Relaxed Running – Clutching (at) Straws
Relaxed running, something that we don’t see very often.
We all learn to run from a young age, naturally developing movement patterns that our bodies can efficiently replicate for long periods of time. Coaching input can help with any minor issues, but over-coaching is now commonplace, with so many differing thoughts and approaches confusing things.
Our approach is simple, work with the movement the body has naturally developed, and only make minor alterations to aid rhythm and balance. It’s the same for swim and bike; if it is working and you don’t have problems with injury or recurring aches and pains, you are working with your body’s preferred ranges of movement and doing it just fine!
If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!
All too often athletes of all levels and experience rush into making significant changes to their form, approach, fuelling, etc. Everyone wants to progress and are willing to risk trying new trendy ideas and fads for the promise of quick results.
These desperate attempts to squeeze an extra bit out of their body rarely work; it’s the old saying: “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!”
These new trends distract from the simple process of improvement and are sold as shortcuts or promises to raise pace, power level, speed, etc. Often though, those who try end up being less efficient, frustrated and even ill or injured – they get worse rather than better.
Filtering through the trends
Running, like swimming and cycling, has suffered many trends over the years: what training to do, how the foot should land, body position, which magic shoes you should wear, etc, etc.
For some, the changes may work, whether real or from the placebo effect, while many see no results or even worse, they are worse off after changing – relaxed runners they are not!
Those that do initially benefit, do so because they (sensibly) reduce overall run training load and intensity. This will have a bigger impact on run performance than the change itself. In fact, if run training load (volume and/or intensity) is reduced within a triathlon programme, it almost always improves run performance (obviously within limits – you still need to run more than once per week!). Simply, running is stressful but training sensibly (often less is more) lets the body recover and boosts fitness!
A common (bad) running trend
Upper body position and carriage when running can have a big influence on running economy and comfort. The common coaching points given to runners (including and especially triathlete runners) is to lean forwards and drive the arms. This nearly always causes tension in the upper body – the back and shoulder muscles.
The idea behind the forwards lean, or “falling”, is that it helps with forwards momentum as you push your body weight with your legs and aided by gravity – mimicking how sprinters run. The arm drive from the shoulders is equally “borrowed” from sprinters, driving the arms to help drive leg cadence.
In theory, from analysing some of the fastest “track” runners in the world, this should make everyone faster runners. Unfortunately for many (adult non-competitive runners), it´s a style that is not sustainable for very long.
Whilst the arms do dictate leg cadence, a drive from the shoulders is NOT required. Similarly, leaning forwards is NOT a good idea for a triathlete who has:
a) stiffened up from the swim and bike – mainly referring to the forward lean and tightening of the hip flexors;
b) neuromuscular fatigue from the swim and bike meaning you’ll be less able to effectively control the muscles needed to hold the forward lean; and
c) a long-distance run to complete; gravity, tight hips and overall fatigue means upper body weight becomes a burden. Those triathletes who collapse at the end of the race are often the very same ones who have trained to lean forwards.
Ironically, many pro and elite athletes (in swim, bike and) run with quirky movements with asymmetrical movements or positions that a lot of coaches would deem as being “wrong”. Specifically in running, the foot contact position and body position are both big area of debate.
Many of us carry tension in our shoulders; “the weight of the world on our shoulders”.
This is largely linked to our everyday posture and stress; the way we sit, walk, look down to view our phones, etc. Over time this gradually becomes our default position – we become hunchbacks!
Considering that the average adult head weighs between 5 and 6kg, plus the upper torso weight, attempts to lean forwards as a run technique only encourages the body to continue hunching. Tight muscles from every day slouching are over-dominant (pecs, lats and hip flexors), while the good posture muscles are weak and inactive.
Hunching (or percieved leaning) is detrimental to your run movements and economy. Tension soon occurs in the shoulders and creeps up the neck and down the spine. Being tense uses up lots of energy, causes aches and pains and is often why some people have light headaches during/after a run. All because the body is out of alignment.
All structures are strong if aligned properly, your body structure is no different. Align it and use it correctly!
Vertical torso – aligned skeleton
The human body has evolved over thousands of year. Our skeletal structure has evolved to carry body weight (and more) – rather than being quadrupedal . The bones themselves have changed to be strong when vertically loaded; to compensate for gravity.
We stand and walk vertically – to align the skeleton. We also naturally learn 2 types of run movement patterns; one is our “long distance” style which is energy and stress efficient. It carries us over long distances.
The other style is for short distance sprinting. One style for long hunts, the other for final sprints, or fleeing!
We’ve known this forever, look back at how our ancestors use to carry loads – sometimes very big loads – balanced on their heads. It was (is) the most efficient way to transport things from A to B – the muscles are able to relax and function as they need to while the skeleton carries the load.
