Boston Marathon and London Marathon 2017 Running Form Analysis

By Jae Gruenke | Running Form Analysis

Apr 23

There’s enough interesting to discuss in the elites’ running technique in either the Boston or London marathons to keep me writing for weeks…but as usual they both happened the same week and so I’m going to cover some of the key contrasts between runners all together in one go. Fasten your seat belt.

Boston Women

I would dearly have loved to write about Katherine Switzer but I couldn’t get a good look, other than to see that her arms were close in to her chest and shoulders moving nicely. Beautiful that she ran, both 50 years ago and again today. Thank you.

I’m a longtime fan of winner Edna Kiplagat’s running, and last Monday she looked the best I’ve ever seen her. Great lean, chin tilting to point at her stance foot as the base of her neck shifted side to side to align with support. Elbows farther from her sides than most of the other elite women, which is interesting to me and I can’t pinpoint the reason for this. It may make her leg action bigger, but this is just a guess. In any case, her hands are close to her heart so her torso isn’t pushed backwards into an upright alignment so she appears to roll–no, fly–forward smoothly.

What particularly stood out to me this time was the freedom of her pelvis and hip joints. The usual Kenyan kit of loose vest tucked into shorts makes it hard to differentiate pelvis motion from leg motion, but whereas in the past (for instance London a couple of years ago) I had a sense her pelvis wasn’t tilting much in the frontal plane, thus causing her to hit the ground quite hard, today it was clear to see it moving very freely and she was much lighter on her feet.

This was coupled with excellent hip joint mobility, particularly the internal rotation essential for long stride length (due to the movement of the pelvis in the transverse plane, as a runner approaches toe off their back leg is internally rotated in the hip joint even though the knee still points forwards). I’ve never seen her do that so well before, and it made her ground contact time seem incredibly short towards the end of the race–she seemed to be in the air nearly all the time.

Not only that, as she ran solo through the last miles she danced around obstacles (a manhole cover?) in the road a couple of times, and it struck me because I couldn’t recall ever seeing an elite runner do that so easily in a race before. She was totally in control of her rhythm and agile as a trail runner.

During the race one of the commentators made the point that Jordan Hasay, who placed third an an awesome marathon debut, has the same height and weight as the average Kenyan woman. Although she is a reasonably graceful runner who doesn’t appear to struggle with her body, she would benefit from shifting her form in a more Kenyan direction. Her retracted and tucked chin pulls her upper body upright and her armswing slips into a groove that has her hands lower and farther from her body than is optimal. I do notice that her hands are higher and closer to her chest than when she was younger, so there’s definitely been progress on this front, but more improvement will help her speed.

I’ve written a lot about the benefits of hands close to chest and coming up to anywhere between heart and collarbone height, but it’s worth taking a moment now to consider why it can be hard to simply move your hands from a habitual lower and farther-out movement to closer in and higher up.

Something in your upper body needs to counterbalance the scissoring action of the legs. Doing it one place means it won’t be done in another. So a lower, wider armswing tends to get the job done and therefore the upper torso–spine, ribcage, shoulders–tend to move less. This is unfortunate because this reduces movement of the spine overall and then the pelvis moves less, interfering with weight shift from leg to leg and shortening the stride because the hip joints aren’t moving one in front of the other as much as they could be.

Since counterbalancing your legs with your arms is more work than doing it with your upper torso, a runner tends to adopt a large arm action as a way of coping with a torso that’s moving less. In other words, the runner has less postural control, balance, and mobility in their torso than they should, and they compensate with a larger arm action. So if a runner with this difficulty tries to bring their hands closer to chest and elbows more bent, they’ll find it very difficult to sustain because they really don’t know how to move their torso to balance the action of their legs.

In general, to make a better armswing possible a runner needs to do a lot of learning about the relationship between trunk mobility and movement of the limbs. You can’t just try to change your arms and expect it to stick.

I was happy to see that Desi Linden appears to have done that learning, her armswing is higher and more compact than I’ve seen before and it appears to be serving her well.

Where you see a larger arm action (and less torso mobility and postural control) you’ll see less forward lean. This screenshot is blurry but you can see Hasay, in back, is leaning less than Kiplagat in blue and Rose Chelimo, who placed second, in yellow.

Boston Men

My comments about Hasay also apply to Suguru Osako, though his uprightness may stem more from an actual decision to run upright than hers. I enjoyed seeing him place third in the men’s race but would love to see him organize a better lean and really show us what he can do.

