Running Machines Part 1: Welcome to The Machine

A little back story on the featured image for this article: In 2013 I entered my first spartan race, the Arizona Sprint.  I had never done any sort of race before and didn’t really know how I’d train for this.  I did what I think many people do in this situation: I ran longer.  The problem with this approach is that all it enabled me to do was keep a pace higher than walking for a sustained amount of time, I wasn’t running well and at the race this training showed.  I think I finished somewhere in the bottom 20%.  Fast forward one year later and when I competed in the 2014 AZ Sprint I finished somewhere near the top 5%.  I did this by changing my training regimen systematically and the great part is I feel like it was overall much less effort than the “just keep running” approach.  This is my inspiration for writing a 3-part article series on running training.

Welcome to The Machine

It’s running season here in the valley and we’re certainly seeing an increase in the amount of people training for upcoming 5k’s, 10k’s, Obstacle course races and marathons. For some people running is viewed as a source of endorphins, a great way to escape the world for a while and just focus on one thing, for others it’s a type of cruel torture reserved for only the worst offenders in hell.

Unfortunately, my news to the latter group is that you’re fighting an uphill battle. Human beings are the best in the animal kingdom when it comes to distance running, sure a cheetah (or just a dog) can out-sprint us, but humans were engineered to keep a low and steady pace and run animals to death (seriously, it’s how we used to hunt). The concept was simple, Gazelle would sprint 60 ft in 8 seconds, human would take 40 seconds to catch up and Gazelle would take-off again, repeating the process. Before long the repeated sprinting bursts would become more and more taxing until the human caught up (gives a much darker meaning to “slow and steady wins the race”).

Nowadays groceries can’t up and run away so the need for this kind of long distance running is all but eliminated.  Nonetheless we have inherited amazing engines for running from our ancestors and reach peak athleticism will surely require we use these engines. In addition to athletic performance running is also an excellent choice for many when it comes to eliminating stress; whether it be due to feeling the music, being alone with your thoughts, focusing on a simple primal goal or thanks to the massive excretion of endorphins, runners seem to have an overall more positive outlook on life (read more).  In order to get the most benefits out of running and to do so without injury we must understand how are bodies are built to be running machines and pay respect to the engines that drive that machine.

What are these “Engines” you speak of?

The engines of running are usually considered to be the legs, and it makes sense. Between the quadriceps and hamstrings we have two very large, powerful muscle groups that play an obvious role in running but these are not the long distance engines I’m talking about.  The muscle group responsible for the unique human trait of running non-stop are the Gluteals, otherwise known as the booty.  The Gluteals (the collection of the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus) as a whole comprise one of the most impressive systems of movement in the human body.  Virtually inexhaustible when well trained the glutes are the key to enjoyable distance running.

Picture this: human ancestors were walking on their hind legs while also using their hands for support. A great way to imagine this is to look at the modern gorilla in their atypical pose:


Courtesy of National Geographic

It’s not hard to imagine ourselves in a similar position.  If we’re walking on all fours what would we do to straighten our spines and place our weight on our hind legs? We’d squeeze our butt really really hard. Our powerful glutes are the essential mechanism behind bipedal motion.  Any experienced runner will tell you there is a point where it becomes much easier to keep a faster pace and feels like you’re driving from your hips, this is the contraction of glutes firing rhythmically creating that hip drive.

If the butt is the engine then what do my legs do? 

In running leg muscles effectively absorb the force of each impact and then return that force to the ground.  In physics this concept is called “Conservation of Energy.” Our legs are by no means a perfectly conserved system but with refining technique it is possible to reduce the amount of force and energy going to waste dramatically.  The same techniques that allow for conserving energy also provide stability for the knee joint. The technique that has made the most difference in my running form and knee stability is the “Straight foot test.”

When running legs should follow a simple track forward and backward, they should not swing to the sides or rotate as the leg changes position. To determine if you have problems with this try this simple exercise while walking:

Straight foot test

  • Walk a simple straight line naturally, do not change the way you walk for this test. Focus on your feet. Do your toes remain pointed forward as you walk?
  • If yes then repeat the test at slightly higher speeds until you begin to notice a change in the direction your toes point.
  • Once you’ve identified the circumstances that your toes begin to stray from forward, focus on the contraction of your glutes as your foot goes from front to back.

I personally walked (and also ran) with my right foot pointing outward as it swung from the rear position to the forward. Looking back on it now it really is no surprise that my right knee would always begin to experience pain. I began doing the straight foot test whenever I’d be walking an extended distance and sure enough I’ve conditioned myself to keep my toes forward as I walk. This conditioning quickly carried over into my running form and as trite as it is the old saying is true:

You need to learn to walk before you can run.

Feet = Tires

Are you sick of this analogy yet? Yes the feet are very analogous to the tires of a machine. Without proper orientation there is bound to be problems upstream (usually the knees). Feet are more complex than that though, we cannot simply say they are like tires. To be more accurate the balls of the feet are more like tires and the arch is like a system of shocks.

Proper running form is when the striking surface of the foot is nearer to the balls of the foot and midfoot. If you watch a youth soccer game you will note that this is how all the children run. But watch adults run and we begin to see a method that results in direct knee problems: heel striking. Heel striking is exactly what it sounds like, it is driving the heel forward and letting it be the first point of contact. Why do people start to run like this? Well there are two big reasons:

  • Running shoes come with overly thick heels which promotes heel striking
  • Many shoe advertisements display an athlete mid-stride with their heel out (I believe this is a method for better photographs of the shoe and not the actual method of that athlete)

The big problem with heel striking is that it allows for a flattened arch of the foot and non-engaged calves, effectively removing the two “shocks” that can absorb the impact of the ground before that impact reaches the knee. The padding of running shoes supports the bad habit but is no comparison for the shock absorbing ability of our natural springs.  Ideally we should all retrain ourselves to run like we did when we were younger but the solution isn’t that simple: if you’ve been reliant on padded shoes and heel striking for a while now trying to retrain yourself to be able to run properly can be quite difficult.  The goal is to have the kind of running form that allows for running barefoot (heel striking barefoot is virtually impossible for long periods of time).

In Summary

If you want to indulge yourself in the past time of our ancestors and excel at what humans do better than everyone else it is important that you run with proper form.  This proper form is simply the way humans were naturally built to run: not reliant on special shoes or (god forbid) treadmills.  The simplest ways to better your running form are to engage in the straight foot test regularly, practice driving your stride with your glutes and  keep the part of your foot that strikes the ground to the ball and mid-foot (no heel strikes).  These are the small steps you can make that will start making a big difference.  If you’re serious about distance running and being able to do it throughout your life I recommend reading Ready to Run: Unlocking Your Potential to Run Naturally, this is an in-depth step by step guide by Dr. Kelly Starrett on what you should work on physically and habitually to perfect a natural running form that won’t damage your body and will ensure you retain the ability to run for many years to come.