Did you catch Bekele’s marathon debut in Paris this morning? Watching it, I felt the ease I always feel watching Bekele. His running form works so well it’s as soothing as the ticking of a clock, no matter how otherwise exciting the event.
I was particularly struck this morning with how perfectly his head moves side to side so that the base of his neck is exactly over his stance foot. Take a look:
I sometimes joke that running is always about moving the ball across the line. This isn’t just true in football/soccer/rugby games, but all the time. Every runner is always moving the only ball that matters: their head. One way to assess a runner’s form is to consider how efficiently they move their head down the road or track. Moving the head over the stance foot allows it to be supported when ground reaction force is highest, then pushed forwards and up through late stance into flight. The better you place your head to make the most of the force transmitted through your foot and leg, the more easily you run. I looked at this in the sagittal plane in this post comparing the running form of Farah, Bekele, and Gebrselassie and talked about it in this analysis of the Great Edinburgh Cross Country race as well.
You see the sideways movement of the head in nearly every sprinter, and you see it in distance runners as well though to varying degrees. If you’ve ever run fast and well barefoot, you’ve definitely done it yourself – barefoot running encourages this because of how well you can feel the ground and organize your movement around that information.
You can see Usain Bolt doing it here (specifically check out the slow motion at 9:38 and the overhead shots starting at 12:38):
Speaking of Usain Bolt, there’s more information to be gleaned from his head movement in this video, and from Bekele’s Paris marathon run as well: the signs of hamstring trouble. Notice how Bolt’s head moves quite far to the right but not nearly as far to the left. It oscillates to the right of center, in other words. Bolt has had a trouble on a number of occasions with his right hamstring, and when that happens the head and upper body usually stay over the injured leg, never moving fully off it. This increases the force with which the injured leg swings forward – increasing the demand on the hamstrings – and creates difficulty in propelling the head and upper body off it during late stance.
The same thing showed during the portions of the Paris marathon when Bekele was having hamstring trouble. His trouble was with his left and occurred in two episodes during the race. During both those episodes his head oscillated slightly to the left of center. In between the episodes his head returned to oscillating evenly from right to left. It doesn’t show in the clip here, but if you’re able to find a full race replay, watch for it.
This particular movement pattern has a chicken-and-egg relationship to the hamstring stress we see it with. Which came first, the movement or the pain? I don’t know the answer for either of these men, but regardless, if one can change the movement without forcing it, the pain improves. Stress, cramp, pain, and injury while running are never isolated in one part of the body. There’s always a whole-body pattern, and if you’re attuned to the changes in your movement throughout yourself when they happen you have more resources to help re-balance your form and ease the pain.
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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.