This method of carrying was used rather than using “rucksacks” – yes, we knew how to make satchels and rucksack back then! Rucksacks cause imbalance in the weight distribution and result in a forward lean (hunching) at the hips and through the spine. Look at kids going to school wearing their rucksack or soldiers with their Bergen’s.
This lean causes muscle strain. Muscles engage and tense when they shouldn’t have to, the load should be going through the skeleton.
By changing the weight distribution / loading from being aligned with the centre of mass to somewhere else, the body becomes less efficient.
Triathletes take note:
Leaning or hunching forwards is not an ideal position and cannot be successfully sustained over long distances. Consider that you will have been swimming and riding before running. Your hip flexors will have been in a closed off state for a prolonged period and pre-exhausted. Not only will the hips be tight, the likelihood is you shoulders and spines will have been hunching on the bike too!
This causes the hips flexors, pecs and lats to become tight and make standing (running) vertical difficult. How often do you see athletes running in triathlon or long distance running events hunched over? Most of the time – and they are not relaxed.
If you don’t practice (train) the vertical running style you will not be able to use it in racing – your body replicates things it knows.
Shoulders down and back, head up
This not only helps raise awareness and reinforce good positioning for everyday life, it also aligns the spine for weight bearing activities.
Unfortunately we have all been so conditioned to hunching in everyday life that we eventually become tense and default back to this form… unless we remain aware and correct it. Being aware and train “tall” all the time.
Relaxed running – relaxing the arms for better alignment
Tension spreads, it can originate in one body part and radiate to another. If you want relaxed running, you need to stop tension from occuring.
One of the main culprits of increase shoulder tension is hand tension. If you already have a bad shoulder posture, it is very important that you find a way to stop your hands from being tense.
A relaxed hand means a relaxed forearm. Relaxed forearms mean relaxed elbows. Having relaxed elbows means … you get where we are going with this! Relaxed shoulders.
There are various ways you can relax your hands; here are our favourites:
Clutching (at) straws
In training camps, we have used drinking straws for athletes to hold if they have exceptionally tight shoulders. Emma, pictured, suffered with tight shoulders so we gave her 5-6 drinking straws to hold in each hand while running.
The aim was for her to run without crushing the straws. Within a few minutes she found the straws were crushed! However, after a while, Emma soon learnt and relaxed.
We have done this with tubes of Smarties in the past – ideal for mid-session fuelling!
For those who tense up less, we go thumbs up. Imagine closing your fingers around invisible straws to create a soft fist but leave your thumbs pointed up.
Running with thumbs up also has a great mental loosening effect – thumbs up is a positive body language action. It can make even our tougher sessions light-hearted, exchanging thumbs up with our athletes as they run by – it makes them smile and happy!
For those who naturally run with a more open hand, but still tense up, we get them to finger snap. You can tell these runners tense up as you clearly see the tendons on the back of the hands.
The idea is to relax the hands, so the wrist, fingers and thumbs are loose and floppy. Then, with the rhythm of each arm movement, the wrist flops down at the bottom of each swing allowing the thumb and index and/or middle finger to snap against each other – creating an audible click.
These 3 coaching cues might need to be done continuously to start with, but eventually, when relaxed running is ingrained, you may not need to use them all the time.
Smiling helps our body relax, yet it is nearly always forgotten and definitely under utilised! Smiling, even when the going is hard, makes us happier and relaxed. Remember to smile forwards – so others can see you, not at the floor.
Relaxed running is efficient. However, not many people are able to do it. Many “trends” in running approach and coaching have made it harder for the body to move.
These fashionable approaches, styles or equipment promise to make us faster and better. Unfortunately, they generally go against our natural movement patterns and are not sustainable. The result is a drop in performance and sometimes at a cost of becoming injured or ill.
Running in a triathlon is tough. It always happens after the swim and bike, when you are already tired. There is also a lot of every day factors working against us!
Our everyday posture and gravity being the main culprits. We spend increasing amounts of time hunched; the front musculature of our hips and shoulders have become tight while the rear has become weak. This is known as the upper and lower cross syndrome.
To help fix this, think about running tall, NOT leaning; imagining you are being harassed by a drill sergeant in the military – run to attention!
To aid in relaxation, you need to combat tension. Our hands are often to causing factor of upper body tension and hunching – tension creeps through the body. Tense hands cause tense forearms, tense upper arms and then tense shoulders and necks. Tension leads to hunching; remove tension and you can reduce hunching.
Clutch (at) straws, run with thumbs up or finger snap to make sure you are relaxed!
Oh, and remember to look ahead and SMILE!