This weekend brings breaking news in the running world that I feel I must address: David Babcock’s attempt to set a new Guinness World Record for the longest scarf knit whilst running a marathon. While I am not qualified to comment on his knitting, I myself was dying to see how he coordinated knitting with running and what we humble, non-knitting runners might be able to learn from it.
As you can see, he runs quite upright, with his spine perpendicular to the ground. While this is not recommended for non-knitting running, it is unavoidable if you must look at something requiring fine motor skills right in front of your chest. Tucking his chin and looking down immediately in front of his torso pushes his upper body up and back and pulls his feet forward, resulting in a tendency to heelstrike and keep his gait cycle in front of his center of gravity rather than evenly underneath him. It also causes him to run with quite a shortened stride. It might be possible to lean forward, reduce heelstriking and overstriding, increase stride length, and run a little faster if he held his knitting up right in front of his eyes but it would be a lot more work to hold it that high. He would also get very tired shoulders and he’d have to get used to looking at his knitting from the side rather than above, which might lead to more dropped stitches. On the whole, his current strategy is probably the most sensible option.
Take a look at this video for more insight into his technique:
Despite Babcock’s heelstriking, notice how bent his knees are at initial ground contact. This is likely partially due to his minimalist footwear – these look like Soft Star shoes to me, one of my favorites – which give him enough proprioceptive feedback to cause him to soften his leg and reduce the impact and harm that such a pronounced heelstrike could otherwise cause. Remember, not all heelstriking is the same! It makes a big difference how stiff your leg is and how you move your body over your foot after initial contact. Besides, he is running fairly slowly, with very short strides, and with minimal bouncing so the impact force is probably not all that great.
In this regard his knitting is likely helping him stay healthy. The need to be able to focus and control his handwork keeps him running smoothly, at an even, modest pace. We all could learn a thing or two from this.
Another effect of his knitting is that he moves his arms very little relative to his torso and uses gentle rotation of his whole upper body to counterbalance his legs rather than stiffening his torso and swinging his arms harder. He couples together his head, arms, and whole thorax into one gentle, undifferentiated action. This is actually very economical and helps keep his weight well-organized over his legs, since the counter-rotation of the trunk drives the legs and shifts the weight laterally from leg to leg.
Elite East African distance runners use this same strategy, albeit with a bit more stride length! They also move their hands and arms in a similar relationship to their torso as Babcock, though with more independent movement and vigor. But their forward lean, the sliding of their skulls forward on their atlas vertebrae, and their forward gaze would make it impossible for any of them to knit while running, meaning that even though the Guinness World Record Babcock is aiming for has to do with scarf length rather than race time, his time will likely also stand as a record unchallenged by world class runners.
Knitting while running a marathon may sound a little silly – indeed, that’s what made me click on the link to the story on www.letsrun.com. However, if it’s possible to do an activity while running not just a couple of miles, but 26.2, and if a person – more than one person! — would enjoy it enough to want to do it and set a record at it, it must actually work mechanically, and that’s what makes it of interest as more than a simple curiousity. It’s activities like this that demonstrate perhaps more so than standard marathoning that as a species we were born to run, that running is evolutionarily useful to us in highly flexible ways. We can do it beautifully and fast, we can do it while working around a million different kinds of pain and injury, we can do it while carrying all kinds of loads, we can do it while throwing, kicking, pulling, pushing, juggling… and knitting.
Best wishes to David Babcock, who is likely running as I write this. For more about his undertaking, including the opportunity to donate to his charity of choice, the Azheimer’s Association, go to www.donotstaple.com.
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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.