Some of my favorite memories from my earlier running years center on "zoning-out" during long runs. This was different than the euphoric "runner's high", since for me that only happened after I broke through a wall of pain. My "zone" was more of a meditative place, where I could let my body do its thing, and my mind was free to look at everything happening around me. If I managed to zone-out during a 10K race, I knew I was running near peak efficiency, since any body problems would always keep me out of the zone.
My new long-distance swim skills had allowed me to experience a similar meditative feeling, but it wasn't quite the same, since it was more of a turning inward, where the running state was more outward. I realized I would dearly love to not only run again, but to have a stride that would work on "autopilot" and permit me to "zone out" and cruise through the miles.
My most recent attempts at shortening my stride, easing my foot impact, and increasing my cadence/turnover, were about as far from "zoning out" as I could imagine. But I was beginning to feel I may be on the right track.
I figured I needed to look at the whole picture, at what each part of my body was doing while I ran, and stop focusing exclusively on my feet and legs. Where am I holding my head? What are my shoulders doing? What is my spine doing? What are my arms doing?
One of the best web sites I found that took a similar whole-body view was Chi Running. No, I didn't buy the book, but what I gathered from online discussions helped me realize I may be on the right track. My new stride must involve my whole body, and poking at isolated pieces of the puzzle would no longer suffice.
I researched the parts of a stride, and how they fit together. I looked at my old stride, and tried to identify what was actually going on with it. I examined the strides of other runners to learn about the range of variations in running technique. It was tough going, since I was very suspicious that what I thought I was seeing may be completely different from what the runner was actually doing! I simply didn't know enough about how the human body moves, and I wasn't about to master body kinematics to figure it out.
I decided to change how I observed other runners. Instead of trying to figure out what all the pieces were doing, I'd first see which runners looked smooth and relaxed. If they weren't in pain and weren't flailing about, they probably had all their pieces working well together. I looked at both "natural" runners, and those who were heavy and/or old.
My online searches sometimes led me into interesting corners. At one point, I started looking up some running-specific terms I had previously stumbled across. The one that interested me most was: "To go faster, lean forward." That didn't make much sense to me, unless the goal was to land on your face. What does it really mean to "lean forward" while running? Was it just a psychological thing, to "think forward", or was there a real physical change involved?
I saw lots of videos and pictures online, but none of them made sense to me. Sure, the runner sometimes looked to be "leaning forward", but nobody explained how they stayed in balance! What happened to the center of gravity? Did the stride get longer to restore balance, or what? I was left with more questions than I had started with.
Not all the searches led to corners. There was lots of common advice when it came to the parts of a run. The most prevalent was: "Keep your head up." That made sense, since it would reduce stress on the neck and upper back. Something else also became clear: "Lean forward" did not mean tilting your head forward, for that would violate the "head up" rule.
I next looked at the core, the torso, from the hips to the shoulders. What was going on there? The fastest runners, and the smoothest runners (independent of speed), all ran with very little bend in the spine, and very little twisting of the hips relative to the shoulders. Those that did run with lots of twisting were generally quite young (in puberty or younger), or had unusual weight distribution around the body.
This was especially evident for heavier runners who had far more weight below the belt line than above: It seemed the upper body had to do lots of extra twisting to counter-balance the motion of the lower body. When I looked closer, however, it was clear that not all low-heavy runners had lots of twisting. Some had no twist at all, and it wasn't immediately clear to me why not. But what was clear to me was that those who did the least twisting tended to be the better/smoother/faster runners.
I also looked at bounce, but learned nothing from it. It seems that some runners bounce, and other runners don't, and both can be excellent runners. But I did notice that most short-stride runners looked as if they bounced more than long-stride runners. Perhaps they did have more up-and-down motion, but the short stride could have simply made it an optical illusion. Since I had no reliable way to measure bounce, I also set it aside.
OK. What did I think I had learned so far? Not that much: Head up. Minimize torso twist. Short stride. Heel push. Fast turnover. I didn't quite see what kind of stride I could assemble from those parts. All that was left to examine was the arms. What should my arms be doing?
Once again, I looked a bit closer at some of the basics online. Every site always said: "Swing your arms!". Well, I thought that was just too obvious: Only Mr. Bean and Pee-wee Herman could run without swinging their arms. No way was I going to run like that! So arm swinging did indeed seem way too obvious.
But what if I were to swing my arms more or somehow differently? That's for the next post.