Hitting Their Stride

Want to help your athletes make the most of what they have? Teach them to perfect their running mechanics so not a drop of energy is wasted.

By Greg Scholand

Greg Scholand is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: gs@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 14.1, January 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1401/hittingstride.htm

When Corey Ihmels was a track athlete at Iowa State University, he once asked a teammate, who was a national champion steeplechaser, what made him such a great runner. The answer took Ihmels by surprise. “He was from Russia, and when he was 10 years old, he was doing efficiency drills and hurdling to learn proper mechanics,” Ihmels says. “By the time he got here, he was an extremely efficient runner. I told him that when I was 10, I was outside playing.”

Today, as Head Men’s Distance and Cross Country Coach at Iowa State, Ihmels is using that teammate’s answer to make his own runners better. “Most Americans don’t really begin learning about mechanics until they’re on a high school or even a college team,” he explains. “That puts them at a big disadvantage, so we’ve made teaching proper mechanics a major focus of our program.”

The approach has paid dividends ranging from performance improvements to a drop in his team’s injury rate. “I really think working on mechanics is one of the best things a coach can do for his or her team,” Ihmels says.

In this article, Ihmels and several other successful coaches share their methods for analyzing mechanics, teaching the basics of proper form, and helping runners change ingrained patterns of movement. They also weigh in on what not to change—when it’s best to let an athlete maintain his or her own style, even though it violates some of the basic conventions of good running. It’s one of the greatest challenges for track coaches: How do you refine one of the body’s most natural actions?

Training Your Eye
The first step in improving a runner’s mechanics is determining exactly what he or she is doing right and wrong. One of the biggest keys is knowing how to get the most out of observation.

Vern Gambetta, owner of Gambetta Sports Training Systems and a strength and conditioning coach who has worked with high school, college, and professional athletes, has devised a framework for analyzing running mechanics called PAL—an acronym for posture, arm action, and leg action. It’s a very basic starting point, but Gambetta says it provides a useful context for evaluating the most important elements of motion.

“I’ll always look at posture first, especially the alignment of the body and head position,” he says. “When an athlete is running at full speed, you want to ask yourself: Is there an upright posture? Is there a lot of bending forward or swaying side to side? Is the head in a neutral position? Posture affects every other aspect of running, so that’s where I start.”

To evaluate arm action, Gambetta focuses on the range of motion of the arms and the direction of movement, keeping a close eye out for unnecessary lateral motions. For leg action, he looks at all elements of the stride cycle, from foot strike to stride length to knee lift to whether the athlete has a natural, rhythmic fluidity.

Of course, this is only a general framework for thinking about the big-picture elements of form and mechanics. But whatever a coach chooses to emphasize to his or her runners, there are a few tricks to observing effectively. One of the most important, Gambetta says, is broadening your perspective.

“As coaches, we can get locked into seeing runners from only one side as we watch them from inside the track,” he says. “It’s better to observe from all angles, because you see different things.” Watching an athlete run directly at you and straight away from you, for instance, can reveal faults that are difficult to notice from the side, such as crossover steps and excessive rotation.

If your facility allows it, try going into the stands, bleachers, or even a press box for a bird’s-eye view. “Twisting about the center is one thing that you can see most easily from up high,” Gambetta says. “It also gives you another angle to look for crossing over with the feet. I even find that the runner’s movement appears to slow down a little when I watch from above, which helps me evaluate all aspects of their mechanics.”

Gambetta notes that you shouldn’t limit yourself to only what you can see when evaluating a runner—sounds can be helpful as well. Loud, percussive foot strikes, for example, may indicate that an athlete is overstriding and/or landing flat-footed, while extraneous sounds can reveal shuffling or unintentional scraping of the ground during strides. Closing your eyes to listen to the rhythm of ground contact is an excellent way to determine whether a runner’s cadence is even and fluid.

