Runners always strive to improve their running efficiency. The New York Times’ fitness reporter Gretchen Reynolds defines running efficiency as “a measure of how much oxygen a person uses to run at a particular pace.” In simple terms, it shows how hard it is for a runner to run at certain speed. The better oxygen economy you have, the more efficient a runner you are, and the easier it is to maintain your target pace.
Running efficiency and economy can be improved with training, of course, but it can also be greatly enhanced by correcting the running form. The better the form, the smoother you run, and you’ll spend less energy to maintain your speed.
Many running coaches insist on correcting runners’ form based on perceived ideal — something like the way Ryan Hall runs. To correct a runner’s form, they do lab tests to determine which part of the gait, stride, foot-strike or arm-swing needs to be changed. In short, changing your running form involves lot of testing and professional help.
However, a new study published in the September issue of the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise seems to suggest the contrary.
Researchers with the Bioenergetics and Human Performance Research Group at the University of Exeter in England studied ten women during over a ten week training period. The women were all beginner runners, they were healthy, of average height and weight, in their 20’s and 30’s. Before subjecting them to the training, the researchers did a lab test with each woman to analyze their aerobic fitness, running biomechanics, and running economy.
As you can imagine, the beginner runners without any previous running experience did not do well in the test for running economy. The goal of the study was to train them to be able to run 30 minutes continuously.
They started with the run-walk method the first week, and gradually increased running intervals. Each woman trained on her own, but once a week they came together for a group run. The group leader was only allowed to encourage and motivate them, but otherwise wasn’t providing any coaching advice.
After ten weeks they were brought to the lab again. Their speed performance improved and, most importantly, their running economy increased by 8.5 percent. Researchers noticed that all the runners made small, unconscious adjustments to their form, to make running easier. They all started flexing their legs more to better use energy; their heels were also much more stable in the landing phase.
Another interesting thing is that, although their economy improved radically, their foot-strike didn’t change. Most women were heel-strikers, landing on the heel of the foot, and that didn’t change.
So, what does it all mean? First of all, the studied group was too small to draw a general conclusion for all runners, but we can clearly see that the beginners who had never run before can intuitively evolve their running form and improve efficiency without coaching. As I came to believe, the ideal running form is individual and each runner will have a slightly different variation that works best for their body.
The study also proves that the more we run, the more likely it is that our form will self-correct for better efficiency. To make running easier, our body will modify the way it interacts with the surface and the space we run in. So, don’t worry about changing your running form — it will improve with miles, and the greater the mileage, the more efficient a runner you will become.