Learning About Running Form from the Lord of the Rings

Thanks to a Facebook post from The Natural Running Center I recently learned of an important new film about running: There and Back and There and Back Again: a Lord of the Rings Recap, in Running Shots.

Obviously I’m taking a tongue-in-cheek approach here but the truth is I love looking at images of running in art and always learn from it. When a coach or other professional does a running form analysis they always film the runner from the side, and sometimes from the front and back. I’m fed up with side-only form analysis, it misses more than it captures, and even with the addition of front and back there’s still a lot left to be desired. But enter an artist’s eye or a filmmaker’s eye – and budget! – and you get rotating shots, aerial shots, unusual terrain and demands, functionality and expressiveness and a view of running that’s way more kinesthetic, diverse, and informative than in a sports environment. So this compilation of running clips from the Lord of the Rings series is a lovely little morsel, tasty and chewy and nutritious… let’s dig in!

What follows is a list of moments about which I have something to say. You might want to watch the video as a whole first to get general impressions and let your eyes adjust, then go to each of these landmarks to watch the few seconds of footage with my commentary in mind.

One last preliminary: I’ve decided to talk about the characters rather than the actors, on the theory that they may be acting as they run and I have no way of telling whether this is how they run in their private lives (other than assuming they don’t wear costumes or carry weapons). Besides, it’s more fun to talk about the characters.

0:11 Here we see Legolas in the foreground running through a field. While on the whole he is a joy to watch in this video, here he is braking a little – “running in the back seat” people sometimes call it. His legs are a bit in front of him and he’s fairly upright. He’s also looking warily around, and I would call this a functional running pattern for a person who’s wary of the unexpected – positioning himself upright so he can look around as freely as possible and switch from running to planting his feet and pulling his bow at a moment’s notice. There’s not a single “running form mistake” that doesn’t have its proper time and place, and this is the time and place for running upright and keeping your center of gravity just a little bit behind your feet. Even the open hands, normally a silly thing for anyone but a sprinter to do at any time, has a martial use, since it increases the tonus of the whole torso. He’s ready to fight at a second’s notice.

0:16 Okay, this shot captures something about how Aragorn moves that bothered me intensely when I watched the movies – he does it even when walking. I know I said I was going to talk about characters, not actors, but it really looks to me like this guy’s back gives him a lot of trouble. At the very least it’s tight, and I don’t think it’s a way of moving he’s chosen for the character. What am I talking about? Do you see how his head moves a great deal side to side? He leans towards the foot he’s stepping onto. Ouch! His torso is flexed (bent forwards) as well, compromising his ability to lean forwards or to counterrotate his upper and lower body. It’s a very laborious way to run, making his legs heavy, slowing down his stride rate, and promoting heelstriking. All of which we will see him repeatedly do. There is a reason that Legolas looks so fresh and Aragorn looks so exhausted in practically every clip in this video, and this is it. Either that or it’s because Legolas is an elf. But really, you can see that at the same speed Aragorn is working much hard than Legolas.

Oh, and by the way, you can also see Gimli the dwarf braking like crazy going down the hill. You don’t necessarily have to see a person’s feet to know he’s braking, just look at the jolt through his whole body. But, as a dwarf, he is tough and hangs in there.

0:31 Kudos to Frodo for maintaining a lovely lean, not braking at all going downhill (remember what I said about not having to see the feet?), and staying light on his feet to move easily through rough terrain.

0:36 Yes, it’s another downhill running shot, like nearly all the rest of the ones in this video. Perhaps everyone looks more exciting and runs faster downhill.

0:38 Geez, is the second person there Legolas? Whoever it is, it’s a horror of stiff, heel-heavy running. And the person after him doesn’t look so hot either. But everyone after them, especially the hobbits, is leaning into it and running beautifully.

0:43 I live for shots like this. It’s the reason my logo is an abstracted image of a runner from above. You can really appreciate how force is created and what actually moves when you run. But curse all cloaks! We can’t make the most of this opportunity because of them. Nonetheless, watch the hobbits Merry and Pippin, the fourth and fifth runners to cross the bridge. You can see their shoulders turning with a snap, you can get a sense of the counter-churning of their shoulders and hips, and for a glorious split second you can see how the first of them sticks his feet to the bridge and drives himself forward over them with his shoulders.

My husband, whom I had to call upon to confirm these two were Merry and Pippin (he is definitely the guy to ask if you have a question about Lord of the Rings), said to me, “Jae, you know that’s just CGI, right?” Well duh, but each of these characters is running the same way they run in other shots, so the animation is based on real movements generated by the actors and we can talk about it as such. Trust me, this is what a body really does in running, and it matches what helicopters catch in major marathons.

