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Style and Speed

An important aspect of most youth sports is learning correct technique.  Certainly in sports like cricket and golf, the correct technique is essential if you aim to excel in the sport.  Most runners acknowledge that those athletes, who choose field events for their discipline, are heavily dependent on technique for success.  This recognition however, of the need for technique is not always accepted as important for running.  This is usually supported by the fact that there have been - and still are many runners who have poor running technique that can claim to have been successful.  The problem with that analogy is that these runners may have a natural talent and be gifted athletes, who - irrespective of a poor running style - could still excel at the sport.  Unfortunately there are many other runners who have to work long and hard to achieve success in their sport, and adopting a correct running style is just one of the many aspects that have to be achieved if future goals include international selection.

So how important is technique to distance runners?  Are there features of the running gait that exemplify optimal form?  It does help if one understands the biomechanics of running, so once again the requirement for coaching is essential for junior runners.  Achieving optimal race pace relies to a large extent on the runnerís ability to run economically.  This simply means that the basic objective in distance running is to run at the fastest speed possible without running out of energy.  Although that may sound simple enough, it requires considerable motor skill. There are hundreds of muscles utilized in the running action, and most of the joints in the body.  The interaction between them all in switching on and off, and relaxing, all in the right order, at the right instant, requires practice - certainly with juniors who are still on a learning curve with their motor skills.  So without going much deeper into the technicalities, we will move on to the practicalities!

In fact the best way to begin is to mention some of the faults in running styles that are common in juniors, and how they can change them.  When youngsters are growing, their running style can change dramatically over a number of years through nothing other than initially losing, and later gaining muscle strength.  The old saying that they have outgrown their strength is quite true - as youngsters shoot up in height with their growth spurts the muscles lag behind in growth rate, giving the youngsters an ungainly style, usually over-striding, and with a great deal of instability.  If during this period of rapid height gain attention is given to maintaining a programme of conditioning that maximizes muscle growth - that is commensurate with this increase in height - then that alone can help tremendously.


The most common fault - not only in junior runners - but also in adults, is over-striding.  Over-striding is not only inefficient but also uneconomical.  It occurs when the foot strikes the ground in a position in front of the centre of gravity. During running the centre of gravity is located just above the centre of the pelvis.  If the foot strikes the floor too far in front of this point then the foot strikes the ground in a propping or braking position.  This action considerably retards the forward motion and the muscles have to work hard in order to reaccelerate the body to push off the ground.  Those runners who have this problem are usually totally unaware of this loss of forward motion, and could remain so for the remainder of their running career, never knowing of how much more economical their running action would be if they reduced their overall stride length and picked up the cadence to compensate.  Juniors in the first instance should work hard on keeping a high cadence, and only extend their stride to a length that can be carried without the braking action occurring.

It is an interesting test to use a stopwatch when watching international athletics on television and count the number of strides per minute for the various athletes.  A cadence count is calculated on the number of times the same foot strikes the ground in a minute - or parts of multiplied.  Women internationals at the highest level usually have a 95-100 cadence a minute, and even quicker on the final lap.  (Gabriela Szabo runs a 115 cadence over the last 200m of her races).  There are pacer watches and small cadence counters (electronic metronomes) that can be used to help a runner develop this important aspect of their running action.

Having a good running style is not only good for economy and performance but is also highly beneficial in keeping injuries at bay.  Every foot-strike creates large impact forces that have to be absorbed by the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the lower limbs.  Any misalignment or imbalance in the running gait can by this repetitive action create a whole host of minor and sometimes major problems.  Certainly the extra jarring of over-striding does nothing for the knee joints of a junior in a growth spurt.  Many common running injuries are caused by a combination of structural abnormalities and poor technique.  This brings me nicely to the next major contributor of injuries and poor running performance, over-pronation.


Although most runners have an idea about over-pronation it is usually only those - who out of necessity - who have orthotics fitted, that really know just what effect this biomechanical problem can have long term on their running career.  Every runnerís foot should pronate on landing (rolling inward at the ankle joint), it is the natural way that the foot strikes the ground, and is part of the absorbing technique that the foot employs to minimize the impact forces.  What the foot should not do is to go beyond a particular point in its pronating action.  Unfortunately there are a considerable number of runners who have this problem - to varying degrees.  The amount of over-pronating has to be assessed by a coach - or those in the profession of analyzing the running gait - before a decision can be made to fit orthotics (shoe inserts).

One of the simple tests in establishing this problem is to put both running shoes down on a flat surface and view the shoes from the rear.  If they lean in at the top towards each other through excessive wear on the inside of the sole, then it would be useful to have someone check you out.

