Nike’s carefully engineered attempt to shepherd three runners towards breaking 2:00 for the marathon this morning was amazing to watch. If you missed it here’s the replay:
For me, watching these runners tackle this huge goal and understanding the work of the team behind them was a powerful reminder of how inspiring sport can be.
Three Very Different Runners
The three runners Nike selected for this project are Lelisa Desisa (last, in white), Eliud Kipchoge (middle, in red), and Zersenay Tadese (first, in grey). They also had a fleet of amazing pacers.
As you can see right away, Desisa is having a tough time with his hip flexors. As he passes his stance foot and his hip flexor runs out of play, it pulls his pelvis into a deeper anterior tilt and he arches his back to keep from face planting. Hence the deep lumbar curve, expanded chest, and retracted head.
Let me emphasize that anterior pelvic tilt is necessary for running, particularly at high speeds. But hip flexors that won’t lengthen enough for adequate stride length increase that with a strong pull and the nervous system reacts to protect the runner. Trying to run fast while this is going on is a terrible feeling.
I didn’t recall seeing this to such a degree previously in Desisa’s running. A quick scan of Google images shows he has a modest habit of running like this, but nowhere near the severity of today. Perhaps travel tightened up his hips (airplane seats are a major culprit for doing this) perhaps stress and anxiety tightened his posas (which it can definitely do), or perhaps his nervous system was reacting to something about the special shoes, which I was concerned about when I learned about the graphite plate.
I’m sure I understand imperfectly how those shoes work, but I do know there’s no such thing as free energy, so an extra spring in the shoes to propel a runner forward will also have to be loaded with each step–a kind of effort different from simply running. It seems likely to me that the work of loading the spring will happen in the opposite direction that the spring creates propulsion–namely pushing the runner backwards a little with each step.
Skipping forward to Tadese, I’ve watched his technique with interest for years. His head is quite distinctly forward, with a relaxed and wide upper back. Most of the time when runners move their heads forward like this, they counterbalance it by moving their backs upright, destroying their forward lean. However somehow Tadese also maintains a significant forward lean–you can see it’s slightly more than Kipchoge’s.
Runners tend to be so concerned about not slouching, hunching, or rounding any part of themselves that they end up harming themselves with the excess tension they use to straighten up. I’ve always felt that Tadese’s big lean and large head movement, though it may look sloppy, is a huge asset for his running.
I’ve written about Kipchoge’s form before with great admiration. Today he was a marvel of economical movement and internal focus. Particularly clear from the side view is his head placement exactly in line with his torso (on a forward angle)–something I teach via this lesson. Kipchoge is more of a frontal plane runner than a transverse plane one, meaning he uses less rotation of his upper body and pelvis, and more lateral action.
I must say, it was with great pleasure I watched that little gizmo attached to the center back of his waistband move side to side, showing his pelvic rotation (movement in the transverse plane). That’s often hard to see in runners but here, thanks to that reference point, it was crystal clear.
Fatigue and the Right Side
Kipchoge’s perfect form remained intact to the very end, though small “tells” of his fatigue appeared in the last few kms. First, his lean reduced slightly, his head moving back a small but significant amount.
Second, and most interestingly, asymmetry suddenly appeared in his running. His head shifted rightwards, oscillating from his right foot to between his two feet rather than from right to left. Though I didn’t get good screenshots showing that, I did capture these just before the end.
Note his right hand is closed and his left hand is open. The muscular tonus of the hands is connected to the tonus of the entire body and shows us the same thing his head movement does: the right side is shortening and contracting.
It was, in fact Kipchoge’s shoe insole mishap in the Berlin Marathon 2015 that first alerted me to the prevalence of this kind of asymmetry, and in this event it was interesting to note that not only Kipchoge, but in fact all three runners shortened on the right side as they fatigued.
Here you can just make out Tadese’s head oscillating over the right leg as he approaches the finish line, just like Kipchoge’s did.
And here you can see from behind that Desisa bends right, shortening from shoulder to hip, regardless of which foot he’s on. And when he’s on his right foot the bend is extreme.
