There’s always so much to learn from watching the elite fields in the World Marathon Majors. I can’t hope to cover it all, so I’ll briefly discuss the runners who stood out to me either because they were the focus of a lot of attention or illustrated something especially interesting.
If you missed the races or just want to look at some footage to see what I’m talking about, you can find the London marathon on YouTube in three parts, alas with woefully poor resolution, starting here:
You can find the Boston marathon on their website with a much better quality picture – bless the Boston Athletic Association for posting the video and keeping it available! I wish other major marathons would follow suit.
Edna Kiplagat – It was a beautiful thing to see her stretch out to pass Florence Kiplagat and win the race. Unlike the majority of world class distance runners she runs fairly high on her forefeet and often looks to me like she’s overstriding but in her final kick she looked very smooth; I keep wondering if her soleus muscles get sore but she looks comfortable in her customary form. The reason she runs so far forward on her feet is that her extensors throughout her body (the muscles that straighten our joints, including the back and calves) are a little more active than other runners at her level, with a consequence that she has less counterrotation of her upper body and pelvis, bounces a bit more, and swings her arms more independently of her shoulders and ribcage making them appear to flap, as the commentators mentioned.
Florence Kiplagat – It was easy to make the comparisons between Florence and Edna as they ran side-by-side late in the race. Florence has superb marathon form, with plenty of rotation and lateral flexion in her trunk resulting in a good balance of activity between her flexors and extensors throughout her body and a much more moderate forefoot/midfoot strike. Because the Kenyan women tend to wear black bottoms without any color or definition that disappear into their shirts it can be difficult to find reference points to track to see their pelvises moving, but on Florence it was very clear towards the end of the race – rotation and sideshifting.
Tirunesh Dibaba – Dibaba holds her arms very high, much higher than the Kenyans. This is often described as “tight” but it isn’t, her arms are quite relaxed and she doesn’t lift her shoulders to do it, she simply bends her elbows a lot. Instead of moving her hands along the line of her ribs from the bottom of her breastbone to her sides, as most of the Kenyans do and practically anyone else with excellent distance form, she basically moves them along her breastbone. I’ve always thought this interfered with the ability to really fire the back muscles and glutes and apply force to the ground but seeing her do it again and again on the track, and seeing other successful Ethiopians do it as well, caused me to reconsider and do some exploration. In fact, reducing the downward movement of the hands does create the risk of underusing the back and butt but you can get around that by snapping the elbows back instead, and the back and butt fire just as well. The benefit of running with arms this high is improved mobility and instability – the arms create less drag to interfere with the rotation of the upper body and this means the hips and legs move more easily as well. Furthermore, it raises the center of gravity, making the runner more unstable and easier to move. Done right, it’s faster than the classic armswing.
(Priscah Jeptoo ran but didn’t finish, if you were curious about her form take a look at the analysis I did after the 2013 Great North Run.)
Mo Farah – it looked to me like he’s worked to adapt his form to the marathon, establishing a more consistent forward lean. But he still bobs his head backward and forward as an accommodation to his vast stride length. His stride rate was strikingly slower than the other elite men and stride length correspondingly longer, and it really increases his effort. If he wants to adapt his form further for this distance there’s no point trying to change his trunk mechanics, he’ll simply have to run with a metronome and shorten/quicken his stride.
Tsegaye Kebede – like Dibaba, he runs with his elbows very bent and hands high and it works for him as it does for her. You can clearly see how the elbows cut in sideways, illustrating the lateral shifting of the ribcage. It’s beautiful.
Wilson Kipsang – so if Kebede and Dibaba benefit so much from very high arms, how can a guy with the lowest arms in the elite field have won and broken the course record in London, having also set a new marathon world record in Berlin last fall? Well, the best form doesn’t necessarily win the race! Excellent form is just one arrow in a distance runner’s quiver, and Kipsang has others. However, he also has a light, gliding footstrike that is a sign of a pelvis moving exceedingly well. Very low arms can actually provoke the pelvis to move more, and this seems to be the case with Kipsang. He makes it easier to see by wearing his shorts low on his hips. But regardless of this wardrobe quirk, when you compare his pelvis with that of Stanley Biwott as they ran side-by-side at the end of the race you can easily see how much more Kipsang moves. So that’s a form asset he has despite or perhaps even because of the effect of his low arms.
Rita Jeptoo – I feel I should say something about her form since she won so spectacularly but there’s little to say other than that it’s awfully good. She cocks her head sideways a bit but it causes barely any trouble in the rest of her body, she’s quite symmetrical. It makes it seem like she doesn’t direct herself clearly through space but this observation takes me into the realm of things that actually might look quite different in person from what appears to be true on a computer screen.
Shalane Flanagan – I’ve said many times I feel she has the best form of all the top American women distance runners. I still think that’s true, but she could benefit from one important change. She seems to carry a lot of tension in her hands and arms and hit the ground pretty hard. These things can look different in person, and effort, in particular, comes across much less on a screen than in real life so I assume that what looked like a subtle sense of effort on my computer would be quite significant in reality. Her footstrike which looks consistently like a heelstrike even though it’s hard to imagine with her lean and beautiful trunk mechanics she could be heelstriking (her low-cut waist makes it easy to see how well her pelvis moves) is actually due to the fact that her hands swing quite far in front of her body. This places her feet too far forward and is connected to excessive flexor tonus – she uses the muscles on the front of her body to generate movement more than is economical. If she could just adapt her armswing so that her hands were always nearly brushing her ribcage it would make a huge difference.
Meb Keflezighi – I admit it, I had eyes only for him. I’ve actually seen him look better. I had the good fortune to be in the finish line grandstand when he won the NYC marathon and he looked just spectacular then. This was just after his recovery from his pelvic stress fracture, and the rehab he’d done was said to have included a lot of agility drills, and it showed. He’s never looked quite that balanced and mobile since, and he ran much of Boston with his head very retracted, lifting his chest and perhaps even pulling his elbows or shoulders back intentionally. You can see what I mean in this picture. This is a lot of extra work. His gliding pelvis is reflected in his footstrike, though, and as with Kipsang that makes up for things going wrong farther north, but having things go right everywhere is the best thing of all, as Rita Jeptoo showed.
Did you see something else in the elite runners’ form in these races? Share it in a comment!
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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.