Running lightly and gently is a learned skill

4 key elements of good running form + amazing races in Joshua Tree, Haiti, Key West, Colorado's Royal Gorge, Oregon's Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail

This week I’m taking off to spend with little T, as it’s his spring break from school, but I wanted to share with you a couple of quick things I’m learning from a fascinating book that recently came out, Daniel Lieberman’s Exercised.

The book’s subtitle — “Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy And Rewarding” — offers a clue at what the author discovered throughout his decades of research into how the human body has evolved and adapted over the millennia, and what it means for us as we try to maintain our own fitness in the present day.

One thing that caught my attention in the book’s later chapters ran completely counter to something I’ve always thought about running — that each of us is an individual and each of our bodies so unique, that we should be cautious about trying to try too much of what we see others do.

I’d bet nearly all of us simply lace up a pair of shoes and go out for a run, never giving how we run a moment’s though beyond that. (That’s basically how I’ve always approached it.)

Lieberman says this may be what leads to so many running injuries, as few of us really know what good running form is — and how odd that is, because we try our best to copy good form in just about every other sport.

“An anthropological approach combined with what we know about running biomechanics suggests a different perspective. When I ask runners from different cultures if there is a best way to run, they invariably tell me they consider running a learned skill. As the anthropologist Joseph Henrich has shown, humans in every culture master critical skills by imitating people who are good at them. Just as if it makes sense to hit tennis balls like Roger Federer, doesn’t it make sense to run like Eliud Kipchoge or other great runners?”

On research trips to Kenya, Lieberman got the chance to run several times with groups of Kenyan runners on their daily morning run:

“Soon after the sun rises, about ten to twenty runners meet near a local church. One person always takes the lead as we start jogging slowly away from town, and as we follow him, I think, ‘Okay, I can do this!’ But gradually we speed up until, gasping for breath, I have to drop out as the other runners laugh and wish me luck. Apart from drawing motivation from each other, participants in these group runs learn running form.”

And here’s the key thing he learned, Lieberman writes:

“Watch ten Americans training and you’ll generally see ten different running styles, but a group of Kenyans often looks more like a flock of birds with the leader not just setting the pace but also modeling how to run so that the runners appear to move in unison, adopting the same cadence, arm carriage, and graceful kick.”

So, what are the key elements of what he found to be good running form out on all those runs in Kenya? Lieberman says it was these four things:

  1. Avoid overstriding — which means landing with your feet too far in front of your body. He suggests getting your knees up when you swing your legs forward, to prevent the legs from landing too stiffly.

  2. Take about 170-180 steps per minute, regardless of speed. “Experienced endurance runners... speed up economically by jumping farther (running is jumping from one leg to another) and a high step rate prevents overstriding.”

  3. Lean forward slightly — but not too much. Too much upper-body lean requires you to spend more energy preventing your torso from toppling forward, and it encourages overstriding.

  4. Land gently with your feet nearly horizontal, thus avoiding a large, rapid impact force with the ground.

Adopting these four elements into your running form isn’t easy and takes practice. But I find that if I consciously hit the ground with the ball of my foot instead of my heel, that in turn forces the rest of my body to do the things Lieberman outlines above — keeping my torso more upright, keeping my strides shorter and more frequent, and in general running more lightly and gently.

What’s your experience? I’d love to know if you’ve tried to make changes to your running form — and if you’ve been able to make them stick (especially if you’ve experienced running injuries and made changes to avoid them).

Feel free to share your comments by tapping/clicking the button below, or simply reply back — and as always, have a great, great run out there today.

Your friend,

— Terrell

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Races you might love running

Les Cayes Half Marathon

Les Cayes, Haiti | Sunday, April 11, 2021

Surrounded by beaches, this seaport town along Haiti’s southern coastline celebrated its 500th anniversary early in the last decade, and this spring will mark just its third annual running of this 13.1-miler, which runs from the tiny rural village of Cavaillon to the coastal town of Les Cayes, which lies roughly a four-hour drive from Port-au-Prince, the island’s capital. Just over 140 runners crossed the finish time the last time the race was run (in 2019), and organizers hope it will become an event runners from around the world will travel to come and run.