Shortening from shoulder to hip is in fact the mechanism pulling all three men’s heads to the right. And all three, immediately after crossing the finish, staggered immediately to the right and had more difficulty lifting their right foot from the ground than the left. (Of course, the foot that your head is vertically aligned with is the foot that will be harder to pick up.)
So here’s my question to the scientists involved in this project: next time, would this phenomenon be a factor to consider in improving performance when fatigue sets in?
Honestly I’m a skeptic about mechanical and technological help substituting for natural human function because there are always unintended consequences. But if you’re going to put springs in the shoes and aerodynmic stickers on the shins, might it make sense to work out whether it’s the disproportionate weight of the liver that causes this universal asymmetricality or some other phenomenon. (And then please tell me what the answer is!)
And then, say, add a little weight at the base of the neck on the left side to exert pressure in the other direction to relieve runners of the effort they make to correct for this when they’re fresh and struggle with it when they’re tired?
Nah, scratch that about the weight, as there will be unintended consequences. But at least figure out the reason so we know what we’re dealing with. A lot of runners with runner’s knee on the right side, Achilles tendonitis on the right side, piriformis syndrome on the right side, plantar fasciitis on the left, and IT band syndrome on the left will thank you. In fact, it will move the whole sport forward.
27 thoughts on “Nike Breaking 2 Project Running Form Analysis: Kipchoge, Tadese, Desisa”
Fascinating read Jae. Thank you for posting it so soon!
Couldn’t help but write about it, Sue! 🙂
Could the asymmetric fatigue be simply due to the direction they were turning on their loop?
It is a natural conclusion, Travis…see the other comments here and my responses.
As a non-runner I found this fascinating and informative. Thank you.
My pleasure, Gillian!
Hello, Jae, love your website, and great analysis of these runners.
I see this type of pattern – this right-sided asymmetry – pervasive in so many runners (as in a 80:20 or 90:10 ratio). One theory I have is all the left turns in competitive track running. Left turns =
– increased right genu valgum
– increased right pelvis shift (frontal plane)
– increased left trunk shift
– …thus compensatory sidebent right cervical
Keep up the great analysis & writing! -Joe
Joe, so great to hear from someone else who has seen what I’m talking about. I originally thought it might have something to do with the track as well but then I started asking my clients and many of them have never run on a track. The chicken and the egg may be in the other order–I don’t know where the custom to run counterclockwise on the track came from (surely someone reading this does and will clue me in), but perhaps people gravitated towards it because it matched an existing pattern in our movement.
Do you notice a correlation between people being left footed or right footed or with their hands?
Well that’s the thing, Roger. Definitely no correlation with handedness, and we don’t have ‘footedness’ the same way we have handedness. We have a preferred standing leg and a preferred gesture leg. And the preferred standing leg is nearly always the left, unless some history of injury complicates matters. The preferred gesture leg is the right. And that is exactly the asymmetry I’m talking about here.
Isn’t it likely that in this case the one sided issues were caused by 18 laps of a same direction course? I believe they were turning left but I would think all those turns would still add up to cause some issues. Maybe better to switch directions next time…
Tyler, I agree with you that 18 laps in the same direction doesn’t seem too great for the runners, and I would be inclined to agree that there’s a connection except that I saw this pattern in Kipchoge first in the Berlin marathon, and I see it all the time, in all kinds of runners, including ones who’ve never set foot on any track.
Wow, I loved reading this. I for sure shorten right with my running. After reading this I initially thought “oh that darn liver.” Yet, the heart is orientated on the left side of the body, and if I’m not mistaken, the heart weighs more than the liver. Factoring in just those two organs, the pull should be to the left. But again, that’s only factoring in two organs.
I always thought the liver was the heaviest, but your comment made me go google it, and sure enough the average adult liver weighs 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs) and the average adult human heart weighs 250-350 g, or about 1/6 as much. So the heart is nowhere near enough of a counterbalance. I’m tempted to wax poetic about this and/or to make wisecracks about weighing down the hearts of the next set of runners to undertake this challenge, but maybe I’ll just leave well enough alone.
