How to run. A beginner’s guide…

hamsterwheelOh for pity’s sake. You’ve been running since you were knee high to something very small indeed. Am I really going to tell you how to run?

Well, yes and no. I say no, because while there are many running books that will spend 20 pages discussing the mechanics of running, I’m really not that nerdy a runner. Frankly, the mechanics of running, much like sex, aren’t something you can learn from a book anyway.

I mean, let’s be honest, our younger selves all glanced at the illustrated Kama Sutra in WH Smith and thought ‘Oh, I see, that’s how you do it!’ And then when we’ve finally gotten lucky, we’ve realized that while books can be fascinating things, there are some skills that you really have to work out for yourself as you go along. Preferably in company.

However, I did say ‘yes and no’ to the above question: by which I mean that I intend to discuss the absolute basics of running style here, partly because they’re so basic that most people don’t consider them at all, but mainly because they’re pretty crucial to learning to go the distance.

Head position and posture.

Your head weighs roughly 6lbs. If you have a supermarket handy, why not grab three bags of sugar and check out the combined weight. Quite something, isn’t it?

And so, conventional wisdom has it that your body, and your spinal column in particular, will find the going a lot easier if you try to adopt a fairly upright stance, and try to keep your head on a reasonably even keel.

It’s a bit like the art of lifting heavy stuff. You wouldn’t lift a box full of books with a bent spine would you? You’d bend at the knees, and keep those discs in a straight line, to spread the weight evenly across every disc, rather than just the one at the apex of the curve you’ve created.

So while you’re running, and sending punishing vibrations through the central core of your body, do give your back a break by trying to stand up straight and keep your head fairly upright.

Using your arms.

Now here’s an area of running technique that even an old plodder like me is happy to ramble on about. Tonight, on Mastermind, as Basil Fawlty once famously said, my specialist subject is The Bleeding Obvious. So if the question is: ‘How important are the arms in running?’ the correct answer is: ‘Just as important as the legs.’

Yes, really. Don’t look at me like that. While there are several paralympians who can perform athletic miracles without arms, and God bless them, it really does make life incredibly difficult. Getting the swing of your arms right is essential to a good running technique.

First off, try this simple experiment, preferably when no-one is looking. Run for 50 yards without swinging your arms. Done that? Well, yes, you looked pretty silly. But more importantly, that was really, really hard, wasn’t it?

Now run 50 yards with a fairly exaggerated arm swing? OK, you probably looked just as ‘special needs’ to any watching neighbours as you did without the arm swings. But couldn’t you feel the difference? Running without using your arms, then running whilst using them is actually a very valuable exercise.

It demonstrates to your conscious mind that running really is a joint exercise between arms and legs, with some fairly plucky support work being done by abdominal and shoulder muscles. Try it a few more times, with and without arm swings. Feel the leg muscles and the arm muscles working in harmony with each other, Grasshopper.

Getting your stride length right

Yes, I know, stride length depends on your length of leg. But it also depends on things like the speed you’re running and the surface on which you’re running. On a wet or icy surface, you’ll find yourself taking shorter strides simply to help you keep your footing. Once you get into the groove on a long straight, you may find yourself slipping into a longer stride pattern.

Whatever length of stride you take is fine, if it feels natural. And on your early runs, just doing what feels natural is the best thing you can do. But once you’ve been running for a while, there are a few things you can do with your stride length that can really help you.

For instance, while you’re still building up your stamina, you’re going to reach a point on most runs where your legs hurt or feel heavy.

Well, if you’re thinking about your technique, why not lengthen or shorten your stride a little, just for a few minutes. Chances are that just the change of stride will make your legs feel like they’re being given a break.

Thinking about technique while you’re running

OK, so just to recap, the most important parts of developing a good running technique are keeping upright, using your arms effectively, and remembering to vary your stride length a little if you’re tiring or tightening up.

So far, so obvious. The point is though, that basics like these are what we all tend to forget when fatigue sets in, when most new runners will hunch up, stop using their arms properly, and basically make their run so much harder than it should be.

That’s why, even after all these years, when I start to get a bit fatigued on a run, I consciously check what sort of position my head’s in, and correct it if necessary. I consciously get my arms to take a bit more of the strain. And I’ll alter my stride length every now and then; just because I know it gives my legs a break and will help make keeping going just that little bit easier.

And if you can teach yourself to really think about your technique while you’re running, and correct it if necessary, I guarantee that gradually adding mileage to your training will become so much easier.

This column first appeared as Part 4 of ‘Mate Down the Pub’ on therunningbug.co.uk . Part 5 will appear there 7 days before it appears here at TJBFS.

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