The starting point for running mechanics is a basic technical model. That technical model is what man must do sprint at top speed. Therefore in teaching to improve running mechanics we must start with sound sprint mechanics and extend those concepts out to longer distances. Even in distance running, ultimately the person who runs the fastest is the person who can maintain the greatest percentage of their maximum speed the longest. Running skill is a motor task! Like any motor task it is teachable and trainable. As with any motor task a systematic approach toward improving running mechanics will yield optimum results. The system that I have evolved to improve running mechanics is call the PAL System™. PAL is an acronym that stands for Posture, Arm Action, and Leg Action. Those are the three areas of emphasis in running. The objectives of the system are fourfold. The first objective is to provide a context to analyze movement. Secondly the PAL System™ is a systematic step-by-step teaching progression. The third aspect is that it provides a context to direct training based on the needs established in the past two steps. Lastly it provides a rehab context by establishing a criterion based progressive approach toward getting someone back to normal gait pattern after an injury.
Let look in depth at the components of running mechanics based on the PAL System.™
Posture should reflect the alignment of the body from the point of foot contact to the top of the head. The reference points for this alignment are the head, trunk, hip knees, ankles, and feet. The image and the cue for good posture is that of “running tall.” After the start and acceleration the sensation should be of running over the ground as you are running fast. Good posture is a major contributing factor to reinforce this feeling. It has been my experiences that, if you improve posture, then arm action and leg action will also dramatically improve. The trunk and hips comprise the largest body mass segments. In order to move more effectively straight ahead rotational movement and side-to-side sway need to be controlled. The key is that they are controlled, not eliminated. Running like all other movements involves movement in all three planes of motion- transverse, frontal, with sagittal being the dominant plane of motion.
Arm Action serves two functions: the arms assist with balance as well as provide a strong propulsive force is sprinting during the acceleration phase. The arms play a vital role in helping to control the rhythm of running. The direction of the swing of the arms should result in linear motion. Some rotary as well as side-to-side movement of the arms is necessary to counteract rotation of the body and the mass of the legs, but this should be minimal. The amplitude of the arm action will vary with the speed of the run. The shorter and faster the run the greater the amplitude of the arm action.
The optimum Leg Action is to have the foot contact the ground as close under the Center of Gravity as possible. This is the most efficient stride. The amplitude of the leg action as reflected in the knee lift and stride length will vary with the speed of the run. Good running mechanics requires an optimum interplay between stride length and stride rate (frequency). Each person has an optimum stride length in relation to their leg length and the distance they are running.
When observing the runner to improve running mechanics changing the vantage point of observation will allow better analysis. Just watching from one vantage point will allow the observer to see all aspects of the stride. Running should be viewed from the side, front and rear. From the front and rear have the runner run along a line, watch their feet strike in relation to the line. It is desirable to run along the line, not on the line or crossing over the line. The latter two actions are very inefficient. Instruct the person to run with different gait patterns- long strides and short strides, no arm action and exaggerated arm action, different foot strikes- forefoot, flat foot and heel first, observe how the person accommodates or compensates. Do this to help them get the feeling of what is right for that individual. At first don’t try coach or make corrections, just observe the movement. The reaction to these modifications in gait will give you clues as to how to best approach any changes necessary in the persons running mechanics.