Today I have the second half of my comments on the Great Edinburgh Cross Country 2015, covering the men’s 8k and the women’s 6k. I said last week that the theme that stood out to me across the races was the relationships between the runners arms and spines, so let’s look at the women’s race through that lens.
I have to start by saying I was shocked after watching the two men’s races to see the women go past me with nearly all of them too upright. I have a guideline when trying to work out things about running technique that if nearly all athletes at world class level do something it’s probably not wrong, and if only one or two very accomplished runners do it, it’s not necessarily right. That keeps my attention focused on working to understand how running is already working very well for the people who are immersed in doing it rather than trying to figure out hacks, short-cuts, exceptions to the rule, or “new” ways to run. After all, running is a fundamental human gait, something we evolved to do, and to do it best means to do it the way it’s always been done. Hence the term “natural running,” which I like very much. But I digress.
So I watched the women’s race and saw how upright ALL of them were and felt some anxiety about that since everything I’ve worked out about natural running in the past 12 years has pointed to a forward lean being necessary.
Then I looked at my high-speed video. (You could call it slow-motion but the difference is that instead of shooting 30 frames per second like normal video and then playing it back slower, I shot this at 120 frames per second. When you play it back at 30 you see it in slow-motion, at a quarter of normal speed, but with more detail and information than with video shot at normal speed and played back slowly.) Take a look at their heads, and you’ll see that practically every one nods, with the chin going down near toe-off and back up near footstrike.
That is a classic sign of being too upright. It means your upper body is rocking backwards and forwards within each gait cycle instead of simply being pushed smoothly forwards. It wastes energy.
What you can’t appreciate in the video is how horrendous the weather was. There was a very stiff wind with horizontal sleet and snow. I think they may have been running into the wind at that moment, which could explain why they’re all pushed upright, but it does give us the opportunity to see what happens with the head as a result.
You can clearly see Fionnuala Britton in the long sleeves at the front. I’d been stunned to see her in particular so upright, since my first memory of seeing her at this race in 2012 was of her leaning gorgeously forward and simply flowing over the landscape. Unfortunately, Emilia Gorecka, who won and whose running I particularly wanted to write about, is somewhat hidden by other runners in my video and I captured only one lap before my camera blew over and I decided I should put it away. So we’ll turn to official videos to discuss further.
The highlights video has excellent picture quality but the look you get at the runners is really brief, so it’s also worth looking at the grainy longer video from about 4 minutes onwards.
Watching Gorecka, you’ll see arm movements that bear some resemblance to Heath and Ritzenhein, as I discussed last week. The impression of flailing is magnified by the fact that she has quite long arms and wide shoulders, and also by the comparison with Britton, whose arms are well connected to the movement of her trunk. Gorecka does it for the same reason as Heath and Ritz, as you’ll see from looking at her rounded back.
Her body is obviously different from the men’s, and as near as I can tell she’s flexing forward from a specific area, in her lower thoracic spine around her diaphragm. Women often flex in this area due to compression from the bottom elastic band of their sports bras, and it’s a major performance issue because it interrupts the transmission of force through their bodies and it also interferes with breathing. Gorecka appears to have quite a large ribcage, and sports bras don’t usually have enough variables to accommodate a runner with a large ribcage but not large breasts, and so a runner like her can end up getting really squeezed around the lower ribs.
I don’t of course know for sure if that’s going on – assessing bra fit via video is beyond the scope of my expertise! – but this is a distinctive problem women runners face, and I encourage every woman runner never to compromise their ability to breathe or to move freely in the spine or ribcage. If you feel any tension or pressure from the bottom elastic band of your bra, it’s going to affect your movement and breathing.
Another cause of this kind of situation can be core training – if the core exercises a runner does promote excessive flexion and they don’t work enough on extension, rotation, and lateral flexion in their training, she can end up curled forward like this.
A third possible cause is just the amount of sitting and screen time in modern life, and professional runners are not exempt from this. Children may grow up spending a lot of time flexed, sitting to use computers, watch TV, play video games, and use mobile phones etc., and not nearly as much time playing actively as previous generations. Adults may also spend their non-running time this way. It affects us, all of us, including these folks.
But whatever the cause of Gorecka’s trunk flexion, the fact is that she does it. You can see that the restricted rotation of her ribcage due to that flexion results in her shoulders moving up and down fairly independently of her ribcage as she pumps her arms. When she’s filmed from the front you can also see the bottoms of her shoes before her feet hit the ground, and this trunk flexion is the reason why.
I have a hunch that having wide shoulders is an asset for a runner, and if Gorecka can allow her lower thoracic area to lengthen, rotate, and shift laterally instead of clutch in flexion then we will get to see even more of her considerable ability realized.
Now a few words about tall men, long trunks and arms, and armswing. I mentioned and pointed out Tom Lancashire last week in my discussion of the 4k, and you can see a similar body type and running style in Chris Derrick, winner of the men’s 8k:
Though Lancashire and Derrick don’t run exactly the same they both prevent their hands from rising above roughly the bottom of the breastbone on the forward swing. You can compare this to Asbel Kiprop in the 4k, also a tall runner though admittedly a bit more in the legs and less in the torso than the other two. He keeps his hands very close to his ribcage and lets them rise to his heart on the forward swing. Here again is the 4k video I shared last week:
Last week I said Lancashire and Derrick keep their upper arms close to their sides. I’ve since spent a lot more time scrutinizing it and realized that’s wrong; actually their upper arms move about the same as everyone else’s but they stop the upwards momentum of their lower arms. That’s why their trunks look stiff to me (especially Derrick). It’s because of the tension required to stop the armswing where they stop it. Kiprop gives an impression of having a more fluid, mobile upper body and it’s because he doesn’t do this extra bit of work. For more about why to move your arms this way, read this post.
The muscular effort to stop the lower arms from swinging to the heart, and also to control their movement so far in front of the chest, stiffens the upper body and interferes with the ability to rotate it, reducing the essential core action of running. This movement pattern can come about by an effort or just a habit of keeping the hands low, or from an effort or habit to keep from moving the torso too much. Doing too many planks can create this problem, for example.
What Kiprop is doing is easier, and Derrick and Lancashire would benefit from doing it too. The core action functionally shortens and lengthens the torso through the gait cycle and turns a long torso from a biomechanical challenge into an asset. Optimal core action seems to come more naturally to runners with short-to-average torsos but when runners with long torsos learn to do it (as I have seen in my practice over and over again) they feel and look looser and more fluid, and run faster.
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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.