form focus (5 of 6)

Friday: rest day

Saturday: 5 miles (3 of them during the Starlight Run 5K with my Girls on the Run running buddy)

Hello, let’s talk running form. If you missed the earlier posts in the series, check out:

  1. posture & alignment
  2. the lean
  3. lower body
  4. pelvic rotation

Today it’s all about upper body focuses.

In case you’ve not read my other posts, I’m summarizing these form focuses from Chi Marathon, a book about form and running pain-free half and full marathons. (See their website.) If you like what you see here, get the book — it obviously has much more detail. (P.S. I wasn’t asked to promote the book or anything — As if that would happen. I have like 14 readers — I’m  just a big fan of it.)

Okay, onto your upper body. Thankfully, proper upper body form comes easily to me — it’s the only focus of the six that I don’t have to worry about too much. Which is nice, since I’m thinking about all of the other things I’m likely doing wrong while running.

But, me aside, it looks like 80% (very scientific estimation that I just pulled out of the air!) of runners don’t hold or swing their arms correctly, which is a big part of the upper body focuses. Have you seen people on the streets lately?! What is with holding the fists all squashed up near the shoulders and swinging the arms across the body? Stop wasting your energy, people! This is not soccer. We are not moving laterally. We’re running forward.

Here’s a breakdown of proper upper body form:

  • Your head, neck and shoulders should be relaxed and pointing in the direction you’re headed. That means your shoulders shouldn’t be swinging side-to-side. They also shouldn’t be all hunched up near your ears. Total recipe for headaches and neck pain. Let ’em drop.
  • Lengthen the back of your neck (without raising your chin). This one’s pretty much a given if your shoulders are relaxed.
  • Bend your elbows to 90 degrees. And swing them rearward. The rearward swing actually counterbalances your forward lean. (While this focus comes fairly naturally to me, I realized I was swinging my arms forward as well as rearward. While it seems benign — Won’t any matter of arm swing propel you forward? — it’s actually not. If your elbows swing in front of your rib cage, it could force you to swing your legs too far forward, leading to knee and IT band issues.)

The last of the upper body focuses is your breath, though I’d venture to say this could be its own focus. And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sold on Chi Marathon‘s breathing technique. It sounds all well and smart, but I haven’t been able to adopt it. So, you be the judge. Here’s what the book says:

Purse your lips and contract your upper abdominal muscles to expel all the air from the bottom of your lungs. Then, when you inhale, close your mouth and breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to fill first, followed by your upper lungs.

Sound like a yoga breath, right?

The book also says to match your breath rate with your cadence. So, breathe out for three strides and inhale for two. Or breathe out for two strides and inhale for one (if you’re running faster).

I like the idea of a rhythmical breath — and getting enough air into my lungs — but I can’t really get into the nose breathing (only) or the very mindful rate. More like, I just need to make sure I’m getting enough air and not gasping.

What do you think? How do you breathe while running? Which of the upper body focuses is a challenge for you?

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form focus (4 of 6)

Wednesday: 40 min run on treadmill

Thursday: 30 min elliptical & weights at the gym

Friday: rest day, with a 40 min brisk walk at lunch

I’m still trying to be consistent without over-taxing myself or naively believing I can increase my running mileage in leaps and bounds each week. So, though I want to be running more regularly, I’m sticking to 3 or so runs per week and cross-training or resting on the other days.

It’s kind of odd: while on the elliptical on Thursday, it felt so easy. Even when I upped the incline and tried to push my speed. It’s just a walk in the park compared to running. I can’t believe I used to do the elliptical as my main form of cardio (and it wasn’t just in the last couple years, but for the last 10 or so years). Don’t get me wrong — if you’ve got injuries or if it’s your main form of cardio, it’s still better than no cardio. But it’s just not the same intensity and doesn’t take the same mental toughness that running does. My advice? If you’re a worshipper at the temple o’ elliptical, branch out and try to mix it up with a spinning class, boot camp class or run outside.

Okay, let’s get to the fourth form focus of Chi Marathon: pelvic rotation.

