The Great Edinburgh XCountry 2016: Mo Farah, Garrett Heath, and Wasted Energy

If you follow running you’ve probably already heard that Mo Farah was beaten by Garrett Heath in yesterday’s Great Edinburgh XCountry 8km race. In the UK it’s on the front page of all the papers, and it was up on virtually immediately. There is, however, another way to look at the race.

This is the third time in a row I’ve had the pleasure of watching Heath win. He handles the mud and the hills and the wind by shifting the weight of his trunk to where it’s needed instead of trying to balance himself with arm movements. This helps him make the most of his momentum, and that has been very consistent.

I was surprised, however, to see that his trunk seemed more flexed than last year. I know he used to be a cross-country skier as well as runner, and I wondered if he’s been skiing lately, as the kind of mid-to-upper back rounding he’s doing is exactly what you do when you skate ski. As fast as he’s running, this costs him and it would be amazing to see what he could do at this point if he allowed his back to straighten out.

Mo Farah was a different story. I’ve written about his running before, and how having his head behind the line of force from his foot makes it bob and costs him energy.

There was no sign of that phenomenon yesterday. He leaned forward at least as much as anyone else, or even more so. His head moved quite smoothly forward, and his ability to let his ribcage move easily from side to side worked beautifully to accommodate to the terrain and help create that smoothness.

I would love to know whether he’s been working on it or whether it was simply trying to keep from slipping in the mud that caused him to move his head to where it needed to be. Treacherous terrain, after all, gives us the best feedback on how we’re moving.

I would say that Farah didn’t waste any of his energy with suboptimal technique in this race. He made the most of the fitness he had, and what the significance of that may be I’ll have to leave to other commentators.

Trying to avoid wasting energy is a guiding principle of running technique. The idea is that you should do only what’s necessary to cover ground, and no more. It’s an important principle, but how do you determine what movements waste energy?

All too often people give technique advice based on assumptions about what wastes energy. I wrote about a classic one last week: the front-to-back arm swing. The idea that you should swing your arms only front-to-back is usually justified by saying something like, “In running you want to move forward, so you should make sure all the movements you make go only forward. Any side-to-side movement wastes energy.”

In theory it sounds reasonable. But not a single elite runner in any of the three senior races of the Great Edinburgh XCountry swung their arms front-to-back. They would have slipped around like crazy, and they could feel that (even if only subconsciously), so they just didn’t do it.

I see better gait in these races every year than I do in road races, and the terrain is why. It provides data to the best measurement system we’ve ever had: our nervous systems.

Nonetheless, it’s still possible to waste energy through small amounts of excess motion in a muddy cross country race, and if you look at these three slow-motion videos I filmed of the races Saturday you’ll find some examples. Here’s what to look for:

  • the chest moving suddenly upwards and/or backwards just before toe-off
  • the head moving backwards just before toe-off
  • the opposite shoulder moving backwards just before toe-off
  • a visible bounce in the hands, arms, or shoulders
  • large or wide arm movements

You may have noticed that three of these five examples are just before toe-off. That’s because in the moment when your body is getting pushed forwards and up it’s critical that your whole body be included. If any part of you is positioned too far back at that moment, it gets left behind for an instant, then needs to catch up, and that is a real waste of energy.

If you pay close attention, you can feel these things happen, and the more you pay attention and experiment with your gait the more you’ll be able to feel.

When the terrain is difficult, the feedback you get is much more noticeable. Instead of feeling a tiny extra bounce, your foot slips backwards, and that’s much easier to notice and try to correct.

You can improve your own technique by making sure to run on varied terrain so you get more and different feedback, which will help you feel your body more clearly and learn to organize yourself better. There are probably very few runners who go out the door in the morning hoping to encounter a lot of mud, but if it happens, pay attention and see what you can learn.

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