Nothing is clarifying like a stark contrast between two runners, and in this regard winner Geoffrey Kirui and Galen Rupp are a perfect pair. I wrote about Rupp’s form in the Olympics and he’s true to that form here.  I would guess his breathing is a little easier here and what particularly stood out was the way he pulls his shoulders a little back and externally rotates the upper arms so the hands don’t quite come to the midline. I yearn for him to let his hands swing to the midline, it would change so much about his lean and leg action.

Kirui, by contrast, keeps his entire shoulder girdle and both arms quite far forward facilitating an easier lean, a flatter footstrike, and less braking. It’s almost exaggerated but I can’t see that it causes any problem, and it does give him an edge over Rupp.

I took a million screenshots of the two of them, hoping one would capture the difference in their leg action, but none of them do and I don’t have a YouTube video to link to yet. If you do find one, notice how Rupp’s knees distinctly lift in front of him, while Kirui’s swing forward. Guess which moves you forwards more easily.

 

London Women

When I teach I often point out that running faster requires running differently–it’s not just doing the same thing but harder. Unless you’re Mary Keitany. I’ve written about her form glowingly many times over the years, and she was true to it today. Maybe a fraction more shoulder rotation, maybe a bit more frontal plane movement allowing her to get the most from every step, but basically she was herself…at world record speed.

Alas the fact she left the rest of the women far behind from her first steps in the race means it’s difficult to discuss any of them because they were almost never on camera! (Can you believe it, I’m complaining about a world record.)

I did however get a few good glimpses of Tirunesh Dibaba, who came in second. I wrote about her track form in my Olympics 10K analysis, particularly her distinctively upright upper body, head retracted to bring her upper spine vertical. She’s run this way on the roads in the past as well, I particularly recall her in her first Great North Run.

However she’s now completely changed her organization, with her shoulders forward of her hips in an excellent forward lean. I am amazed at the difference. Great adaptation to the road, I would love to know how she did it. (I do realize she’s running uphill in this picture, but she maintains this once she gets on the flat as well.)

London Men

If you’ve read my analyses before you’ll know I’m a Kenenisa Bekele fan, so I was disappointed to see him fall short in London. Knowing his normally sterling form, I saw right away that he was off–his head is pulled back a little, normally it’s a bit farther forward. I can’t recall seeing him do this before, but it didn’t bode well. When you pull on a horse’s reins so their head pulls back, what happens? They slow down. That’s not just a random cue taught to horses, it’s a physical effect, and it’s the same with runners.

Compare his head to the runners around him, you’ll see it’s facing a little down and the chin is pulled back a little closer to his throat than the others.

By contrast, winner Daniel Wanjiru’s form is in many ways reminiscent of Wilson Kipsang, which caused me some deja vu after watching the two race in Berlin last autumn.

Wanjiru’s a slighter figure than Kipsang, with foot placement that almost seems tentative and hands that move in the area of his waist and low ribs rather than chest. He even seems to do the slightly pincer-like hand position that Kipsang favors over the runner’s usual fist.

The fist causes the back muscles to work properly, shortening the pendulum of the arm and increasing the muscle tonus throughout the arm and shoulder so the upper back and opposite glutes respond with similar tonus. If you’re not sure what I mean, try running with floppy hands, then semi-relaxed fists and feel the difference in your back for yourself. (The contrast between floppy and fist is more pronounced than between pincer and fist, which is why I’m recommending it for your experiment.)

I believe there’s a connection between Wanjiru and Kipsang’s preference for the fingertips meeting rather than curling and the fact that neither leans forward much and both have a low leg action.

Hands close to the waist will move the pelvis and cause a “glider” type of gait, which Wanjiru uses to glide to victory.

Speaking of gliders and their counterparts, the gazelles who run with a staglike leg action as does Bekele… a number of people have asked me what I make of Bekele’s very high back kick, with his heels nearly hitting his butt.

Unless you’re practicing a specific running technique that involves deliberately lifting the back foot (which I don’t recommend), that action is entirely passive. It’s a result of tissue elasticity, the acceleration of the swing foot from 0 to faster than the runner, and the fact that we have a series of joints (ankle, knee, hip) that allow the leg to fold and shorten to accelerate the foot forwards.

The faster you run, the higher your feet pick up. Also, the heavier your feet are, the higher they come up at a given speed. Shod runners’ feet lift higher than barefoot runners’ at the same speed because the shoes are heavier.

