Watching Galen Rupp and Mo Farah running side by side is endlessly fascinating. They are the Odd Couple of men’s track.
Rupp channels his height into a clean lean, moving primarily in the frontal plane (bending/shifting side-to-side) and using very little rotation of his pelvis or upper body. In fact I’m always amazed at how little he turns his upper body and thus how contained his legs are. His form is in this respect the distance running equivalent of Usain Bolt, who uses a version of this strategy in contrast to nearly all of his competitors.
Perhaps this is an effective strategy for a tall runner, though I’m pretty sure Rupp would benefit from more movement in the transverse plane, and one of those benefits would be easier breathing due to less tension in the upper abs and intercostal muscles (between the ribs). Since he’s known to have asthma, that would not be an inconsequential benefit.
Farah, by contrast, moves large in all three planes of motion: sideways, rotating, and forward/backward movement (or frontal, transverse, and sagittal if you prefer terminology). His long legs churn in a huge range of motion and he can easily be picked out of any crowd by how much his head, shoulders, and back are moving.
In my analysis of runners in the women’s 10,000 meters I wrote extensively about head movement. Unlike Ayana in the women’s race, Farah doesn’t try to stop his head from moving — the way he runs pushes it dramatically backward and forward, and the harder he runs the more it goes. It takes a ton of extra energy.
It seems to me his lean has improved, and his upper body movement was actually reduced compared to past years, though towards the end of the race it did increase.
Overall the men’s field ran quite well, a pleasure to watch and not much to discuss. But Farah did delight me by pulling my favorite trick in the last lap, the same one Paul Tergat used to beat Hendrick Ramaala in the 2005 NYC marathon: he saved his arms till he needed them.
Through the race Farah kept his hands close to his heart, and even through the final curve as he ran down Paul Tanui (who was pumping his arms hard) he held them there. Then just as he pulled even he began moving his forearms through a larger range of motion, accelerating towards the finish line so definitively there was no question of the outcome.
Unfortunately I can’t show you video of this moment in Rio because with the Olympics still ongoing all the video is still restricted by national boundaries, and nothing is up on YouTube. That will change over time, all the athletics videos are eventually posted on YouTube in good HD, so if you’re reading this long after the Olympics are over, go look for video.
Here, however, is a great clip of Tergat and Ramaala. Watch Tergat’s beautiful, compact, metronomic arm movement beginning around 7:12, and then at approximately 8:05 you’ll notice it’s starting to get bigger, and by the finish line it’s quite a large movement. Ramala doesn’t have anything different to do that what he’s already doing, and doing it any faster is beyond him at that moment, so he loses.
I love it when runners use technique so explicitly. It works, and there are many tricks like this one that can make the difference in key moments — even moments when the legs can’t be asked for more. Technical control is a powerful asset indeed.
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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.