Jo Pavey Running Form Analysis, European Championships 2014

This week I was going to write about British runner Jo Pavey’s performance in the Commonwealth Games 10,000 but in the interim she won the gold medal in the 10k at the European Championships! Writing about the more recent and sensational race seems like the obvious choice.

Here’s the fullest video I can find that I’m sure everyone reading will be able to access. It’s rendered in YouTube’s finest definition. (Not.) I’ll do the best I can with what I can see. Please note I watched this in fullscreen mode – if you click on the YouTube icon in the lower right corner you’ll go to YouTube to watch the video and can make it fullscreen. You lose some resolution but in this case you do end up seeing more of the things I’m going to talk about.

It Is a joy to watch Jo Pavey in this race, and it’s the best I’ve ever seen her look. I’ve watched her with interest since she ran in the NYC half marathon in 2011 and at that time I was struck by something distinctive about her form compared to the other elite women I’d seen. I thought of it as “Jo Pavey form” but since moving to the UK and seeing a lot more British distance runners I’ve realized it’s actually quite common here. It’s characterized by excessive tension in the torso, especially the trunk flexors, so that they run fairly upright, with arms a little too low and hands a bit too far from the torso, and a footstrike that seems almost delicate. Though they work very hard they seem to have trouble finding their top gear, and instead seem to struggle with their own bodies when they try to kick.

Put simply, the trunk tension and resulting uprightness really get in the way of running one’s fastest.

However, if memory serves, Pavey has significantly changed how she uses her arms since I first saw her. She used to keep them too low and in front and her fists looked clenched. Now her hands are quite high and very close to her chest, moving in the beautiful ovals that indicate good ribcage movement. Much more efficient and easier, and it’s definitely helping her.

However she’s still doing something with her pelvis and abs most of the time that causes her to bounce more than her chief competitors and use her legs differently. The very interesting thing is that she doesn’t do it all the time – when it counts she lets go of it and can really kick! If she could stick with her “kicking” form all the time it would be wonderful for her.

To begin to see what I mean, take a look starting at 4:00 in the video. With the camera pulled back you can get a general impression of the amount of bouncing the runners are doing. Pavey is the fifth runner; you’ll see her whole torso is a bit more upright than those around her, and you can also see her bounce more. There is a prancing quality to her gait that’s different from the other runners. This prancing is typical of runners who run upright and overstride with a forefoot strike; I don’t necessarily think she’s overstriding (more about that below) but her weight is a little too far back in late stance and so she pushes herself a bit more up and a bit less forward than would be optimal.

From this point onwards if you look closely you can see her alternate between what we’ll call her “prancing form” – pulling her abdomen in so that it’s nearly concave, thus tilting her pelvis backwards till it’s almost upright – and her “kicking form” — relaxing her abdomen, thus allowing her pelvis to tilt anteriorly and her to lean forwards a bit and move more powerfully forward.

I know, I know, everyone says the pelvis is like a bowl of water and good posture means not tilting it so the water spills out either forward or backward. However that doesn’t apply to running because in running you need to lean forward, and so to have your pelvis in line with your spine it has to tilt forward! If you try to pull it upright you’ll end up pulling your whole body upright, behind the force you’re creating with your legs, and as a result you’ll have to tense the muscles on the front of your trunk and do a lot of extra work.

Another effect of pulling your pelvis upright is that it tends to fling your legs out in front of you, and with Pavey’s convenient bright white compression socks it’s easy to see when she does that. We can’t be sure what the angle of her lower leg to the ground is when her foot strikes because of the poor resolution of the video; some people’s lower legs fly forward at the end of the swing phase but then pull back a tiny fraction of a second before they meet the ground, but to see this sort of thing you need high-speed video. So we have to make our peace with not knowing that, but it is certain that none of her immediate competitors fling their lower legs forwards like she does when she’s pulling her abs in and her pelvis upright.

Overall uprightness, uprightness of the pelvis, ab hollowing, bouncing, and having her lower legs swing forward of her knees all go together in an overall coordination pattern. I’ve created a slideshow so you can get a good look at what I’m talking about. I was fortunate to be able to find examples with Pavey running next to another runner who is in exactly the same point in their gait cycle, albeit on the opposite leg. You can easily see the difference between how she moves and how the other runner moves.

There are basically three sections of this slideshow, which I’ve indicated in the captions:

  1. Pavey contrasted with Calvin (about 5:06 on the video) so you can see the difference between their pelvises. Pavey pulling hers upright, hollowing her abs, and Calvin letting hers tilt anteriorly. Calvin could benefit from leaning forward with her upper body as well – her exaggerated lumbar lordosis and near-heelstriking, coupled with the kinesiotape around her knees, suggest that her form is not working terribly well for her — but what she does with her pelvis does help her run more easily than Pavey. (Note: more easily doesn’t mean faster, and obviously she didn’t win, but anything that makes your form more economical is an asset to a runner.)
  2. Pavey kicking to pull ahead of Calvin and pass another runner. She relaxes her abs and lets her pelvis tilt and you can see that it also moves her upper body forward and relaxes her face.
  3. As she begins to pull even with the other runner she begins to tuck her pelvis and tighten her abs again, and she largely maintains this till the end of the race. You can see the differences between her and Calvin again as Calvin tries and fails to catch up. You can also see from the amount of grimacing Pavey is doing at this point that she’s running hard with her torso too upright, resulting in extra effort in her anterior trunk muscles, including the front of her neck and her jaw. Mo Farah is famous for grimacing at the end of races for the same reason Pavey does it here. By contrast, runners who lean more have relaxed faces even when digging very deep.

I think that Pavey may deliberately tuck her pelvis and pull in her abs, since she is able to stop doing it when necessary. Calvin is better off not making this misdirected effort, though she would do well to copy Pavey’s arms and definitely curl her right hand and turn it wrist-inwards, as it flaps under pressure and this makes it very hard to use her back and left glute properly.

For a clearer idea of what a runner should think of to avoid the problems either Pavey or Calvin are having, different as they are, take a look at this running form analysis.

It may seem funny to be finding faults in the form of a woman accomplishing her greatest career achievement so far. But my business is about helping runners maximize the benefit they get from their form, and on that front I think we can see that Pavey has even more potential.

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