Bekele has big, muscular legs compared to the majority of marathoners. They look like just one would weigh as much as both of Wanjiru’s put together. So that may be the reason his feet rise so high behind him. His excellent forward lean certainly makes it possible for them to come up, but it isn’t responsible for how high, and I can’t see anything else in his form–given the limitations of what I know today–that would cause it either.

However I  bet there are some folks reading here who have ideas about it, so by all means chime in!


I went on Facebook Live on Friday, April 28, to talk more about these runners and demonstrate some aspects of their technique. Still getting the hang of the Facebook Live thing, so if you have questions about what I say feel free to post them in the comments below.

Here’s the video replay, complete with extremely attractive thumbnail (thanks, Facebook!):

You can find me on FB Live most Fridays at 1:15pm Central European Time expanding on my weekly blog post and answering questions.

If you want to try a few of the things I teach for free, be sure to get in on The “Mind Your Running” Challenge this week! Saturday, April 29, 2017 is the last day you can sign up, and the next challenge will start in September.

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About the Author

Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.

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(4) comments

Paul Oude Vrielink April 28, 2017

Hi,
I think bekele’s leg kick is also partly because he is small (1.67). The smaller the higher the heels come up. He can’t run like a glider because he is too small… to get to that speed he NEEDS to be a ‘gazelle’.
On lean: in your text it isn’t clear at all what is good lean or bad lean. If a runner leans too much then it costs too much energy to keep the torso upright and he gets a too high back kick. If too little then maybe he can’t extend the hip/ leg too much to the back. But between these there is an area that is all good. The japanese guy is quite upright (which is good since he still can extend his leg), kiplagat leans more forward but this is not too much. Both are good. (e.g. your comment about hasay vs kiplagat and the japanese guy: none of them needs to change anything!).

Reply
    Jae Gruenke April 28, 2017

    Thanks for your comments, Paul. Regarding lean, there’s a limit to the amount of hyperextension possible in the hip joint…and it’s not very much. So the upright runner will not be able to move their pelvis very far past their foot without running out of hip hyperextension. A forward lean, including an anteriorly tilted pelvis, solves this problem. However an anteriorly tilted pelvis with a deep lumbar lordosis and a relatively vertical upper spine and head puts the head behind the line of force coming from the foot on the ground through late stance. The head gets pushed backwards, not forwards, and this needs to be controlled with extra contraction of the muscles on the front of the neck, chest, and abdomen, and this is a lot of work plus it interferes with easy trunk counterrotation, which shortens the stride and overworks the legs, and the result is a runner expending a lot of extra energy. So in my understanding, a “good lean” is one in which the force travels through the runner’s body from foot to the front part of the top of the runner’s head in late stance. It also requires the runner’s hip joint having been exactly vertically aligned with their ankle joint in midstance. When these two criteria are met, the lean is perfect for the runner’s body and current speed. However if the head is too far back, or the hip joint is behind the ankle joint at midstance, then it’s not a good lean. Both Hasay and Osaka have their heads too far back and thus there’s room for them to improve in this regard.

    Reply
      Paul Oude Vrielink May 4, 2017

      Hi,
      I get your comments, I understand the logic and I think it is very insightful.
      However, I’m not sure that you can infer from that logic that Hasay/Osaku have their heads too far back.
      The reason is: they have been running so much that they know what their best body position is: slight lean, head at a certain place. Keep in mind that the running movement contains all kinds of subtle adaptations when you train for years and years and many miles. There might be very good reasons why their heads (or maybe you mean their overall upperbody lean) are just a little backward (there can be very good reasons for more upright position…). Also, from this video footage it is so hard to notice the very tiny difference that it is really impossible to ‘judge’ their styles in this way. That’s my view anyway.

      Reply
        Jae Gruenke May 5, 2017

        A decade and a half of helping runners improve, comparing their performance before and after making changes in their form, have made it abundantly clear to me that these small differences in lean and head and arms actually have quite significant performance effects. In fact, the higher up in the body you make a change, the bigger the effect. I agree with you that there are good reasons these runners–and all runners–run the way they do, and that’s why *how* you undertake the process of change is extremely important. That’s why I use the Feldenkrais Method. It starts by respecting the runner, and creates a sensory, exploratory learning process that puts the control in the runner’s nervous system rather than the teacher and thus feels very safe.

        Reply
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