Secret runners’ business: Don’t believe all you read

Secret runners’ business: Don’t believe all you read

Sometimes in business, changes that look good in theory or come on the recommendation of gurus or celebrity consultants wearing sharp suits can get you into trouble, or at the very least produce unintended consequences. The latest multimillion-dollar enterprise information systems, outsourcing and trying to assign a profit motive to operational business units are three areas that spring to mind. Despite the promised quality gains, efficiency benefits and cost savings, these types of projects often end in abject failure.

In running, the cult of guru worship and the next best thing are rife and fossicking over this fool’s gold can be dangerous. The issue for runners is that much of this glittery lure can be found in the mainstream media, often based on the sketchy science of researchers looking to tap into the latest and greatest. A small study of a handful of runners skipping over a treadmill for 10 minutes can soon be skewed and transformed into absolute gospel. Little wonder runners find themselves confused.

As I ran around The Tan track in Melbourne yesterday I watched a runner faithfully putting into practice a series of bizarre-looking drills, honing his style towards a flawed, but popular model of running. Very high knee lifts were followed by lifting the feet quickly off the ground and then running up on his toes without allowing the heel to settle on the ground. All the moves were accompanied by studied concentration.

He finally started his normal running after a few minutes executing these drills and you could see the product of these elements was a high stepping, slightly apologetic, prancing style that lacked power and drive. Hopefully the worst thing that happens to him is running slower, rather than getting injured.

So how do you separate the good from the bad? It’s really difficult, but common sense and a healthy dose of skepticism can keep you out of trouble. When I was researching my book Running Technique I relied heavily on a familiar concept from my business consulting days: benchmarking.

If you want to do something well, the first thing you need to understand is how the best in the world execute the same or similar to your areas of focus. For example; process engineers for commercial airline servicing might look towards Formula 1 pit stop crews for inspiration.

In my case, every time I read something about running technique I compare what’s being proposed to the reality of how the best runners in the world move. These elite runners are the benchmark for good running technique and if I don’t see them doing what’s proposed as good practice alarm, bells start going off.

While it might seem discouraging or impractical to compare yourself to an Olympian, it’s a useful filter to apply to the teachings of gurus or the claims printed in mainstream media. It also serves as a great target to work towards once you understand the common elements that these good runners share. The idea is not to morph into a high-performance athlete, but to tap into the heart of good running movement and muscle activation patterns. Every runner can incrementally step towards building a relatively stronger running technique.

Because running is such a complicated activity done at speed, it’s difficult to see what’s really going on unless you slow down or photograph its reality.

One recent example of photography and video of elite runners asked some big questions about a generally-accepted piece of running technique dogma. Heel striking is probably the most commonly-cited running technique ‘flaw’ but a large proportion of male and female runners at the US Olympic Trials were photographed doing exactly that.

These are very fast runners completing very large and intense volumes of training while remaining uninjured. It confirms that focusing on the visible extremity of running and a bottom-up foot-strike or footwear approach isn’t really where the main action is.

So next time you read some advice about running technique or what shoes you wear being the panacea of your running ills, focus back in on the heart of the matter. Ask yourself whether the advice fits the proven and established benchmark of elite running mechanics?

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