Running is not just as simple as you thought


ATHLETICS:Ultimately, correct running style takes practice, and lots of it. Once it's achieved there is no turning back, but it may mean getting out there every day, writes Ian O'Riordan 

ACCORDING TO a poll just carried out by the San Juan Daily News, the three most fashionable New Year's resolutions for 2009 were to lose weight; to stop smoking; and to spend less. These, I suspect, are the same New Year's resolutions least likely to survive past the first couple of weeks of 2009.

There is hope, however, for anyone who has decided their resolution is to start back running - or even to start running for the first time. They will almost certainly lose some weight; definitely want to stop smoking; and probably end up spending less. This is partly based on the idea that the lure of running can be highly addictive, and therefore likely to last well past 2009.

And running, as everyone knows, is the simplest and most pleasurable form of physical exercise. Most of the time anyway. The problem is that it is often made painfully complicated by bad running style. There is a big difference between the right and wrong techniques of running - particularly if it is to be a long-term pursuit.

I was thinking about this on New Year's morning when leading a small band of local recruits on a run down Sandy Beach, the 13-mile stretch of Caribbean shoreline on the surfing side of Puerto Rico. Everything about running on a sandy beach like this demands total attention to correct running style. And more so given the night before we'd all succumbed to Hemingway's travel tip for the Caribbean: preserve water, drink rum.

My first word of advice then was to start out slow. "Painfully slow," I said, and by this I meant running well within ourselves. Nothing will ruin the prospect of an accomplished run more effectively than starting out too fast. This goes for all levels of fitness, but especially for anyone just starting back. Even the Kenyans start out painfully slow on their morning runs, a practice known as the "Kenyan shuffle".

When running on sand starting out fast is not an option anyway. The sand around here is firm and flat in some places, loose and rough in others. Although it is one of the most beautiful places to go running, when the curved shoreline and occasional sand dune is taken into account, it's definitely not the easiest.

No wonder then that for years some of the world's finest distance runners have often included a period of sand dune running in their Olympic preparations. Percy Cerutty, who some may remember as coach to the great Australian miler Herb Elliott, made it one of his trademark sessions, and not just because of the demanding nature of the terrain.

Cerutty grew up in extreme poverty and in 1942, at age 47, his health had failed so dramatically he decided to do something dramatic about it. He adopted a raw-food diet and embarked on a violent exercise regime. Five years later, at 52, he ran a marathon in exactly three hours.

Cerutty also became obsessed with correct running style. He studied the movements of animals and birds compared to humans, and figured out for himself ways in which we can learn from them. To master his trade, he took his pupils to the sand dunes of Portsea, on the Victorian coast. Running barefoot on sand, he said, was the first step towards developing correct running style.

The first rule he tried to instil was that we run with the legs, not on them - this was perhaps the most important factor in correct running style. "Shift all your weight to your upper body," Cerutty would say, as that would create the conscious effort to run with the legs, not on them. This takes some practice.

Running barefoot on sand also demands lifting the leg with each stride, rather than landing on it - to focus that landing on the ball of the foot, rather than the heel. This is a good thing, and if done properly the runner appears to float over the surface.

Any style of running that veers towards the opposite, as in pounding the surface, will inevitably result in that most common of injury, "runner's knee", or else the vague yet nonetheless equally cursed injury known as "shin splints". So float, don't pound.

No amount of conscious effort to run with the legs, not on them, will create the correct running style unless the hips are properly positioned. Over the years, several coaches have emphasised this. Cerutty used to say the pelvis was like a bowlful of water, and any tilting, either forwards or backwards, would allow this water to spill.

Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike, had a blunter rule for his students at the University of Oregon. The hips, he said, must be held up and forward at all times, "as if in the moment of deepest penetration". If anyone is running in a chicken-like position with their backside sticking out then they're not running correctly.

When the lower body is sorted, the carriage of the arms, chest and shoulders can be addressed, but with equal emphasis. In fact, Cerutty identified the thumb as one of the most neglected components of correct running style, the one thing that separates us from four-legged animals, but can also connect us to them. Only when the thumb is properly engaged, slightly pressed against the forefinger, can the hands and arms can become an equal driving force, a sort of two front legs. And as George Orwell said a long time ago "four legs good, two legs bad". It helps too to get a rhythm going between the arms and legs - even a visual rhythm. The Japanese marathon runners are trained to "step over the barrel" with each stride and this works particularly well.

Once the arms are carried correctly, the shoulders will naturally drift back, and likewise, the chest stick out. It almost goes without saying that the chest is the sub-conscious engine of the runner, the consequences of neglecting this not worth considering. But running hunched over with the chest compressed is like driving around on four flat tyres with a trailer-load of cement.

However, the true engine of the runner is the heart and lungs - and that's where oxygen comes in. Breathing in and out efficiently is inevitably related to improving levels of fitness, yet Noel Carroll, co-founder of the Dublin marathon, had some good advice: "Don't worry about getting the air out, worry about getting the air in." Slow and steady breathing in is always better than heavy puffing out. Ideally it should be two breaths in for every one breath out.

None of this correct running style - the proper positioning of legs, hips, arms, chest, etc - can be achieved without complete relaxation. Anyone not running relaxed is better off not running at all. I've watched in slow motion the faces of the best Kenyans and Ethiopians, and it looks like they're half asleep.

Ultimately, correct running style takes practice, and lots of it. Once it's achieved there is no going back, but it may mean getting out there every day for some more practice, no matter how busy. Carroll had some good advice on that matter too: "If you find yourself too busy to run on any given day, then you're too busy." And that's my New Year's resolution.