The misalignment that over-pronation causes in the leg can lead to a whole host of injuries away from the ankle higher up the limb in the knee or hip joint.  Excessive supination (outward rolling of the foot) is not as common, but can have a similar debilitating effect over a period of time.  Lack of any pronation means that the foot loses an excellent method of absorbing those impact forces, and as such the resultant jarring effect can give problems down the lateral (outside) of the leg.  These two problems can be addressed, and with correctly fitted orthotics the running style can be improved tremendously.


This particular problem that affects the running style is usually more evident in girls, whose legs - when looking from behind have a tendency to come round the outside in a small arc rather than lift and go through straight.  This creates an awkward action and cuts down the stride length unnecessarily.  The fault can be corrected within months with correct drill work and specific leg strengthening exercises for the quads.  If the youngster is made aware of the fault and there is a concentrated effort to eliminate the problem then the correction can be made very quickly.  One of the better ways to highlight the action is to video the running action.  It never ceases to amaze me when doing this, that the youngster - or senior is surprised by what they see.

Arm Action

When reviewing a running style the action of the arms is a very important aspect that has to be taken into account.  Some juniors have a vigorous arm action while others just hold their arms at their side with little movement.  Points to note are that the arm action should be relaxed and the arms should not be held too high (like chicken wings)!  They should also not be held too low - in sprinting the lower arm position is used as a lever to assist the leg lift, in endurance events the arms should be held at about 90 degrees, and should swing naturally from the shoulders in fairly straight direction keeping them close to the body.  The hands should stay relaxed moving in front of the body, but not crossing over the vertical midline.  As the running pace increases a more forceful and quicker action should apply.  Certainly for the drive that one requires up a steep climb a good vigorous and coordinated arm action is a great asset.

There are many other aspects of a correct running style that I have not covered, but I hope this introduction will help you to analyze your own action and for you to be more aware of the value of not only feeling good, but looking good.

Speed on the Fells

One of the dilemmas for coaches and parents alike when establishing training routines for junior fell runners, is what standard they perceive their young charges will eventually attain.  Do they see their development year by year, or do they plan for more long term goals with international selection in mind.

The development of the international fell and mountain athlete has certainly made great strides in the last few years.  It no longer requires the ability to win the British or English Championship, but what is clearly emerging is the requirement to run fast.  International fell and mountain runners are well aware that to compete at the very highest level, the element of speed is a very necessary requisite.

So when assessing the qualities required to be a international fell runner, the element of speed comes very much to the fore. Most juniors when starting their fell careers would probably lay the emphasis on either climbing strength or descending technique, which is not a bad idea. But, when you are young and running short distances, if the element of speed can be emphasized first, then as you mature into longer runs and tougher races your endurance base will automatically be developed, with the consequence of stronger legs for ascending and valuable experience gained in descending.  Some runners are blessed with the innate ability to run fast, whether you are one of those lucky ones or someone who has good speed but requires more training, then a priority must be given to developing your pace with regular speed sessions and drill work.

Running fast and learning to live with up pace running is the very essence of developing into an elite athlete, plus there is the likelihood of running cross country for school and club, possibly at county level, and the consideration that at some stage you may prefer to move from the fells to track or road in later years.

So what can you as a junior do in order to develop your speed?  Your first consideration is to develop the correct frame of mind that accepts the need for such training, unless you are committed to having a speed element in your weekly schedule then the effort will be short lived.  If you are lucky enough to have the facility of a running track nearby then you are half way there.  Because of the discipline that speed training requires it is certainly to your advantage to find a group or a coach who will help you with your training.  Most sprint and middle distance coaches will welcome you into their weekly sessions - at the track - if you are prepared to attend regularly, so make enquiries, either through your club or through the track officials.  If you start early enough in your running career you may find that you have not yet developed any bad habits in your running technique and that with a minimum of drill work you are ready to undertake some repetition work.  The distance, duration, intensity and recovery periods will have to be tailored for you depending on your age and ability.

There are a variance of sessions that can be used to develop your speed with most repetition distances kept below 400m.  Each coach will have their own method on how best to improve your pace - depending on your age and ability.

One of the problems with continuous training on the fells is that your stride length can be effectively shortened, which is great for climbing and rough terrain but can lose you pace on the level.  Speed training on a track - or any flat surface - can help to restore it to an optimum length, when you require it.

So if you want that extra capacity - in order to make the difference - then start now with your speed training, you will never regret it.

Norman Matthews © 2001-2004
Head Senior Coach
Horwich RMI Harriers