When evaluating specific performance faults, sometimes breaking down form into its component parts is the best way to pinpoint what needs to be fixed. At the University of California-Los Angeles, Assistant Men’s Track and Field Coach Tony Veney uses this strategy to isolate subtle causes of a runner’s deficiency.

For instance, if a sprinter is starting poorly, Veney knows that several things could be to blame. The athlete might lack explosive strength, be slow in reacting to the starter’s pistol due to bad reflexes or fear of false starts, or have difficulty making the transition from a starting stance in the blocks to an all-out sprint. To find out exactly what’s going wrong, he starts by testing the athlete in the individual components that make up an effective start.

“Standing long jump and vertical jump are both very good indicators of the strength needed for starting,” Veney explains. “So if I test a kid in the standing long jump and find that he does poorly, I know he’s got a problem with explosiveness. Right away I’ve figured out what I need to do—build up that strength. If he has a great standing long jump, then I know he’s got great power, so it must be that he’s not executing well or it’s something about the way he triggers.

“If I know the power is there, I’ll take a close look at what he’s actually doing when he starts, and maybe use video to slow it down,” he continues. “Maybe the kid runs flat-footed out of the blocks. Or maybe when he gets into position, if the starter holds for a long time, he settles back in the blocks because he’s afraid of false starting.”

Veney says this method of deconstructing a specific action can be much more effective than simply using repetition to improve performance or fix a fault. Also, he points out, testing the basics of running doesn’t require expensive, high-tech equipment—just a little creativity.

“When I was a younger coach we didn’t have a machine to test vertical jump, so I dipped my athletes’ fingers in a little white paint and had them jump as high as they could and touch a wall, and I measured that,” he says. “I still test standing long jumps in a regular sand pit, and I measure maximum speed with ordinary flying runs where they get a 20-meter lead-in before I time them for 30 meters. Testing those basic things puts some data in front of you, and that gives you an opportunity to focus on the things you really need to do to help your team.”

Drilling Smart
In addition to closely observing individual runners, effective drills are often the keystone of running mechanics instruction for an entire team. The drills that are most appropriate for any given athlete are dictated by his or her event, but the concept of using drills to teach the fundamentals of running form can benefit all athletes.

At Iowa State, Ihmels devotes practice time every week to an extensive drill regimen that incorporates running form drills with flexibility work, strength and explosiveness development, and balance. For flexibility, athletes perform exercises such as leg swings, straight-leg kicks, and several types of hurdle drills, including step-overs and side kicks. Strength work includes plyometric bounding and multiple variations of medicine ball tosses to recruit the muscles of the core. Balance is addressed with single-leg drills that involve squats, hops, and front and rear leg raises. Running and form drills include A walks, A marches, A skips, and karaokes, all performed with a focus on high knee lifts.

“I consider the whole routine to be the equivalent of three to four miles worth of running,” Ihmels says. “If the guys need additional mileage beyond that, I’ll have them run afterward, because I don’t want them to be fatigued when they’re doing the drills. It’s very important that they are fresh enough to do them the right way, because the whole point is to develop proper technique.

“The development of muscle memory through repetition is a major goal of our drills,” Ihmels continues. “We want athletes to leave the drills knowing, ‘This is the way my arms should be, this is the way my knees should be, this is how the foot should come over the opposite knee.’ If we didn’t break these things down and focus on them individually, the kids would have no reason to make the changes that will make their running more efficient.”

The drills are such a large part of Ihmels’s program at Iowa State that one of his major recruiting criteria is whether athletes will buy into the training program. “I look for athletes who are going to be able to catch on to these drills and really benefit from them, not guys who just want to go out and run,” he says. “I’ve had athletes who are pretty good runners, and I’ll send them away for the summer with these drills. I’ll watch them run when they come back to school, and I’ll say, ‘Wow. You’ve been doing your drills, haven’t you? You’ve become a different athlete.’”

Gambetta says he likes creating his own drills that tap into the body’s natural reflexes. He finds athletes benefit most when training in ways that the body is naturally inclined to move. One of his favorite drills is called the Drop-and-Go.

