Running technique vs. running performance

Analyzing and teaching running technique is one of Aprendo’s core competences. The experience from working with hundreds of people of different sports, levels and age groups tells us that good running technique contributes to running performance. Unfortunately there is little support for this claim from sports science. In this article we are going to investigate the underlying scientific problems and limitations of researching this relation.

Running performance is commonly broken down into two factors: 1) running economy and 2) the percentage of maximal oxygen uptake sustainable over a certain time. Running economy describes how much energy an athlete needs to run at a certain speed. The sustainable percentage of maximal oxygen uptake describes how much energy an athlete can spend over a certain period of time. Since the second factor is classically contributed to physiological parameters like stroke volume of the heart or oxygen transportation capacity of the blood amongst others, running technique supposedly only can change the first: running economy.

Running at a certain speed can be done with a myriad of different mechanical solutions. We can change e.g. stride frequency, stride length, contact time, the footstrike pattern, the swing leg pattern or the upper body posture, to name just a few examples. It is often suggested, that we self-optimize these parameters over time to end up with the most efficient movement pattern for our individual body structure. For example forcing people to run with different stride frequencies than their self chosen one results in a reduced running economy, i.e. the self chosen frequency seems to be the optimal one (Hunter et al., European journal of applied physiology, 100(6), pp. 653-661).

These findings indeed tell us, that self-optimization is taking place. However, since optimization is a process that takes time, the findings of such studies are like self-fulfilling prophecies. What we see in the data is a momentary optimum with regard to the current conditions, and conditions include ingrained movement habits. We can’t conclude from this that the optimum is the absolute one attainable for the subject.

Moreover, not only scientists but also elite coaches tend to discard the possibility of effectively changing running technique patterns. A common reasoning is that running styles are determined by individual anatomical differences and physiological qualities of athletes. Running like Haile Gebrselassie would then be only predestined to those athletes who are of the same talent and physiological level as those gifted elite runners (see e.g. dutch journal “Proloop 4, 2010”).

Researching a change in running economy by technique modulation poses many methodological problems. First, a technique change needs time, and different time for different people. Second, after the new movement pattern has been sufficiently mastered, the biological system needs more time to ingrain and to optimize this pattern – otherwise it’s just not a fair comparison to the old pattern. However, interventions which need a lot of time have the inherent problem of controlling other contributing factors, which means it becomes harder to attribute the observed change to the actual intervention. Even worse, it is impossible from the outset to keep other contributing factors equal between an intervention and a control group, because the training regime will differ tremendously between the groups. What’s the effect of the technique change and what’s the effect of the different training loads?

Besides the methodological problems when trying to demonstrate a change in running economy as an effect of a technique change, there is another major concern to keep in mind in this discussion. The reductionist view of “running economy and oxygen uptake determines performance” neglects that there are other factors like muscular fatigue, muscular damage or perceived exertion which can be influenced by movement technique and are equally related to performance – in the middle-term by affecting recovery and in the short-term by sending feedback to the brain which will influence the decision of continuation or termination of the level of exercise.

During the last years the work of Aprendo with athletes from several age groups, sports and levels from elite to recreational, shows that running technique can indeed be greatly changed. Of course the goal is not to copy the running style of Haile Gebrselassie or other elite runners, but to incorporate certain general characteristics into the movement pattern which have been proven to be beneficial by experience, biomechanical reasoning and logical deduction. Even recreational runners at an age of 60 or youth soccer players were able to dramatically improve their running pattern – they don’t run as fast as elite runners, nevertheless they have learned to apply a movement pattern which makes running feel lighter, easier and less tiring.

In summary we can say that if your understanding of running performance is based on a linear model with the simple factors running economy and oxygen uptake, then there is no good evidence that technique training will make you a better runner. If however you understand running performance as the output of a complex system with many interrelated factors, then you will find many ways by which improving running technique can contribute to performance. In our opinion the latter concept is the only valid one in reality. Abstracting the inherent complexity of life away behind convenient formulas is never a good idea, especially when dealing with the individuality of real athletes.


Florian Kugler, January 6th, 2011

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