1:11 Let’s just say this: don’t heelstrike running up a steep set of stairs. No matter what desperation is driving you, it doesn’t work very well. The reason it’s happening for this guy (Aragorn, I assume) is that his upper body is flexed, causing his legs to swing in front of him with the feet flexed as well.

1:15 More kudos to Frodo who, aside from a moment’s concern about the Ring bouncing on its chain around his neck, is looking upwards. No matter how steep the hill, look up! It activates your extensors (back, glutes, calves) and gives you more strength. You might even make it all the way to the finish line of the Mount Doom ultramarathon.

1:29 Here we have Legolas again. I unfortunately can’t comment on how to run with a bow in hand, not having tried it, but increasing the length and tonus of the free arm by having it fairly straight with an open hand is probably a sensible strategy. It would help you run more symmetrically, reducing the likelihood of an overuse injury from long-term running with a bow. Also, nice lean! He does a beautiful “face forward,” sliding his head forward on his spine so his chin is farther from his throat than it would be when standing or walking.

1:41 Legolas and Aragorn both know to look up when running uphill as well! But Gimli does not. He stares forwards and down with glazed eyes and lumbers along. You could say he’s doing it because he’s tired and probably hates running anyway, but that is a chicken-and-egg situation.

2:04 Have you noticed how nicely nearly everybody leans nearly all the time? Except here. You’d have to be crazy to lean forwards going down a slope this steep. Like I said, every “running form mistake” has its time and place, and good form is simply a matter of learning to do the right thing at the right time.

2:15 I just have to say it, beautiful leaning guys! I’m interested in Gandalf’s technique for running with his staff. It’s different from what Legolas does to deal with his bow, but maybe that’s because it’s bigger and heavier. He holds it parallel to his body and very close and otherwise moves pretty normally, as far as I can tell under that massive cloak. Again, this strikes me as a very sensible thing to do, and probably the best choice for interfering least with his mechanics. Note it’s not upright – even poles have to lean to cope with the forces in running! If he held it perpendicular to gravity it would be much more difficult to control.

2:19 Back views are my second favorite angle for running form analysis. Here you can contrast how little trunk movement Gimli does to how much Legolas does. One of the beautiful things about Legolas’s running is that, despite doing funny things with his arms to cope with the bow, his head movement is so steady and smooth. This is the sign of very supple, well-organized action of his torso – if there’s any hitch in the trunk movement the head shows it. Even though Legolas’s cloak is making it a little harder to see, you can still almost exactly pinpoint the place in his back he counter-rotates, and see his upper body and pelvis working in poweful diagonal patterns. This is also what causes him to use his legs so beautifully. He definitely has the best legs in the cast (from a running perspective).

2:24 How nice the folks who complied this video included horses running! Notice how the riders all lean forward here as though they were running themselves. Regardless of whether the legs you’re running on are yours or another creature’s, a lean directs force properly from the feet to the highest point of the whole entity.

2:43 Yeah, Aragorn is tired. I think we know why.

So now, having gone through this process, I want to put “running with a bow, a staff, and a sword” on my to-do list for 2014. Gotta keep learning, and the more we learn about running of all varieties the more we know about the general thing we call “running form.” Humans didn’t evolve to run only in pure circumstances, with both hands free, completely healthy and unencumbered, on smooth terrain. We used running in all kinds of circumstances, and things like carrying a bow result, not in distortions of running biomechanics, but in valid variations that exemplify the basic principles.

What did you learn from watching this video, and what did you catch that I missed?

4 thoughts on “Learning About Running Form from the Lord of the Rings”

  1. Although , I don’t run with a staff or a bow it is interesting to look at other ways to functionally organize yourself to run. Fast packing is one example. A light pack changes things. As in martial arts balance requirements are different when you change from moving yourself to moving in contact with another human being. Each different situation creates a new system from which to learn

  2. I realize that this post is old, very old, but just wanted to share a detail about the actors’ condition in all those shots where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are running together.

    The actors were all injured. Legolas’ actor had a broken rib, Gimli had some kind of a knee injury and Aragorn’s big toe was broken. I watched some making of’s and the director explained the situation of getting ready to film that epic running montage, only to find out that his three lead actors had become three walking wounded.

    Maybe that explains some of the suffering!

    • Thanks for that info, RK! Good lord, it does explain a great deal. It also underscores what I’ve learned from the actors I’ve worked with–namely that many of them suffer as much or more than the most hardcore runners!


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