Another year, another chance to dash around Berlin on marathon day with my camera and my hopes of catching as much as possible of a thrilling race. Here are some of the high-speed, slow-motion videos I took, with my commentary.
Guye Adola, who at times seemed like he might glide away with the victory in the men’s race, has a completely different movement strategy from Kipchoge. Comparing the two runners’ arm movement provides a window into their fundamental differences.
Here’s a race highlights video cued so you can make that comparison:
At first glance they might not seem so different, as their elbows are bent about the same amount and their hands come to their midlines. However notice how Adola’s hands move almost straight up and down his midline, as if along the zipper of a jacket, while Kipchoge’s make arcs that move much more side-to-side.
I can’t think of another runner who does what Adola does. Normally when the armswing is predominantly sagittal like this, the hands are wide apart and the runner is trying to follow that classic, faulty recommendation to swing the arms just front-to-back and not at all across the body. But Adola’s hands are right in the middle and that’s where they stay.
So are his feet. They’re directly under his midline, almost as if he were running on a tightrope. You can see his head bob slightly side to side, but nowhere near as much as Kipchoge’s does. And Kipchoge’s feet are really quite wide apart, even relative to other distance runners.
All of these elements are connected, of course. Kipchoge’s form capitalizes on movement in the frontal plane (or side-to-side types of action). The large side-to-side movements of his head and armswing serve to shift his weight from one foot to the other, and that requires a fairly sizeable lateral shift since as I said, they’re consistently hip-width apart.
The popular way to think of this movement is that it represents wasted effort because it’s sideways and not just forward. But that’s completely wrong. The distance between Kipchoge’s feet looks anatomically perfect to me (i.e. right in line with his hip joints) and shifting back and forth between them allows him to make the most of the spring capacity of his torso, with his sides alternately lengthening and shortening. This has the effect of making his leg functionally longer through late stance to toe off because that side of his pelvis undulates downwards.
He aims that lengthening action on a perfect forward angle to get a little extra propulsion in each stride. This lesson is how I teach that.
Unfortunately in his long shirt there’s no hope of seeing the pelvis movement happen (what a frustrating garment!) so you’ll have to take my word for it that this is the only way to do what he’s doing since every other part of his body indicates it clearly.
In this high-speed video I took at km 24, Kipchoge (in the middle behind the pacemakers) appears to bounce more and hit the ground harder than Adola or Kipsang (on either side of him). This is a consequence of his frontal plane movement, and it’s contributing nicely to his speed. Nothing wasted about it.
(In this video you can also appreciate his deep, well-aligned forward lean, particularly once he’s passed the camera. Compare how far forward his head is to the runners on either side of him.)
Adola’s feet under his midline, by comparison, require very little side-to-side movement from the rest of his body—hence the minimal head movement and almost zero lateral movement of his hands. He uses almost no frontal plane movement, depending on the transverse plane instead.
Even if he were wearing a shirt like Kipchoge’s and we couldn’t see his pelvis, we’d know it’s moving nicely because of how smooth his gait is. If he were attempting to stiffen his torso and pelvis, a.) his hands wouldn’t be coming to his midline, because that action depends on upper body rotation, and b.) his legs would be emphasizing movement in the sagittal plane, with a pronounced knee lift and a stomping footstrike. Plenty of runners actually do this, especially when they’ve been working hard on all the wrong things about their form.
Instead, Adola lands almost delicately on the ground and seems to glide or even sashay. These things can only happen when the pelvis moves.
But there’s a big caveat in Adola’s style. Bringing the feet to the midline requires more activity in the inner thighs, which synergistically also contracts the lower abdomen, and this would tend to push his pelvis behind his ankle at midstance, causing overstriding.
I don’t see that happening, but what is striking is how he tilts his head slightly backwards and slightly arches his upper back, pushing his chest forward. This is a counterbalancing movement for low abdominal and adductor contraction. It helps him shift his weight forward instead of being pushed backwards by his narrow gait.
Ultimately Kipchoge’s springier, more powerful gait won the day. And though I always point out that performance is a composite of many possible assets: conditioning, strategy, nutrition, hydration, etc., with technique being just one arrow in the quiver, I also feel confident saying that, all other things being equal, Kipchoge’s technique will win every time.
I think I’ve finally figured out what’s going on with his technique. I’ve long admired it but both last year and today there’s been something off about his leg action. It’s looked so large it seemed somehow out of proportion to his speed.
In this high speed video that I captured around km 24, you can see his lower legs and even his feet snap forward just before footstrike. This normally happens when the pelvis and lower back aren’t moving quite enough. It’s something like cracking a whip: the pelvis and lower back on the swing side suddenly stop moving forward and this snaps the lower leg and foot forward at the end of their movement, but then at the last second they adjust into position for a normal footstrike.
Perhaps this is related to the lower back problems he’s reportedly suffered—it would be a chicken-and-egg relationship in that case. I don’t recall seeing him do this before last year.
As I was out on the streets in Berlin for this race, catching bits of the TV coverage on my phone from time to time, I didn’t see any of the women in person until my last stop at 41km. So I have fewer observations and less to say about them, unfortunately.
The question that first springs to mind in seeing Gladys Cherono is whether her shoulders are elevated or whether that’s just her body type. Looking from the sides and back it appears not, as her shoulders look well integrated with her back to me, and from the side the line from hip to shoulder is a perfect forward lean. Plus her head moves forward very smoothly when seen from the side. Her form seems to be working perfectly well.
The differences between Aga and Aiyabei are really interesting. Aiyabei is a joy to watch, with a gorgeous lean and easy trunk action that makes for very long strides.
I’m particularly enjoying in all of these high-speed (meaning slow motion) videos how the 3/4 view of the runners from behind makes it possible to see the forward movement of the shoulder helping each runner move their weight off their foot, and how the turning of the upper body moves the weight from foot to foot.
All of that goes double for Aiyabei.
Aga, by contrast, keeps her hands from coming to her midline, which results in contracting her upper back and pushing her chest up, which then shifts her head too far back and flattens her neck somewhat so her head tilts down. Consequently, each time she pushes off the ground, her head responds a moment after the rest of her body, lagging, bobbing, and moving in varying directions.
In addition, her forward lean is slightly less than Aiyabei’s, and this shortens her stride length.
Congrats to Hahner on her 5th place finish. Watching the marathon from Berlin for a couple of years now, and via the German feed from the UK before that, I’ve had the opportunity to contemplate her gait over the years, and I’m delighted to see she’s moved her head forward and is leaning a bit more than before. I would love to see her relax her wrists, which I think she’s cocking in an effort to make her arms go front-to-back (as discussed above). It would help her lean better and get a slightly longer stride if she allowed her hands to come naturally to her midline.
I elaborated on this blog post Friday, Sept. 29, on Facebook Live, and I demonstrated some of the things I wrote about. Here’s the replay:
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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.