(It bears repeating that I’m only scratching the surface of the book’s form focuses. If you want more details, including diagrams and pictures and such, buy the book.)

I mentioned that the lower body focuses are challenging for me, but pelvic rotation is the most challenging of all. Here’s the gist, according to Chi Marathon:

Pelvic rotation is when you allow your pelvis to rotate around your central axis with each stride. If your legs swing only at the hip joint, your range of motion is limited by the amount of flexibility at your hip. When you allow your entire pelvis to rotate along with the swinging leg, you prevent your legs from ever swinging beyond their own safe range of motion. This adds inches to your stride and allows you to run faster without working harder. Additionally, the rotation of your pelvis allows the hip to safely absorb any shock from the road as the foot lands, because it moves rearward with the force of the oncoming road, not against it. If your pelvis does not rotate and “soften the ride,” the force of the road will be absorbed by your knees, quads, hips and lower back. This impact is one of the causes of runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, IT band syndrome and many other lower body injuries. To allow your pelvis to rotate, release your hip when you feel your foot strike the ground and let it be pulled rearward by your leg.

Well, it sounds straightforward. But it’s hard for me to tell if I’m doing it correctly or enough (or too much). It takes conscious effort for me to rotate my pelvis, and I nearly feel like I’m over-rotating when I try. Then, when I get into mindless-running mode, I tend to stiffen back up and not rotate at all. And a bit of hip pain forces me to remember to release and focus again.

Further proof that I’m not doing it quite right? I still suffer from runner’s knee and IT band syndrome. It’s certainly better than it used to be, but not completely cleared up.

I need a little running elf on my shoulder who rings a bell or cracks a whip — or threatens to take away my post-run snack — when I’m slipping away from proper form. That’d teach me.

How about you? Do you find it mentally exhausting to think about your form all run long? How do you stay on top of it?

form focus (3 of 6)

Monday: Hip hop boot camp class

Tuesday: Stretching & foam rolling & massaging with Penetrex

After my long run on Saturday, I did a bad thing. I was late to an appointment, hopped in the shower and left the house. Which means (head hung in running shame): I didn’t stretch a lick. I felt okay on Sunday playing kickball, and I was kind of smug. I must be in great running shape! But I didn’t run on Sunday — except around the bases — and then I woke up on Monday, and it was like, OH. There are my legs. 

I felt a lot of tightness in my ankles and hips and IT band. I stretched and went to boot camp, but I woke today feeling kind of … worried. I want to be running today & training for my upcoming half marathon, but I’m such a rookie. And I’m worried about over training and fatiguing my legs. SO. I’m not running today. I’m using Penetrex (kind of like Icy Hot) and foam rolling (for the first time all week) … Why do I forget to make foam rolling a priority? Because it hurts like hell. But I know it’s good for me. I should bring it to work with me and set an alarm and roll during the day. (That wouldn’t be weird at all, right?)

Okay, enough of my whining about soreness. Let’s get back to form!

To catch you up to speed, here’s what we’ve covered so far:

  1. form focus one > posture
  2. form focus two > the lean

Today I’m covering lower body focuses. Specifically, how to move fluidly without over-taxing your leg muscles.

Chi Marathon says you want a passive leg swing. That means:

  • Your legs are used for support, but not propulsion (your lean propels you instead).
  • Your legs are relaxed. (I’ve gotten in the habit of shaking out leg tension when I’m waiting at the crosswalk.)
  • Your knees are low (reserve high knees for sprinting, not distance running). You knees bend and float behind you after each stride; they don’t lift. (I’m still working on this float concept.)

Wait, there’s more. And these ones are pretty challenging for me:

  • Your feet should be pointed forward. (I’ve been working on this one for a long time, even before I knew much about running form, because I knew it didn’t feel good when my left foot splayed out. I still have to keep my eye on lefty.)
  • Your feet movement should resemble wheels, not pendulums. Chi Marathon says to think circles with your feet. If you peel your foot off the ground correctly and let it float behind you, you’ll have the circle shape. (Since I have trouble with the float, I think my feet don’t raise behind me enough — and I’m doing more of the swinging pendulum thing. BUT. I won’t really know until I can get someone to videotape me. Yes, I’m going to take videos of my running form. It’s getting serious around here.)
  • And, finally, though I’ve mentioned it before: a midfoot strike. Stop striking with your heels, people!

