately natural.

But I do want to also ask whether anyone had to take you aside and "teach" you the technique you eventually learned? Or did you just learn over time what needed to be done in order to keep up? From your post, it's my impression that you did it yourself, through repetition and practice.

So the point is that if a task like running and walking are done often enough, then because they are natural, we may be able to improve them without active instruction. Same goes for throwing a baseball - a child learns to throw, poorly at first. But if he's given enough opportunity, then without instruction, he learns a technique that optimizes perform. Golf swings and tennis are different because of their technical nature.

Of course, I'm just throwing this out there as the discussion to your post, which I agree with 100%. Anyone like to respond?

But let me say right now (because there is a lot still to be written) that I am firmly in favour of doing things with running technique to optimize performance. In otherwords, when I am coaching an athlete, I am always on the look out for little things they can do to improve - is their arm carry correct, how is the body position? So I do believe that technique is vital, but that's another thing completely from actually changing your running technique completely...

Thanks again!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Thanks for the comments on this post, Peet!

I can recall when Romanav came to Cape Town and showed us all the premise for the Pose technique.

Initially I was skeptical. However I picked up a soleus injury that would not get better, and I was in the middle of some hectic training for a marathon. Out of desperation learned the Pose techinque so I could keep training.

The first important point is that it allowed me to continue running and training hard because it reduced the impact forces on my lower legs. I ran a five km time trial one month before the marathon and decided I was not running any slower than pre-Pose.

The second point is that I ran close to a best time with Pose. I was aiming for a 2:35 marathon. With the injury in August, I lost some training during a critical time point, and figured that my final time of 2:52 was probably close to my "actual" potential at that point in time, regardless of running technique.

To refer now to Peet's comment, most motor skills we perform as humans are called "phylogenetic skills" and include locomotion such as crawling, walking, and running. Also included are throwing and swinging a bat or implement. Other skills such as a tennis swing or golf swing are called "ontogenetic" and most certainly, as Ross mentioned, require coaching to learn due to their technical nature.

The take home message about phylogenetic skills is that they do not require any coaching to learn, and as long as someone does it, they learn them, and the more they do that skill, the better they get.

So for example we do not need to be taught how to walk. We do it on our own when we are ready for it, and once we start we keep on doing it and get better and better without any coaching by our parents.

The same goes for throwing and swinging, although if you watch any little league baseball here in America you will see kids being over-coached when all they need to do is just practice and actually do the activity and they will improve.

Again, throwing a ball is the same type of skill, and motor development scientists actually assign different levels (1-4) of each skill, and have described how kids are Level 1 throwers from ages "x" to "y," and Level 2 normally from age "x" to "y," and so on.

Often one does not spend sufficient time in an activity to reach Level 4, for example Peet has labeled himself an "inefficient" thrower. Given you age, Peet, you may or may not be able to reach a higher level of throwing. I am uncertain as I am not entirely dialed in to the finer aspects of Motor Learning and if phylogenetic skills can be improved once one has reached adulthood.

Having said all of that, at a higher level of running, I agree with Ross that working with an athlete on small aspects of his/her running can certainly result in improvements in performance. It does not matter if the change results in a physiological change in efficiency, because at the end of the day the person is still running faster!


Anonymous said...

Repetition certainly seems to work even in tennis. The cornerstone of the famous Nick Bolettieri Tennis Academy is hitting lots of balls. Students get tons of court time and hit tons of balls.

This is also said to be the secret of the Williams sisters. They grew up poor but their father, who was certainly no experienced instructor, got them out on the court every day to hit lots of balls.

I'd like to see this idea addressed for running as well. There is a school of thought that says speedwork is beneficial in large part because it teaches the body how to balance and run efficiently at higher speeds. So the simple repetition of running faster is what makes your run faster.

Just as the previous poster said he learned to walk faster by walking with his quick father, maybe the secret to running faster is to simply run faster.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I run incorrectly but I can spot runners that run the "right way": the Kenyans. Is it by chance that they all run a certain way? Are they taught how to run the way they do? Is it just genetics or does training play a part? I have read that they start running barefoot, of course not because they have a choice but out of poverty. Now if you start running barefoot you cannot over stride or land heel first and most of all you have to run with "a soft touch".

Speaking from personal experience I started running in my forties and over the years I had to re-learn running because I was pounding the ground when I first started. I changed my style by myself without using Pose or Chi and I think I now run much more efficiently than before. So I tend to think that "natural" running is not the way to go, but like all skills it has to be taught at a young age when the neuron pathways are still fresh and not senile (like me).

Anonymous said...

Just skimming though - everyone knows how to run, but not everyone knows how to run efficiently.

Likewise, if you take it from a sprinting standpoint, technique can clearly help performance, that not everyone could previously achieve from their "natural" sprinting style.

So you have to assume if technique can help sprinting, there must be a version that helps long-distance running, perhaps in the pose sense where if something causes less wear/tear, you'll be better off in the end part than someone with inferior technique.

Todd said...

