Today I am thrilled to have video of some of the elites in this morning’s 2014 New York City Marathon filmed for me by my friend Jo Ann Maninno, standing on Central Park South, in the last mile of the race. It was shot at normal speed (30 fps) and I’ve edited it together and played it back at 25% of full speed so you can more easily see how they are running.
However, it’s important to understand that this is not the same is high-speed video, which gives you spectacular quality slow motion because it captures many more frames per second and allows you to see a great deal of movement that would be lost between the frames of a 30fps video. So for this analysis I’m not going to bother with things like footstrike that happen in such a small fraction of a second that you can’t definitively analyze them from 30fps film, no matter how slowly you play it back.
I watched the race live online and saw a great deal that I thought was of interest but because there’s no broadcast replay currently available to allow me to show you what I mean I’ll confine my comments to what you can see in this video from Jo Ann.
What I find easiest to see in these videos is how each runner organizes their upper body to direct the force from their legs. You can see a wide variety of strategies which reflect the variety in regular runners as well (though there are also other possible variations we don’t see represented here). However if you’re not a regular reader of this blog you can have a quick look here to see the overall lens through which I look at running form.
I’ll go runner-by-runner:
Mary Keitany: As always, Keitany has gorgeous form with the minor exception of tipping her head right. Her neck is long and her head moves steadily forward, so that the distance between her chin and throat never changes through her gait cycle. In other words, she pushes her head forward very efficiently. As I have said elsewhere, running is actually a ball sport, in which you try to get your ball — your head! — across the finish line. Any other part of your body that comes along does so as a product of your having successfully pushed your head with your feet from the starting line to the finish line. In Keitany’s case, the perfect alignment of her head on the forward-tilting spine allows her to turn her upper body so that she peels her weight off her stance foot in a direction that maximizes forward motion and minimizes upward motion. You can see the forward movement of her right shoulder do this; at the moment that her foot leaves the ground her shoulder stops moving forward. Watching from her right as we are we probably see her right shoulder move forward a little less than her left would since the rightwards bend of her neck constricts her freedom to move that shoulder slightly. The very acute angle of her elbows, bringing her hands almost up to her collarbones, makes this movement even easier since her arms are thus very short pendulums, and the arms moving more or less diagonally to her midline supports the rotation of her upper body.
Jemima Sumgong: Her form is also superb but slightly less than Keitany’s in every respect. As she goes right past the camera watch her chin move closer to her throat, then farther away again. This indicates that her head isn’t quite far enough forward and is being left behind for a split second each time she pushes the ground with her foot. Her arms, less compact in their movement than Keitany’s, take a little more energy to move.
Sara Moriera: You can see Moriera pulls her head back so her chin is the same distance from her throat as if she were standing still, or perhaps even closer. This means it’s far behind the thrust from her leg, and her chest gets pushed upwards instead. You can see it go up and down. This also makes it impossible for her to rotate her shoulders enough to release her weight in a forward direction at toe-off; she bounces a lot more than the two women ahead of her did.
Jelena Prokopcuka: Prokopcuka’s form also makes an immediate contrast to Moriera’s, since she has a nice lean that allows her to roll forward smoothly off her feet. Her head moves smoothly forward and her shoulders release her weight from her feet by rotating. Her upper back looks a little hunched but this can be tough to evaluate in video, since each person has a differently shaped rib cage and her chest doesn’t look sunken to me.
Rkia El Moukim: In this video you can see El Moukim dip her head with zero effect on the rest of her body. She appears to be holding herself strongly with her trunk muscles, especially her back muscles, so that she’s fairly upright and can’t take advantage of the movement of her shoulders to shift her weight from foot to foot, lengthen her toe-off side to create thrust, and direct her force forward. In this kind of a situation a runner relies on their ability to hold their trunk fairly tightly so their head will be carried along.
Desiree Linden: She has a fluid, rolling style and her head moves smoothly and well foward but she appears to lift her shoulders off her ribcage in order to toe-off. She always looks to me like she holds her torso a little flexed, or bent forward rather than leaning forward, and when you use your muscles to do that you can’t use them to counterrotate your upper body and pelvis, so your shoulders move on their own rather than in concert with your spine and ribcage.
Firehiwot Dado: Contrast her back with Linden’s. So straight, the spine clearly directing force from the ground into her head, her shoulders moving easily in conjunction with her whole trunk. Much easier than what Linden is doing.
Meb Keflizhigi: He does the same thing with his shoulders that Linden does — he seems to shrug them as he runs, and his chest doesn’t turn as much as the runners following him. (This was so clear in the full race broadcast, when seeing him from the front flanked by other runners. His chest turns much less.) It is certainly better to have your shoulder bounce upwards than your whole body do it, as Moriera’s did, but not as good as allowing the shoulders to ride on fabulous counterrotational core action that directs your force fowards as we saw with Keitany and Sumgong and will see with Kiprotich as well.
Stephen Kiprotich: You only really get to glimpse him here but it’s enough to see how much more his chest and back turn and how much more forward-angled his spine is than Keflezighi’s.
Geoffrey Mutai: There’s barely a glimpse of him as well but it’s enough to see he is having trouble with his right side lagging behind his left. I’ve seen this before with him but it seemed worse altogether in this race, and I would imagine he was having some discomfort from it.
Peter Cheruiyot Kirui: Kirui is a full-fledged forefoot striker and this makes him a bit bouncy, but his forward lean keeps him from bouncing as much as Moriera. His overall mechanics also include less upper body rotation than would be optimal, but that would be part of an overall balancing of flexor and extensor tone that would also modulate his footstrike. In other words there’s no one thing to point out, he’s running pretty well all things considered.
Masato Imai: Super upright, and also losing control of his right side. This tends to happen to people who run a lot on tracks, so perhaps that’s the cause for him and Mutai as well. Like El Moukim he is required to hold his trunk muscles — abs and back — fairly tightly to prevent any part of his upper body from moving backwards when he pushes against the ground, and this means extra work.
Ryan Vail: He is solidly overstriding and you can see his chest move upwards with each stride. He’s pulling his head back and probably tilting his pelvis forward without the rest of his spine able to follow along, which sets up all these dynamics and prevents a healthy core action/counterrotation of his trunk. So he’s working awfully hard as well.
Nick Arciniaga: His head is quite pulled back as well though the rest of his spine is angled reasonably forwards to conduct force from the ground. He also pushes his left wrist downwards, holds the elbow less bent than the other, and bounces it up and to the right at left toe-off in a fashion that suggests to me that he has trouble pushing with his left foot/leg.
As always when I do running form analyses of elites in races, it’s essential to say what we all know to be true: the best running form doesn’t necessarily win the race. Running form is just one of many attributes a runner marshals to generate their performance on any given day. So my intent is not to show how the winner — Keitany — had better form than her competitors (alas I don’t even have video of the men who were on the podium), but rather show how each of these runners organized themselves with the hope you can learn something from the exercise that will benefit your own running. Keep pushing that ball forward!
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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.