This week and next I’m playing a bit of catch-up on the Commonwealth Games. As seems to be usual for major distance running events, I was on holiday during them. But thanks to you YouTube I can still share some insights that you can use in your own running even if these races themselves weren’t on your radar.
Here’s the highlights video from Day Four of the Games, which includes the men’s and women’s marathons:
Here are some of the most interesting clips from a running form perspective:
1:59:08 There’s an interesting contrast here between the arm carriage of Johannes, on the left, vs. Kilel and Daniel, to her right. Kilel and Daniel swing their arms high, hands coming up high on their breastbones at the end of the forward swing, but Johannes’s are higher, up around her collarbones. It looks wrong but isn’t necessarily — the more you raise your bodyweight and make it spatially compact the easier it is to move yourself forward. Tirunesh Dibaba runs with her hands about this high and it works beautifully for her. However later on in the race (3:08:35) as Johannes tires she tips her head and upper back backwards in order to carry her hands this high, and that is definitely NOT productive, stiffening the spine and slowing a runner down. When you’re tired the best strategy is to think of yourself simply falling forward so your fatigue can help you, not hinder you.
You can see the group of four runners behind them all doing different things with their arms but none of them coming up as high even as Kilel or Daniel.
2:01:24 Compare the running form of Partridge, Marchant, and Trengove. Patridge, in front, runs perfectly upright, something you seldom see runners manage. Seen from the side it even appears her midback moves behind her pelvis as the leg below swings through. It isn’t easy to use your glutes or back muscles when running like this and is difficult to generate power or acceleration. You also have to use a lot of energy to hold yourself together, continually having to correct for the forward and upwards push from the leg in late stance knocking your upper body backwards. Finally, it limits how far you can go past your stance foot (it appears to limit hip hyperextension but not necessarily, it’s just that when you’re upright the small amount of hip hyperextension the body can produce doesn’t get you far past your leg, whereas when you lean forward and do the same amount of hyperextension the result is that your leg is much farther behind the pelvis.)
Marchant, wearing the hat, on one hand seems to be as upright as Partridge but you don’t see any part of her spine pulling backwards at any point. Her lower back is a little extended and she doesn’t pull her shoulders back, and this makes her running a bit easier. Her uprightness does, as with Partridge, limit how far her pelvis can go past her stance foot and she compensates for this by internally rotating her thighs a little as a substitute for hip extension so she can more easily get her weight off each foot at toe-off.
Trengove, in green, has a nice forward lean, her legs work beautifully and she’s able to move well past her stance foot to toe off. Her thighs move equally far in front of her hip joints and behind them, helping her get a nice stride length and direct foce well through her torso. She carries her head beautifully, orienting her face forwards and letting her chin move away from her throat. Unfortunately she turns her palms downwards, swings her arms too far away from her body, and bends her wrists on the backswing, all of which prevent her from using her back and hips as well as she might and increase her effort. Surely it wouldn’t be hard for her to bend her elbows a bit more, keep her hands higher and closer to her body, and swing them down leading with the pinky side of the hand rather than the palms… But until you feel the muscular effort a runner uses for a particular movement you never know whether a change of an inch or two will be simple or actually involve changing absolutely everything about how a runner is generating movement.
3:05:26 Here we see Daniel and Kilel side by side in rhythm with each other. Their upper bodies look identical. As the camera pulls back you see a surprising difference in their legs. Daniel is what some call a “backseat” runner, with her legs moving farther forward than backward so that she appears to be sitting back, with her pelvis behind her legs. Kilel, on the other hand, moves her legs nearly equally forwards and backwards. This makes Daniel’s stride length shorter than Kilel’s but she compensates with a higher stride rate. From the front you can see what Daniel does instead of extending her hip joints — she internally rotates her thighs like Marchant but more so. It releases her weight off her big toes so she doesn’t bounce excessively and apparently works just fine for running. This is what Priscah Jeptoo does as well, and as with Daniel it works perfectly well for getting across the finish line first.
After the camera angle resumes from the front there is a particularly entertaining moment where the commentator calls Kilel’s running form “far from economical.” I can’t find a single thing that isn’t perfect about her form, and if her shoulders seem to “roll around” more than Daniel’s it’s partially that they’re much wider and so are her hips, and the amount of movement in her upper body is helping her shift her weight properly from leg to leg so she can extend her hips instead of twisting her thighs. Daniel’s more minimal upper body rotation is one reason for the way her legs work, since it prevents her from shifting her weight laterally enough to keep her knees in line with her feet. Daniel’s win over Kilel wasn’t a matter of running form — winning is almost never purely due to form. Form is just one of many elements of running performance.
2:04:20 I had to rub my eyes when I dipped into the men’s marathon at this point. Fundamentally, everyone in this shot is running the same, including the non-African in the middle. I have never actually seen that in a marathon and I had a hard time believing my eyes.
That said, the Australian in the pack running with African form, Shelley, has very different proportions from the guys around him and it does make for the necessary difference of a shorter stride length and higher stride rate. Another difference appears as the race continues, which is that Shelley’s head moves side-to-side much less than his fellow Australian, Adams (also running with good African form), and all the African guys as well. Shelley’s upper body movement overall is reduced — it could be simply due to neck tension preventing his shoulders turning and shifting laterally as much as would be optimal — and so it comes as no surprise when his legs come into view from the front that he also slightly internally rotates his thighs towards toe-off, running a bit knock-kneed with the same mechanics as Daniel. I dream of a day that race commentators understand that.
2:33:34 Here you can see Shelley and Chemlany side by side. Shelley as noted earlier is leaning less but here we can also see his hands are farther from his chest than Chemlany’s. That matters though it may seem like a small thing. Any gap between your hands and your chest pushes your upper body backwards, meaning that despite his longer torso and shorter legs, Shelley could be leaning more and benefiting from it. To do that, though, he’d need more upper body mobility overall.
If you’ve got a bit of time on your hands, watch the rest of the race. It’s great. And whatever Australian distance running is doing to cultivate this beautiful, functional form seen in the men’s and women’s races, I hope they keep it up!
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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.