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Learning to be a better runner

Moe Johnson Running with Moe

Learning to be a better runner

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Running is an activity that most people can participate in without a lot of instruction on how to run. It is not like a sport where lessons are needed to acquire enough skill to be successful enough to enjoy playing the game. Tennis, golf, pickle ball, and even bowling, benefit by getting some guidance in how to play the sport. Running is an activity that most people have tried from a young age on, through becoming an adult. Running is a fun and rewarding activity but it also has some learning steps to become a better and more efficient runner. Those seemingly small things that beginning runners may do can make a big difference with a minor change that can result in progress to run faster.

The plant of the foot when you take a step is something to consider. A majority of people walk with a slight outward turning of the foot at approximately a 45-degree angle. The difference between a foot plant that is straight forward and one that is at a 45-degree angle is about 2 – 3 inches. This doesn’t seem like much until you consider running a mile averages about 1500 steps. Taking the number of steps and using a 2 ½ inch difference finds that a person loses 312 feet per mile. Much of the difference is determined by how fast and how tall a person is. On average a runner at a 20 minute per mile pace takes about 2,250 steps, a 15 minute per mile pace takes about 1,935 steps, a 10 minute per mile pace takes 1,670 steps, and an 8 minute per mile takes 1,400 steps. That amounts to a big difference in how efficient a runner is depending on how fast they run.

And if the pace a runner maintains while running the height of the runner must also be taken into consideration. The difference isn’t quite as evident as the pace of a runner but it does make some difference. Researchers have estimated that a 5 foot person takes 2,601 steps per mile, a 5’6” person takes 2,286 steps per mile, a 5’10” person takes 2,155 steps per mile, a 6’ person takes 2,095 steps, and a tall 6’ 3” person takes 2,011 steps.

There have been short elite runners that can beat a taller runners because they can take more steps in less time. I was talking with George Young, an elite two mile runner that competed in the Olympics, about running faster. It so happened he was going to be on television that evening in a track meet. He said, “Watch the stride on the last part of my race and you will see me change the length of my stride from long to short. To run faster I need more steps with power to increase speed.” It was interesting to watch the race looking for the difference in stride length. With about 350 yards of the final lap left George suddenly took shorter strides and moved ahead of the pack of runners with such ease. I recalled my track days of running low hurdles. I ran 9 steps between hurdles. My coach told me to only take 7 steps between hurdles. I tried running with 7 steps and felt like I was leaping each step instead of running. I could run about three or four hurdles with 7 steps before I switched back to my 9 strides between hurdles and ran faster. I was too short to be a 7 step hurdler.

Another point that makes a more efficient runner is the foot plant on the ground. The foot has bones on the outside of the foot and an arch on the inside of the foot. Pushing off with the outside of the foot has a strong lever to propel you forward. If the push off is over the arch it gives a little bit and the runner loses force with each step. When you look at photographs of fast runners in midstride the foot is turned inward to land on the outside portion of the foot and then transferring the weight to push off the big toe portion of the ball of the foot.

One other part of the body that can make a difference in efficiency is the pelvic girdle. If the runner has a forward tilt (a sway back) the leg cannot come up as far compared to a pelvic girdle that is level. This is usually a factor with sprinters needing a high knee lift to run fast. The problem with a forward tilt for long distance runners is that with a forward tilt the internal organs (intestines) are pushing against the lower attachment of the abdominal muscle. This can result in a stretch or strain of the lower abdominal muscle and become painful. This was a personal example when I ran marathons and had to really concentrate on changing my running form from sway back to a straight back.

And that is how the simple activity of running can become complicated and needs practice.

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