Form and Function, Getting Your Lean On

Thu, 16 Feb. 2012 - 6:56 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

There is much to be gained from using the forward pull of gravity in your running to keep you going longer and stronger, working less to achieve more, and staving off the pain associated with the Wall during marathons and other long races. What follows will primarily advise moderately-paced, long distance runners on how to achieve greater energy-efficient running form, and will not apply particularly well to sprinting, intervals, or speedwork.
 
To properly engage gravity to help you work less during your runs, learn how to lean. The key to a proper lean is to avoid bending forward at the waist—this is unnecessarily strenuous on the low back. Instead, fall forward from your ankles with a full body tilt, rather like a Nordic ski jumper.
By allowing gravity to pull you forward rather than requiring your legs to push you forward, your speed will no longer be dictated exclusively by your leg strength. Your lean becomes your gas pedal: Lean more to go faster, less to slow down. As you increase the lean, practice using your abdominals to keep your column straight and tilted forward. In this way, your core muscle strength dictates the speed.
 
By tilting forward from your feet—never from your waist—you place your center of gravity ahead of your footstrike. Your feet should be moving toward the rear when they strike the ground. This helps you become a midfoot striker, which is desirable regardless of whether you lean into your stride or run completely upright. It also reduces the impact stress on your knees, the most injury-prone of all the joints used in running. In traditional upright running, you reach forward with one leg while pushing off with the other. In this scenario, your knee becomes the transfer point between the force of your forward-moving body and your foot, which is stopping as it hits the ground (because it is landing ahead of you).
 
Instead, try to always keep your upper body slightly ahead of your footstrike; imagine your head crossing the finish line first. You will feel the difference as gravity pulls you forward. It’s also helpful to imagine you are pedaling a tiny bicycle, pulling up on the pedals instead of pushing down on them. The goal is to do the most severe knee-bending directly under your body, not high out in front of your center of gravity. Keep your stride length short as you begin running. Let it lengthen gradually as you lean into the run more. Swing your arms and legs to the rear. Relax and lower your shoulders. Try for a cadence of 85 to 90 strides per foot per minute. If you begin to tire, you can adjust your speed by shortening your stride and coming back off from the lean a bit.
 
Practice maintaining a lean using your abdominal muscles by finding a park bench at mid-thigh height and performing this simple exercise. Lean forward so that your quads touch the bench and hold yourself in a straight-lined posture. You’ll find this to be a
surprisingly good abdominal workout, while training yourself in a sport-specific way to hold the exact posture you will need to maintain an effective lean in your running.
 
(Chi Running by Danny Dreyer, 2004, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 236 pp. $14)
 
(RUNNING & FITNEWS® September/October 2005 • Volume 23, Number 5)
 

 



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