Running technique is reflexive

“Once the fundamentals of technique have been acquired, we can then add endurance and strength’  – Arthur Lydiard

Define (reflexive): (of an action) performed as a reflex, without conscious thought.

Technique – how we choose to run – eventually determines the longevity of our running careers and extent to which we can exploit our natural potential and our reap the rewards of our hard work.

The teaching of running technique must always be approached in the knowledge that human movement only functions optimally when it is subconscious, automatic and governed by reflexes.

Running technique coaching, even when showing short-term benefits, eventually runs into trouble when taught through focus on specific muscles and conscious control.

I support only those running technique coaching practices which seek to restore optimal posture and form through greater sensory and bodily awareness. You can call this ‘subconscious coaching’ – reprogramming your primitive ‘reptilian brain’ and the reflexes that work in tandem with it.

The best example is posture. Proper posture is crucial in generating correct technique. But forcing yourself into correct posture causes excessive tension and new compensations on top of the old ones.

No ‘perfect method’ currently exists for teaching running technique but current practice is constantly evolving. Of the many available tools out there, I employ the following as among the best for this type of coaching:

  • Joint exploration: Exercise allowing the runner to ‘explore’ all the ranges of motion his joints possess allowing his brain to re-establish a correct position of ‘centre’ and re-map the available range of motion and help remove sensory-motor amnesia where present. These exercises are best performed with a high level of awareness.
  • Self-limiting exercise and constraints-led training: Self-limiting exercises would include running barefoot on hard surfaces, crawling through a narrow tunnel or holding a weighted bar overhead. All these exercises force the learner to work within certain constraints. Other constraints can be moving within a narrow area, putting a soft plate behind a runner on a treadmill that his rear leg will move back into and so forth.
  • Subconscious learning: By isolating one particular movement and performing it as a drill, we can repeat a pattern enough that the subconscious brain may recognise it again as useful and begin re-integrating the pattern into the greater pattern of complex movements such as running. Drilling can also recondition a part of the body that has become deconditioned – perhaps your hamstrings are no longer sufficiently reactive to play their part in running so your body no longer utilises them. Drills can ‘bring them back up to scratch’. Isolation exercises like this must be done with caution, however, to avoid conditioning muscles to do activities unrelated to your sports movement or teach it to act in a way that is not in harmony. Whenever possible, we want to avoid isolation work.
  • Externally focused action cues: When we utilise internal foci (i.e. ‘contract your hamstring’) our conscious mind obstructs the smooth workings of the subconscious mind. This has been proven to reduce performance in motor-skill learning. External foci must therefore always be preferred such as ‘remove your foot from the floor’. Here we allow the brain to choose the optimal way of moving the foot. I focus learners on the objective (‘drop down and land on the floor in front of you quietly’) rather than the process (‘bend your knees and hips somewhat as you drop off the step onto the floor and ensure you land with most of your weight towards the balls of your feet’).

There are other parts to the method of teaching running technique coaching falling into grey areas in the three categories above. Coaches should notice that traditional methods such as ‘active cueing’ (‘stick your pelvis forward’) are generally discouraged as these tend to overly engage the conscious brain and are open to interpretation – i.e. cues have different effects on different runners. External cues are exempted from this rule.

Percy Cerutty, the great coach of Herb Elliott, deserves the last word on this article:

“The recognition that anything that is inhibited, mechanical, regimented, done under imposed duress or direction, even that which may be thought to be self-imposed-anything at all that is not free out-flowing, out-pouring, instinctive and spontaneous, in the end stultifies the objectives, limits the progress and destroys the possibility of a completely and fully developed personality.”

My practice: Steady hill climbs

Running Rene 2I refer to every running session, we do as ‘practice’ rather than ‘workout’ to stress the emphasis: we want to practice doing the right thing and not simply motoring through with terrible running technique and bad biomechanics.

We coaches disseminate a lot of theoretical material on the internet these days and not always enough about what we actually practice. So starting today, I will share practice sessions I have recently done or am just about to do with my athletes or on my own.

