Would you like to know how to run? Simple. Just look at the two fastest male marathoners of all time and you can see exactly how it’s done. Kenenisa Bekele and Eliud Kipchoge show us all we need to know, and in the 2019 Berlin Marathon Bekele was at his finest.
I’ve been a huge Bekele fan ever since the first time I saw him, and I can’t even remember when that was. Maybe there never was a first time–maybe he was the runner I dreamed about when I dreamed about running, and when I saw him in waking life I simply recognized him
I bet you feel the same.
It’s been frustrating to watch him struggle over the past few years, so what a joy it was to see him win in Berlin this past week. I confess I’ve watched the end of the race several times hoping it would turn out differently–that he would be two seconds faster and get the world record. But alas.
Some of the great things about Bekele’s form show up particularly clearly in contrast to second place Birhanu Legese’s form. Legese’s run was also spectacular, the third fastest man in history in the marathon and the fastest non-winner. So we must begin with what works about Legese’s form and work outward from there.
I’ve set this highlights video to start at 9:00, as Bekele draws ever closer to Legese.
First you can see Legese, with high arms–elbows bent at a very acute angle. This makes it possible for him to keep a very high stride rate, much higher than Bekele. Any runner can tap into this, since the legs will never swing faster than the arms, and the straighter/longer the arms are, the slower they swing. Simple pendulum mechanics.
The other benefit to Legese’s high arms is that they raise his center of gravity, making him more unstable and thus easier to put into motion and keep in motion.
That high stride rate is an asset for Legese. However he appears to be maxing it out here. He can’t make it even faster to stay ahead of Bekele, and the way his arms are organized he can’t change his strategy either.
Looking from behind at the soles of his shoes you’ll see that his feet are turned out in the air whereas Bekele’s are neutral. This is characteristic of a runner whose back muscles hold chronic tension. And looking from the front you’ll see that his hands do not swing to his midline, but stay quite wide apart on either side of his chest. This also requires/results from tension in the back. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, in that a runner who’s trying to keep the hands from coming to the midline will have to tense upper back muscles to accomplish this, while a runner who has a habit of carrying tension in the upper back will simply have hands that stop short of the midline whether they want them to or not.
So Legese’s arms and legs both suggest a tense back. And whereas his very bent arms facilitate a quick turnover, his back tension requires a quick turnover because it restricts his ability to bring his legs very far forward, thus shortening his stride.
The fact is, your stride length is a product not just of your ability to extend your hips, but perhaps even more so your ability to bring your swing leg far enough forward. When you can do that, you can lean forward because you have adequate hip flexion, and this reduces the amount of hip joint extension you need for a long stride, since your pelvis is anteriorly tilted relative to gravity.
That’s good, because hip joints don’t actually extend that much–about 13 degrees max–and trying to force it just wastes energy, misdirects ground reaction force, and distorts your gait.
Those last couple of paragraphs were pretty dense. If these concepts are new to you, you’ll find this post helpful.
In addition, a large stride length, especially when accomplished by a large leg action as Bekele has, requires a lot of movement of the torso in order to counterbalance the legs in the air, then capture and use ground reaction force during stance. We see that so beautifully in Bekele, and the contrast with Legese is stark here, as his torso and head are much less mobile.
Go to 10:00 in the video above to see an aerial shot of the two, with Bekele on the left. Look at the big difference in torso movement, which increases by 10:18. Bekele’s is perhaps double Legese’s range of motion.
The most important indicator of Bekele’s powerful trunk motion, however, is that characteristic tilting of his chin right and left as he runs. Tick tock. It’s not that he’s doing something with his head, it’s that his upper body is shifting and turning powerfully right and left, and the muscles around his neck and skull are relaxed and permitting the movement. If they weren’t it would shut down his torso and therefore his legs, and he would be a much slower runner.
To me, this is where the beauty is in Bekele’s running. He’s not perfectly symmetrical–in this we see the story of his injuries of recent years–his arms actually could be slightly higher, and I’m not sure what’s up with his hands being so frequently open. But watching his shoulders from behind, or the unmistakable sway of his ribcage and pelvis, or the powerful compression, pump, and release of each side as he lands and takes off again show a man whose every cell is running. No part of him is “holding,” or holding back. It’s all movement and power.
Focusing in briefly on the key contrast–which also relates to what I’ve written above about the men–let’s look at Dibaba’s arms.
She runs with very high hands, near her collarbones, and unlike Legese’s they come to her midline. This creates the dynamic instability that can make fast running a bit easier. You can see this, and the contrast to Bekere, at 8:40, where I’ve cued this video to start playing.
However, like Legere, she didn’t have a viable option to change her form and answer when Bekere passed her near the finish. Take a look at 8:55; you’ll see Dibaba’s hands clearly visible from behind as they arc forward and out to the side. This is what happens whey you try to increase the range of motion of this action. It’s wasted energy, as the arms aren’t creating a force that travels through the body to the ground, but instead just get whipped through the air.
You can see this from the front at 9:27 as well.
By contrast, the downward motion of Bekere’s hands in front of her, almost as if she were unzipping a jacket, pushes the ribcage to the opposite side and fires the obliques, pushing the ground away through the opposite leg (due to the weight shift) and lifting the swing side of the pelvis up to assist the leg to lift and swing through. The harder you do this, the faster you run.
Bekele was doing this as well. Eliud Kipchoge is a master of it (and so much else).
The lesson here is to pick your strategy. Each has pros and cons, and I don’t know how easy it is to switch from one to the other midrace. What I do know as that it is undoubtedly an asset to be able to alter your form to find more speed, making versatility the ultimate asset for a runner. That seems to be more available with slightly lower hands–in the range of the heart rather than the collarbones.
Give it a try on your next run. Can you do both? Can you switch between them? Leave your comments below.
And if you haven’t yet done my Mind Your Running Challenge, which helps you understand how your whole body works together… what on earth are you waiting for? It’s free and it’s just 10 minutes a day for a week. Get it here:
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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.