“The athlete starts in a hips-tall position and leans forward from the ankles,” he explains. “I catch them when they’re at about a 35-degree angle, hold them there momentarily, and then drop them. They drop smoothly into a running action—the forward leaning triggers the natural stumble reflex in the body, so as I drop them they quickly get their foot down and apply force to the ground. A drill like that is useful for both sprinters and endurance runners.”

Cueing In
While drills can teach optimal running form, they’re only effective if athletes apply what they’ve learned during races. Using well-developed cues is a key to making sure that happens. An effective cue is quick, simple, and produces the desired result. It reminds athletes to stick to the proper movement during times when it would be easier to slip back into an ingrained habit—especially during the pressure of competition or when fatigue is setting in.

“By the time runners get into a race scenario, they need to be on autopilot,” says Todd Coffin, Head Men’s Cross Country Coach at Colby College. “Oftentimes the only instruction you want to give them while they’re running is a subtle reminder to be aware of the most important things. Usually I’ll just make a quick comment, like ‘Pick up your knees,’ or ‘Run tall.’ Most of the time that’s enough.”

Sometimes a visual cue is the best way to trigger a specific action or adjustment. “If an athlete has a tendency to throw their head back at the start of a race, I’ll teach them to watch their first step hit the ground,” says Gambetta. “In order for them to see that first step, they have to keep their head in a good position as they’re starting.”

Gambetta adds that you shouldn’t be afraid to use what he calls “false cues” to prompt a particular result. For instance, if an athlete has a chronically short stride and telling her to lengthen it doesn’t work, try instructing her to overstride when she runs. What feels like overstriding to that athlete may in fact be an optimal stride length.

UCLA’s Veney says the key to finding the best cues is getting to know an athlete’s individual learning style and tailoring the cues to what he or she is most likely to understand. “If I tell 10 kids to relax their muscles when they’re running, I’ll get 10 different responses,” he says. “Sometimes the right cue is just a matter of what the athlete can feel or visualize.

“For instance, if I’m working with sprinters on hip position, I want them to know that if the hips are rolled back, it robs them of the ability to produce power at top speed,” Veney continues. “So I use the cue ‘Suck in your tummy,’ because they can’t roll their hips back and suck in their gut at the same time. They can picture that, and they can feel their hips roll up tall as soon as they do it. I also tell them to picture their hips as being like a bowl, and when they suck in their tummy, the bowl levels.”

Veney adds that as athletes are receiving cues, it’s important to constantly evaluate their reactions to make sure they’re getting the right messages. “If you tell a kid to run tall, as long as his back is straight between his hips and shoulders he’ll think he’s running tall, even though he might actually be stooping at the waist,” he explains. “Sometimes you’ve got to slow down and start them out with walking, followed by skipping, followed by running, so you can methodically show them exactly what it should feel like when they’re responding to the cue.”

Let It Be
One caveat for coaches to keep in mind as they teach and drill mechanics is that it’s important to avoid a boilerplate approach to running form. Like baseball pitchers or hockey goaltenders, some runners may need to stick with the idiosyncrasies that work for them.

“All you have to say when you talk about unique running styles is ‘Michael Johnson,’” says Pat Henry, Head Men’s and Women’s coach at Texas A&M. “I’m sure that everybody who worked with him noticed right away that his knee lift and carriage are quite different from the norm. But you can’t say they don’t work for him.”

On the other hand, Henry adds, for every Michael Johnson there is also a Carl Lewis. Lewis’s coach, Tom Tellez, taught him to take off in the long jump with the opposite foot than he had used all through high school, and after four Olympic gold medals in the event, it would be difficult to challenge the wisdom of that decision.

So how does a coach know when an athlete’s unique running style is an asset and when it’s a liability? The truth is there’s no simple answer.

“The biggest question to ask is, does the technique inhibit what the person is trying to accomplish?” Veney says. “If an athlete can get down the track faster than anybody else, I’m not going to change a thing. It’s easy to get tied up in the way something looks. If someone has an unorthodox technique and you work to change it, you might end up inhibiting the things they do well.”