Interesting analysis. The hyperextention of Desisa is ridiculous and I’ve never seem him do that. In 2014 he raced close in a half marathon close to home and Youtube videos show his posture was nothing like this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4mSBs679YI
Your theory that this would be a manifestation of wearing a spring loaded shoe is interesting. But what has that to do with the hyperextension?
Would have been great to zoom into this pics, but can’t do it through a PC.
Thanks, Ron, for the confirmation of how unusual this was for Desisa. The process whereby I could imagine the shoes as a potential cause is that if the spring in the shoes is loaded as weight comes onto the forefoot, that means there’s a little resistance to weight coming onto the forefoot that isn’t usually there. People respond differently to sensations like this, but one way would be to contract the hip flexors to avoid putting weight on the forefoot as much as usual to avoid that feeling of resistance. I have no idea if this was actually happening for Desisa, it’s just one possibility.
thank you for posting this.
i was reading this article and your article on your website (https://www.balancedrunner.com/footstrike/)
and i have a question on the last section of your article:
**The solution is to learn to power your running through a healthy core action that balances the activity in your flexor and extensor muscles (the ones that stretch your body out).**
what kind of specific workouts would these be to improve/strengthen the flexor and extensor muscles? maybe i am also not stretching these muscles enough post workout.
It’s not about stretching or strengthing, but about learning the coordination. Try the free lesson you can get on that page and you’ll see what I mean.
The person I always love watching is Lagat, particularly in this race while he was pacing. How well do you think his form would work for an entire marathon?
I enjoy watching Lagat, but I think he lacks the lean and the freedom in his head that he would need to do his best in the marathon. He’d have to learn those.
Love the analysis and comments. Yes the liver is much heavier than the heart and the thickest widest heaviest part of it is lateral and the spleen on the left side doesn’t match it for weight and size. We say the heart is left but about 3/4 of it is on the left and 1/4 on the right of midline. I hadn’t heard the expression gesture leg before? I am intrigued by he stat that 90% of people have the Left standing leg and the bias to be shorter on the Right. I guess the personal project is to find how to function well with asymmetry and reduce the differences when they impact with injuries, pain and loss of function. Having done the Running camp before it goes a long way to balancing out the extremes.
Made a quick video looking at their form from the breaking 2 attempt, and slowing it down a bit: https://youtu.be/Wt5iyMyJqR8
Thanks for sharing, Nate!
Kipchoge asymmetry in the hands is not due to fatigue. Most of the time he runs like this, even in the beginning of races. Left hand with the ring is open, and the right is slightly more fisted.
About the head bends to the right- I think it is due to the breathing pattern which always creates asymmetry. When they take the deep breath, they probably do it on the right foot and to get maximum air into the lungs they stretch the trapezius muscle by lowering the shoulder- that’s why it looks like this. Maybe it’s more prominent when they are tired. Most runners breath 2-2, which means exhaling on the same foot creating asymmetry.
Thanks for sharing that observation about Kipchoge’s hands, Ido. Whatever a runner does when tired is what they were actually doing the whole time, but when they were fresher they had enough extra energy to correct for it. The hands are a great indicator of this for Kipchoge. As for breathing pattern, people usually exhale when they’re on a foot and inhale in the air or over a sequence of steps. I’ve polled some of my students as to which foot they start their exhale on (likely also the foot they start their inhale on) and the answer was mixed. But the asymmetry I talk about in this post isn’t mixed–it’s always short on the right side. And even if people commonly started their inhale on the right foot, then we would have to figure out why *that* is… as the saying goes, it’s turtles all the way down. 🙂
Hi Jae, could it be simply that they are right-handed? It is well known in the tennis world that if you are a right-handed player your right shoulder is lower than your left shoulder. For left handed players, the left shoulder is lower. If the shoulder is lower, the head moves easier to that side and when you’re fatigued it’s more difficult to get it back to the other side to balance when you’re standing on the other side’s leg. It would be interesting to see a left handed runner at the end of a marathon…
That totally makes sense for a sport that actually involves the use of the arms asymmetrically–then of course handedness matters. But I can tell you with total certainty based on 18 years of working with runners that handedness makes no difference to this pattern in a runner unless they also play tennis or a similar sport.