In case you haven’t heard, Priscah Jeptoo just won the New York City marathon and thereby the World Marathon Majors as well. She also won the London marathon this past April, and that’s just the marathons she’s won this year, never mind other distances, other years, and other positions on the podium.
In case you haven’t seen her run, take a wee look at this video clip of her winning:
Everyone talks about her gait because it defies some of our most basic assumptions about good form. This knock-kneed style has traditionally been associated with overpronation and is the main thing you’re usually checked for when you shop for running shoes. We would expect a person running like that to have stopped running a long time ago due to pain and injury and definitely not to be so fast! So how does she do it?
To be frank, I don’t really know. But I’ll share with you a few things I do see that might begin to suggest an answer.
Take a look at that video again and cover her legs with your hand. Looking at her from the hips up, does she look very different from other elite Kenyans? Would you have any idea what her legs are actually doing? I think there’s very little difference between her and others from the hip joints upwards. Perhaps she flings her arms a bit more than the average, but then again they are a lot longer than the average. Other than that she looks quite normal.
Now look again at how she looks from the side. Can you tell her legs are doing anything unconventional? Not really.
We obsess about the legs when we consider running form. If you’ve read or watched anything else from me or The Balanced Runner™ you know we believe this is a mistake. Your running form is your whole body, and in some ways your legs may be the least important part.
In the coverage I watched online there was a bit of dialogue between announcers who thought they weren’t being broadcast. I didn’t hear it all because my four-year-old had just jumped on my back and I can’t seem to find it by googling, but one of them said something like, “How on earth does she do that?! Maybe she’s doing it right and we’re all doing it wrong.” It’s worth looking at her form from this perspective, because while winning major marathons doesn’t mean you’re doing everything right, you have to be doing something right.
The thing that stands out to me, particularly when looking at her from angles where you can’t see that her legs are doing anything unusual, is how clean and steady her lean is. It likely matters less how well force is directed through you legs when you’ve organized your body so well to release your weight from your feet at toe-off. The worse you lean, the harder you have to push, especially towards the end of stance, and that wastes a lot of energy and causes a lot of stress. In that case it would be disastrous to have legs that internally rotated so much. For Jeptoo it’s less of a big deal.
The other thing that has always stood out to me is how lightly she lands. The upside of legs that don’t direct force well is that they’re less likely to brake excessively. She seems to skim over the road, and that is hard to argue with.
In this interesting little video from The Running Center you can see Jeptoo attempting to kick, and the misdirection of the force she generates really does look to me like it’s costing her.
Perhaps this is why she excels at the marathon and half-marathon instead of shorter distances; she’s less often in this situation and can accelerate more gradually over longer periods of time, taking advantage of the momentum created with her lean rather than having to push really hard into the ground.
So that’s where I think Priscah Jeptoo is doing things right that many of us may well be doing wrong. I can also share with you my hunch as to why she uses her legs this way. Generally speaking, a runner who has too little movement of the trunk will likely resort to an eggbeater movement of the legs, and I think this is the case with Jeptoo. You can see what this looks like in a very different level of runner in the following video.
My usual way of describing this is that if your weight – meaning your torso – doesn’t move to each of your legs, your legs will have to move underneath your weight. So your knees come to your midline.
Similarly with the somewhat flailing arms – that kind of movement normally signals an upper body that doesn’t turn enough. Essentially she’s counterbalancing her legs with the movement of her arms rather than doing it with her thorax, which would be a bit more economical and give her more ability to kick when needed by directing force through the legs better.
We also, of course, must remember that good running form is only one of many qualities that a runner may marshal to win, and the best form doesn’t necessarily win – better conditioning, better strategy, better nutrition or psychology or preparation or sleep or many other elements may lead to great performances from runners who don’t have the best form. We see that all the time, and it’s one of the reasons there’s so much confusion about what actually is good form.
My good fortune is to be a Feldenkrais practitioner with movement training that allows me to see what people are actually doing when they move and a motor education method that lets me help runners significantly change their form so we can learn by comparing them to themselves before and after our work rather than to each other.
So as for the people who say they find Jeptoo difficult to watch, I would say that once I get over my initial astonishment and remember that she says she finds her gait comfortable, I always enjoy watching her skim relentlessly to victory. By all measures that matter, that’s really quite good form.