Tell me: Do these lower leg focuses come naturally to you? If you’ve got the wheel-style foot movement down, how do you do it without expending too much energy?

I don’t have any running photos today, but I do have this, er, exciting photo of me in a work outfit (taken in front of my entry area, of course):

work outfit

The shorts are new and from H&M. Everything else is old, old, old.

I’m not super obsessed with clothes. Except for my workout clothes, which are *very* fashion-forward. ;) (More like very neon.) But I do try to put myself together every now and then. So, what do you think of the look above? Leggings with shorts? Too I’m-trying-to-look-younger-than-my-own-good-and-cutesy? Or actually cute?

form focus (2 of 6)

I’ve been busy and have fallen behind here. Let’s catch up on runs and then hop to the next form focus.

Monday (of last week): 25 min fast run (in Chicago)

Tuesday: 5.6 mile tempo run (back in Portland)

Wednesday: Physique 57 (30 minutes)

Thursday: speed work (warmup, 4 x 400s, cool down)

Friday: rest day

Saturday: 10 mile long run

Sunday: kickball (so, er, a rest day)

Some thoughts on the week’s runs:

  • The good: I did my long run without too much soreness (a little bit of hip pain at the end) and not a lot of boredom (I wondered if I’d be over it at any point). And I pushed myself a lot in the tempo run on Tuesday — huffing and puffing, but still moving more or less as quickly as I could.
  • The bad: My pace for the tempo run was a lot slower than I wanted it to be. I can’t figure out if I’ve sort of hit a plateau for the moment or if my legs are fatigued or what.

Want to see a before & after from my long run (pardon yet another photo of me in my entryway)?

before and after

Ok, this wasn’t exactly *after* the run, but after a shower and a cute outfit. :)

So, let’s talk form. (As a reminder, I’m sharing form focuses covered in Chi Marathon and adding a bit about my own running habits.)

In the first post, I wrote about posture. And I suppose you’re thinking that running with good posture is a given. But, have you checked out joggers on the street lately? There’s a lot of shoulders-up-to-the-ears and butts-popped-out and duck feet going on.

Today’s focus goes hand-in-hand with posture: it’s the lean.

Here’s how Chi Marathon explains it:

A slight forward lean from your ankles is enough to allow gravity to assist you in falling forward. As your column falls forward, it passes over the foot that’s on the ground. The oncoming force of the road sweeps your support leg out behind you, allowing your leading foot to land beneath your center of mass, in a midfoot strike. This leg then momentarily supports your weight as your column passes over it and the whole cycle happens again. If you’re running at a 180 spm cadence, the cycle happens three times every second.

And here’s how I’m focusing while I run:

  1. Leaning forward with my whole body (not just bending at the waist)
  2. Striking with my midfoot (goodbye, heel strike)
  3. Keeping my feet beneath me (not over-extending way out in front of my body)

The lean is also supported by your arm swing. Did you know you’re supposed to swing your arms to the rear as you fall forward?

And, finally, relax your lower legs, feet and ankles. Again, this sounds kind of obvious, but I realized that I used to run with a lot of tension in my feet. Sort of like bracing myself for each stride, versus just letting myself lean into the stride and letting my feet float beneath me. (Float is a stretch, but you see what I mean.)

Without a doubt, of all form changes I’ve made, the lean is making the biggest difference. Midfoot striking is helping to minimize my IT tightness, and the lean really helps to conserve energy (letting gravity do some of the work for me). I can’t tell you how much energy I used to waste when I ran upright and nearly hopped straight up and down. Now the movement is all about going forward and relaxing. It feels gooood.

Tell me: What’s your foot strike? Have you tried leaning into your run? How do you relax while running?

Up next: lower body focuses