Because a lot of advice becomes essentially useless if you rob it of its context, I will always provide the background necessary to understand ‘why’ we are doing this session and guide you on how you should modify it if your context and situation is different.

Steady hill climbs


Glendalough AC, the running club where I serve as head coach, meet for most of our runs in the Laragh GAA grounds in the heart of the scenic Wicklow Mountains. We are blessed with runnable trails on our door-step.

We will have a team competing in the annual Wicklow Way Relay, which I have been race directing since 2014, in which teams of 8 runners compete on hilly trail routes ranging from 8 km to 21 km.

To prepare our runners psychologically, physically and tactically to manage the long extended climbs well, we will do a steady workout over a known uphill course.

In previous winters, we have used the infamous ‘zig-zags’ at Derrybawn Woods for our hil repeats because we can easily access the start of the climb from the GAA pitch  .The short trot to the barrier that marks the start serves as our warm-up.

For my runners I want a session that is a challenge without over-taxing anyone. Our current group consists of runners of medium experience – most having run from 2 to 5 years – but not many very athletes will longer experience and no beginners as these are in the Fit4Life group.

The climb to the top is 1500 metres with about 150 metres of vertical ascent. Ascent grades vary throughout and all the under-foot is hard-packed trail very similar to the upcoming race. Most runners complete the climb in 12 to 16 minutes if they do hill repeats with active running recovery, so running the whole climb steadily I expect about 10-15 minutes ‘under tension’ for my runners.

Coaching considerations

Since the race is only 9 days away we cannot expect major up-turns in our runners fitness and we also do not want to risk over-cooking our athletes or giving them a very negative experience with the uphill as this could well be the last memory they carry into the race.

We want to ‘toughen it up’ and ‘succeed’ at the same time. My training philosophy obeys Arthur Lydiard’s dictum to ‘train, don’t strain’ and I do not want to see major break-down in form as that is a sign to me that runners ‘have lost control’. You could call this ‘controlled aggression’ to describe exactly what I want from the session.

Since the main part of the session is quite short – 10 to 15 minutes of the 60 minutes available – we will do uphill drills and strides as the final part of our warm-up.

I like to use very quick two and one-legged jumping drills uphill with focus on upright posture as well as quick strides with exaggerated running form to move the body’s joints through full range of motion.

My instructions

I will instruct the runners to focus on an effort they could describe as 6 or 7 out of 10 and that ‘deep, rapid breathing’ is acceptable but not ‘rapid, shallow breathing’ (hyper-ventilating). Runners will likely describe this as ‘steady’ to ‘comfortably hard’.

I will ask them to imagine they had to go back down and do the whole ascent one more time at the same effort to ensure they don’t ‘go to the well’.

As a final cue I will let them know that a huge drop-off in pace on the second half of the climb means they paced themselves badly and to try for an even effort throughout.

Once the runners reach the top, they should wait on for their team-mates as part of the team spirit of the upcoming event. We can safely do this as the evening will have high temperatures and the trail is sheltered by forest.

When everyone has gathered at the top, we allow runners to make their own way down ‘relaxed fast’ or ‘easy’, whichever they prefer. Once back at the gate, everyone collects any jackets or similar and we use the 10 minute trot back as our cool-down before doing some gentle mobility on the GAA pitch.

When to use it

You can use this session in similar circumstances to those described here or you can place it as a general strength-building workout in early or mid-part of your build-up to an important race.

The workout could be done on road if training for a road race instead of a trail race and slope and distance customised to suit your race distance. The earlier in training you do this type of ‘steady climb’, the more control you need to show with your pace as you are not yet as fit as you will be later. Running Rene 2

Exercises: One-leg stance

one leg stanceThe one leg stance test is familiar to any runner who has ever sprained an ankle. I fully understood the importance of this after learning Lee Saxby’s ‘Born to Run’ running screen which places this as one of the crucial milestones to master.

You cannot expect to do thousands of one-leg jumps without injury risk, i.e. running, if you cannot master this simple milestone first.

Watch the video on YouTube

 * In the scientific literature the one-leg stance is referred to more technically as ‘uni-pedal stance’ – search for this if you’re interested in the research. This article provides a good starting point.