“Run Lola Run” Gait Analysis

People have been asking me to do a gait analysis of Franka Potente’s character Lola in the film Run Lola Run for years. I love this movie and only hesitated to write about it because I was afraid only people my age or older would know it. (I was 28 when it came out in 1998–feel free to do the math.)

However a little bit of searching on the internet has revealed it’s considered an important film, and I don’t doubt that a number of film students and film buffs will land on this blog post accidentally, thinking it’s another of many film analyses rather than a sports piece. If that’s you, I hope you’ll stay and read this through, and let me know if you found it at all useful.

If you don’t know the premise of the movie and don’t mind a few spoilers, here’s a 3-minute summary of why Lola is running with such desperation. Otherwise, just watch the film–you’ll thank me, I promise.

Beyond Maximalist

If you’re a runner, I’m confident that the first thing you noticed–with a stab of sympathetic pain in your knees–were the Doc Martens on Lola’s feet. Around the time this movie came out I owned a pair myself. They felt great to stand in–firm, level, stable. But at an average of 1.3 lbs per shoe they were pretty exhausting to trudge around NYC in all day, and I simply cannot imagine sprinting all over Berlin in them.

I’ve always wondered if Potente got injured during filming from the amount of running she did in those shoes. She doesn’t say she was, and not only that, she wasn’t a runner and didn’t train for the film, since her character wasn’t a runner either.

Those Doc Martens are great for doing a running form analysis, because their weight means she doesn’t have much margin for error in her form. If running in them at all is hard, running badly in them would be unsustainable.

World-Class Footstrike

When you see her full body from the side, you see great form. Her leg action is precise and her turnover is flaming fast. Some of that turnover speed may be inertia from the shoes, since once she’s up to speed, they’ll tend to keep moving and it would probably be hard for her to stop suddenly. But in large part it’s because Lola has only 20 minutes to save Manny’s life, and that tends to make the feet fly.

Her leg alignment at footstrike is excellent: bent knees with the lower leg pretty much vertical. The action is comparable to what we see in elite 800 meter runners such as David Rudisha, with the knee less bent during footstrike and stance than in distance running. This video has great slow-motion footage of Rudisha’s world-record run, though ignore the commentary as it’s not all correct.

I recommend you click the gear icon for the playback settings on the Lola video below, and change the playback speed to 0.25 so you can more easily compare to Rudisha’s slow motion footage.

Though Lola’s stride length is shorter and she’s a bit more upright (a result of having her hands so far in front of her chest), the action of the leg and foot coming out of flight into footstrike is very similar. Athletically speaking, Potente may have missed her calling.

An Athlete in the Sport of Being Human

I gather that Potente was an athlete only in the sense that actors are athletes in the sport of being human–often with very diverse physical training–so it’s not surprising to me that she has a great forward lean and core action. Watch her black belt to see her pelvis movement–especially that quick, sharp, down-and-back movement of the hip in late stance, pushing through her leg into the ground.

You tend to see these qualities in people with diverse, well-rounded movement backgrounds, as I explained in this post. Whereas training specifically in running can leave you vulnerable to popular form and coaching errors, as with Tom Cruise in later years.

The weight of the shoes contributes to her lean and core action, because the forces involved in cycling those clodhoppers through space has to be counteracted by the upper body, and that makes trunk counterrotation non-optional. It probably also contributes to Potente’s arms swinging through a larger arc (farther from her body) than would be optimal in reasonable footwear.

Arms and the Feedback Loop

Speaking of Lola’s arms, the front view shows her hands coming basically to her midline, with good upper body rotation. This all varies, however, with Lola’s level of fatigue. The running sequences are repeated three times in the film, with minor variations, and at this point in the third sequence you can see Lola’s fatigue resulting in a much larger shoulder movement and stride length with slower turnover at the beginning of this clip:

It’s easier and thus more efficient to counteract the legs with the shoulders and thorax than to do it with the arms, and it also increases stride length, shifting all her gait mechanics. It also makes her asymmetry very visible, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

As you probably can guess from The Balanced Runner logo, I love an overhead running shot. Here we’re treated to a nice one, in which you can see Lola’s arms going a bit too much front-to-back but you can also see one of my favorite overlooked details about running: the armswing is slightly out of phase with the leg action. That is, the arm doesn’t swing backwards exactly when the leg swings forwards, but just a hair later. You can slow down the playback speed to see that in this clip if you like.

That timing isn’t a particular thing about Lola’s running, but something every single runner does.