The main element missing from this line of arguement is alluded to above. When our ancestors were chasing antelope for 6 hours on the African plains, they did it barefoot. An attempt to run 'naturally' today will likely take place with a huge heel cushion that will change bio-mechanics greatly. Romanov's evolutionary arguement centers on running's barefoot origins, from the first humans to Phidipidies famous run from Marathon to Athens. That being said I'm a 3-year Pose runner and not 100% sure I made the right decesion. I'm so happy this objective and scientific blog exists.

Anonymous said...

"You don’t teach riding a bike"
Perhaps you don't teach riding a bike at the recreational level, but you do teach proper riding technique & form when racing at a competitive/professional level. As a former racer, I can attest that making improvements in one's riding style can yield significant results.

Anonymous said...

Pose looks great in the runners that actually learn to do it well. Problem is, if you look at the videos posted in the Posetech.com forum, you have folks who have been posting videos and drilling for years and still do not have it right.

Anonymous said...

Neither the Pose Method nor Chi Running address the horizontal propulsion like Evolution Running does. Why have you not taken a look at Evolution Running?

Danny Dreyer said...

If you're interested in reviewing the ChiRunning materials so you can actually give an educated guess as to whether or not we're similar to Pose or not, I'm happy to send them to you. It's ridiculous that you voice so many opinions about ChiRunning without having any direct knowledge of how it works or why it is different from anything else out there. We get pooled in with Pose all the time and to us, it's like comparing apples to oranges...not green apples to red apples. Both techniques have their valid points and can be applied successfully to different athletes, but to make them sound the same is a disservice to your readers and shows a lack of responsible journalism on your parts. You attempt to explain running in scientific terms yet you don't go about your research in a scientific way, but fall back on personal opinion.

I'd be happy to write up a clear explanation for your readers and you'd be welcome to critique the content, but without any true clarity, your readers will come away from your blog ill-informed at best.

Thanks for your blog,
Danny Dreyer
Founder of ChiRunning

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Danny

Thanks for the comment. If I ever do decide to evaluate the Chi technique, then I'll consider it. But this post wasn't that. And as for "ill-informed" readers, I'd like to think that we present as wide a range of facts, without a conflict of interests, as they can possibly find anywhere. Are there any scientific studies on Chi? Because I may look at those.

As for opinion, of course it is opinion, because there's no evidence.

What I write on Pose is only partly opinion. That's because there's research, so I can say with certainty that it reduces the eccentric load on the knee but increases the load on the ankle. I can also say with certainty that economy was reduced after a block of Pose training. My inferences on that are opinion though - for example, when I say that the technique may increase the risk of ankle injury, that's an extension of the research into my insight. One could call it opinion.

But to say that I haven't gone about my research in a scientific way is offensive and wrong. It's the most scientific way. Until there is scientific evidence supporting any technique, this criticism applies more to those outside.

Having said that, I do apologize for grouping Chi with Pose. However, the main focus was POse, and I'm happy that I assessed it objectively.

I'd love the evidence, not the opinions and anecdotes.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

I just had to add one more thing.

When you write: "a disservice to your readers and shows a lack of responsible journalism on your parts. You attempt to explain running in scientific terms yet you don't go about your research in a scientific way, but fall back on personal opinion. "

What exactly would you suggest the site look like if it did do research in a scientific way? Would you have me give everyone a shot at throwing their opinion out there, without scientific evidence?

Because that, I'm afraid, is even less scientific. What I am doing is basing thoughts on the available evidence. yes, it's opinion, yes it's biased by my own experience and paradigm, just as anyone's thoughts and writings are, but it's free of conflicts of interest (I don't make money off the site or from my position on running technique).

So therefore, the "scientific way" is to evaluate the evidence, not the training manuals. That is philosophy, not science.

I'm sorry, but it just gets extremely annoying to be hit on the head with the "You lack objectivity and therefore you're a bad scientist" just because my opinion disagrees with someone else's. It's becoming a stale criticism now, because people will read one post and say "This is great, it's evidence based, it's sound science and I really enjoyed it". The very next day, that same person is writing in saying "you're doing bad journalism". And the only difference is that they disagree...

The readers of this blog are the most informed anywhere, I really believe that. It's their place to say it of course. They may not be completely informed, but that's because the science is too vast to summarize every single one of the thousands of studies here.

But putting out theories that lack substance and scientific research does NOT make them better informed. In fact, I'd say that makes them ill-informed, just as we are all ill-informed by vitamin companies who over-hype correct principles to sell us vitamin C.

If there is a long-term, prospective study on Chi running, I'm all ears. If there is not, then why? What Oscar Pistorius showed me (not sure if you've followed that) is that when the scientific evidence is lacking there is usually a reason. Either the person cannot afford to pay for the studies (a valid excuse, because some research is costly), or alternatively, the person doesn't care to do it, perhaps because it doesn't matter to their position. It matters to mine, unfortunately.

Again, sorry if I've grouped you with Pose, I will try not to do it again (unless it is appropriate, if I happen to be talking collectively about running technique).