$25 and up | Sign up here

Mount Hood 50-Miler

Clackamas Lake, Ore. | Saturday, July 10, 2021

Run on the heavily-shaded Pacific Crest Trail — made famous for most of us in Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 bestseller Wild — in the shadow of nearby Mount Hood, this race is considered an ideal run for your first 50-miler, thanks to its pair of out-and-back stretches that split up the run into smaller, more manageable chunks. In addition to the 50-miler, the race also offers the 50K and 25K distances. “It’s also not too much climbing and is nestled in the forests for most of the race,” running coach Yassine Doubin described it to Trail Runner magazine.

$100 and up | Sign up here

Hemingway Sunset Run

Key West, Fla. | Saturday, July 24, 2021

If you’ve ever seen a Key West sunset, then you know there are few better places on Earth to watch one, especially in the thick of summer when the days are at their longest and the sun slides ever-so-gradually into the horizon over the ocean. That’s what you’ll get to take in at this 5K that’s part of Key West’s annual Hemingway Days festival, which celebrates the life and work of the Nobel Prize-winning author (and subject of this week’s Ken Burns film on PBS). It’s open to runners, walkers and even paddle-boarders — who start the race from the sands of Southernmost Beach, and complete their 3 miles in the ocean before finishing back at the beach.

$45 and up | Sign up here

Skyline Mountain Half Marathon

Eden, Utah | Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021

Described by its race organizers as “punishing, unforgiving,” and yet “ridiculously beautiful,” this race is all that and more — with some 1,900 feet of elevation climb in just the first three miles of the half marathon route, which organizers say is a half marathon “plus one,” meaning it’s 14.1 miles instead of 13.1. The race takes runners along what is known as the Ben Lemond and Skyline trails, which climb up the mountains here in the northernmost part of Utah through a series of switchbacks, twisting and turning along the dirt trails within the Cache National Forest, looking out onto Salt Lake City to the south and the mountains of southern Idaho to the north.

$55 and up | Sign up here

Rim to Rim Royal Gorge Half Marathon

Cañon City, Colo. | Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021

A run across one of the highest suspension bridges in America, the Royal Gorge Bridge, which stretches more than 1,200 feet from end to end, nearly 1,000 feet in the air over the Arkansas River. (From the time it was built in 1929, the Royal Gorge was the highest suspension bridge in the world until a bridge built in China in 2001 surpassed it.) You’ll start on the eastern end of the bridge and run across to the other side, where you’ll run all the way to Copper Gulch and back. Also, you’ll need to be ready for a high-altitude run; nearby Cañon City lies at just over 5,300 feet above sea level.

$70 and up | Sign up here

Joshua Tree Half Marathon

Joshua Tree, Calif. | Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021

A challenging, yet awe-inspiring and fun, nighttime run through California’s Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree National Park — this race will give you plenty of time to stare up at the stars as you run through the sand (which will be deep in some spots, so be careful). All of the terrain for the race will be dirt roads and trails, and there won’t be lights out on the route — which means you’ll definitely need a headlamp, as the race starts just after the sun goes down, around 6:15 p.m.

$109 and up | Sign up here

JFK 50-Mile

Boonsboro, Md. | Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021

A race with a long and storied history — this year marks its 59th annual running — this ultra will take you along miles-long stretches of the Appalachian Trail as well as portions of the C&O Canal Towpath, which features gently rolling terrain that leads you in to the finish line in the nearby town of Williamsport. The AT sections are its longest and toughest, with plenty of rocky terrain along mountain ridges and stretches with steep switchbacks that drop more than 1,000 feet. You’ll gain more than 1,100 feet during the course of the race, and you’ll have 13 hours to complete it.

$225 and up | Sign up here

A running read I found interesting

How I Manage to Stay Healthy While Running 100 Miles a Week. While I don’t think I could replicate many of the tips and techniques Becky Wade Firth does, it’s fascinating to me to see the amount of preparation and thinking that goes into her running — she doesn’t just wing it, she works with a plan and sticks to it, because she wants to be able to do it for as long as she can. Really interesting approach.

“... in a career like mine, which rewards consistency, meticulousness and a high tolerance for the mundane, those little things add up to big things, which allow me to train hard month after month, year after year.”

A post shared by @beckyswade

Words to run by

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

— Ernest Hemingway