Is “being slow” a protective measure for runners with bad form?

We runners—and the scientists that study running—cannot seem to get away from talking about form. Across all sports, we have discussions about “good” or “bad” form. In running we don’t: we argue that all runners are different—that somehow, in running we are all unique. In principle, I think this is a little odd: when we’re trained correctly we all swim alike, golf alike, punch alike, but not run alike?

Maybe there is no right way. Maybe there is.

In recent posts I’ve made the argument that, for all sports, “good form” means “the musculoskeletal configuration that can produce the greatest power output.” I believe that we should adopt the same standard for running. I believe that if we don’t, we are depriving people of the guidance they need to achieve their athletic potential.

There are several reasons for this. As I discussed in earlier posts, the first and most important reason is because across sports (whether they be power or endurance sports), the winner is the one who can generate the most power—technically, who can produce the most work (or energy) in the shortest amount of time. This is obvious in track and field sports, but it holds even for the ultramarathon: the best ultramarathoner is ultimately the one who converted more energy into forward motion in the shortest amount of time.

But there are deeper reasons: For example, a reduction in power output—running slower, that is—can be a protective measure.

The brain has excellent muscular inhibition capabilities. In a well-known lecture, Gray Cook eloquently describes how, when certain shoulder problems exist, the brain reduces the body’s grip strength if and only if the hand rises above the shoulder. When the brain detects that there’s a problem, it inhibits muscular activation that would allow for a behavior that could result in damage: gripping something heavy above the shoulder level is dangerous with an unstable shoulder, and so the brain disallows it.

Running, an activity in which the body incurs an astounding amount of shock and load, should follow the same pattern: if there is an important mechanical or neuromuscular pathology, the brain will limit the energy available to power the running gait.

Yassine Diboun, one of the heroes representing the US in the 2015 IAU Trail Championships. (This is NOT a slow runner).

Suppose that someone toes the starting line on a marathon (or a 5k, for that matter) with unstable hips, dumb glutes or abdominal muscles that don’t know how to stabilize the spine in relation to a pelvis (and lower extremities) that are going to be contralaterally loaded with up to three bodyweights per stride. In that situation, it is completely reasonable for the brain to execute a similar calculation to the one that Cook describes in the abovementioned video. However, instead of reducing the power output available to the hand and forearm muscles, the brain inhibits muscles related to gait (whether they be the weak muscles themselves or other muscles up or down the kinetic chain).

Either way, those muscle imbalances are reducing power output, effectively producing a “slow runner.”

But lets think of the implications of this: How many runners are protecting themselves from injury by being slow?

Let’s put this question in a more compelling format: how many runners with a high risk for injury are remaining untreated (meaning that their athletic development is being compromised) because they have been conveniently categorized as “slow runners”?

We shouldn’t just say that the correct running form is what “feels right”: suppose that a golfer has poor sensation in their external and internal obliques. Would the proper golf swing “feel right” for them? Absolutely not! That golfer must go to a health specialist to integrate those muscles functionally into the rest of the body. Then, that musculature must be trained to produce the golfing swing that can generate the most power.

Similarly, establishing the “correct” running form as the one that allows people to produce a greater power output allows us to guide people towards greater athletic performance.

But there’s more: remember that inhibitory reductions in power output are a protective measure. This means that the process of “running the right way” will center around eliminating neurological, muscular, and skeletal imbalances and their resulting gait pathologies. That way, all protective reductions in athletic output will be minimized. More people will be fast, and they’ll be fast because they’re less likely to be injured.

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