My last thought about the arms is this: although Manny’s life is on the line, Lola never opens her hands like a sprinter. Because who does that in real life, no matter the urgency? Has anyone not trained in sprinting ever spontaneously done that as the result of a sensory feedback loop that makes it clear they’ll run faster? This kind of feedback is operating exceptionally well in Lola’s running, and her hands are in runner’s fists, not open like Tom Cruise’s.

My field is long distance running, and I’m a little on the edge of my expertise talking about middle distance form. Sprinting is not in my wheelhouse. But this question has been on my mind for probably about 20 years. Just taking the opportunity to air it again here.

How Her Head Works

The slow-motion upper body closeup reminds me of another extraordinary runner: Kenenisa Bekele. I’ve written about the movement of his head and neck, and you can see the same basic dynamic in Lola’s form.

This is a movement that I seldom see in the North American and European runners I’ve worked with, and another hallmark of good coordination in Potente’s gait.

Catching Her Breath

Going back to that same slow motion on the bridge at Friedrichstraße (I recognized that location!), you get a great look at Lola’s head. She does a wonderful “face forward” as I call it, or atlanto-occipital extension in combination with a forward trunk inclination so that her face is effectively leading the way.

Without doing this, no one leans forward for long because you end up looking at the ground instead of where you’re going. It also opens the airway more than upright posture, and that may have been especially important for Potente because not only is she running hard, but she was a two-pack-a-day smoker at that time as well.

I love how her head starts to tip backwards in exhaustion and she brings it forward again, over and over. That backwards head tilt is reminiscent of Sara Hall and, long before her, Sir Roger Bannister. The runner wants more air and is too tired to keep working the anterior neck muscles to fight the air resistance that pushes the head backwards, so back the head goes. But Lola has to keep running, and we see that determination over and over.

Usually when I do a movie gait analysis I can make a distinction between the actor’s running and their character’s running. That’s been hard to do here because the running is so flat-out and deliberately naive, plus the shoes are so heavy. So I think the character Lola’s running form is largely just Franka Potente’s running form as affected by the physical demands of the role. But in this little movement I feel I’m seeing Lola’s character and story.

Lola’s Left Leg… and Yours

It can’t have escaped your attention that Potente’s legs aren’t working the same. As is true for all of us, it’s more visible when she’s tired, like for instance in this clip:

She has what I’ve come to call the “characteristic asymmetry” that we see nearly universally in runners: the right side of the trunk from shoulder to hip is held a bit shorter than the left, with a result that the right leg tends to be turned out and the left leg straight or even slightly turned inwards. I’ve written about this a lot, for instance in my analysis of the first Breaking Two Project.

Potente’s left foot is actually turned out (both feet are, in fact) but her left leg turns in–quite dramatically when she’s tired. You can see her left foot kicking far outwards in swing after she rounds the corner in the clip above. You can also see her left shoulder higher than her right throughout the film, though again, more so when she’s tired.

It’s very difficult to believe the large amount of running, high level of fatigue, and again, those shoes on hard pavement wouldn’t have added up to an injury during filming. I think we just have to chalk it up to the durability of youth.

How She Could Run Better

If I could have given Franka Potente one lesson to do prior to filming Run Lola Run, it would have been this one to help her align her feet and knees better. Even though it’s called Overstriding Quick Fix and that’s not the issue I’m talking about here, it helps you feel the connection between what parts of your feet are taking weight and where your knees are in space so you develop better control. Give it a try if you have a similar difficulty!

What If She’d Run Worse?

Would this movie have been quite as good if Lola’s running had been a mess? I honestly don’t think so. Even though I’ve said I don’t think Potente’s acting included making choices about Lola’s running form, her intensity and urgency make all the time we spend watching her run feel a little like watching a great race. It’s not only the speed and competition, but also watching the runner dig deep and embody a drive well outside what we see in ordinary life.

If we didn’t see running good enough to embody that drive, that feeling of “I wish I were a hunter in search of different food/I wish I were an animal that fit into that mood…” the film would have felt much flatter. Clever, entertaining, but not resonant.

I don’t need to tell you running isn’t just a sport–it’s fundamental to our humanity. We do it to survive and to help others survive. Whatever else makes Run Lola Run a great film, it’s also running that can truly meet the this primal need.

2 thoughts on ““Run Lola Run” Gait Analysis”

  1. Hi Jae,

    I was a 2nd language teacher (now retired) in Belgium and used the film in class.
    Great movie. Great fun. And I admired Potente’s running ability.

    Also had the great luck of seeing Kenenisa Bekele running a 10k on a small track near my home. Up close and fascinating!



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