Gambetta says each athlete has a “movement signature,” and he, too, recommends making adjustments only when something is hampering the basic mechanical functions that propel an athlete down the track. “If it’s impeding their ability to apply force against the ground, for instance, that’s not acceptable,” he explains. “My rule of thumb is, before you start making changes, watch someone run for a couple of days, and watch them at different speeds. Sometimes you’ll see a fault that is negatively affecting them, and all it takes is making them aware of it. Other times you’ll find it’s something more remedial, like a lack of strength in the core or legs, and that’s something the athlete will have to work on. And sometimes you’ll decide it’s better to let them run the way they’re most comfortable.”

Henry offers a final warning: Never let the unique mechanics of one successful athlete affect the way you coach the other runners in your program. “As coaches we sometimes see somebody run very fast while doing something a little bit different, and all of a sudden we think that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he says. “In truth, that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, it’s just the style of that individual. There are basic principles of proper running form that apply to most athletes, and we have to remember that, even when we’ve got an athlete who defies them.”

Patience and Progress
For any coach who chooses to make running mechanics a training focus, Ihmels suggests remembering that patience is a virtue. Athletes need to buy in long-term to see real results.

“Working on mechanics is a process,” he says. “Some athletes may get frustrated because the results aren’t there immediately, so you have to explain that sometimes there’s a lag before they start to see the payoff. I tell my athletes that it would be easy to just go out and run hard and not worry about good mechanics, but they’ve got to be patient and persevere, and know that they’re working to really become better runners.

“I tell them, ‘You’re becoming more efficient with your sprints, more efficient with your drill work, and stronger. Eventually, that will get you to the point where you’re that guy at the end of a race who’s very efficient, very strong, and really has it together.’”

Want your athletes to understand why running with proper form is so important? Try teaching them how it feels to do it exactly wrong. It’s a concept that Tony Veney, Assistant Men’s Track and Field Coach at the University of California-Los Angeles, uses to help athletes grasp the importance of good mechanics.

Veney borrowed the idea from John Smith, coach of track stars Maurice Green and Torri Edwards and currently the coach of the U.S. National Team. Smith once told Veney that to teach proper mechanics, it may be necessary to push elements of running form to their “illogical extreme.”

“Sometimes you have to exaggerate a bad movement to get them to feel a good movement,” Veney says. “For instance, if I just tell a kid to keep his shoulders relaxed, he’ll have a hard time remembering that while he’s running. So before I tell him to relax his shoulders, I’ll make him run with his shoulders very tightly shrugged. If you have someone exaggerate a thing like that, they can feel how different and uncomfortable it is. When they’re in a state of fatigue they’re less likely to notice the slow tightening and raising of the shoulders, but if they can easily recognize that feeling, they can better monitor themselves. And that’s one of the most important things for a runner to do.”

This method is also useful when trying to correct existing faults. “I once had a runner who really pounded on her heels when she ran, and when I watched her walk, I noticed that she appeared to be leaning back,” Veney says. “I asked her to lean even further back and try to walk while I put my hands on her back to support her, and she found it quite difficult. Then I had her walk and lean forward in the position that I wanted her in when running—and she said she could really feel the difference.

“When I let her walk in her normal way again, she said, ‘Wait a minute, it still feels like I’m leaning back,’” continues Veney. “That helped her understand. You want to create as much of a disparity as possible between the right way of doing something and the wrong way, so the athlete can clearly feel why one is better than the other.”

When he holds clinics for young runners, Veney begins the lesson on avoiding side-to-side rotational movement by having athletes do the twist. While they’re dancing, he tells them to notice what their arms, hips, and feet are doing. Then, he has them run while paying attention to those same things. “They’re amazed at how hard it is to go from twisting to running with good form,” Veney says. “But they can feel the difference very easily, and it teaches them not to twist while they run.”