January 21, 2009
“Running Well” by Sam Murphy and Sarah Connors
Human Kinetics, 2009. 184 pages. ISBN-10: 0736077456, ISBN-13: 978-073607745
I often browse the sports section in the book stores to see what new books on the topic of training, conditioning and fitness have come out on the market. Now and then I flip through the books on running and I am almost always disappointed in what I see. Running is often presented as a Zen-like journey of the soul, where an individual works through hundreds of thousands of miles of slogging through workouts to achieve internal gratification or inner peace. Very little, if any, good information is provided on running technique and the fundamental process through which one must go to improve their technique. A smattering of poorly arranged and described drills might be included, as well as strength training exercises and a collection of stretches that do little to improve technique and bolster good running mechanics. Running is often viewed as a simple activity in these publications, not a well developed skill.
Recently, I came across “Running Well” by Sam Murphy and Sarah Connors and thought it deserved a read through. It is divided into three main parts that are appropriately broken down into individual chapters that guide the runner through the key elements of the training process. Part 1: How to Run deals with running technique, warming-up and cooling-down, flexibility and stretching, as well selecting footwear and running surfaces. Part 2: Smarter Training discusses training philosophy, incorporating appropriate recovery, varying your sessions, including supplementary strength training and developing good nutritional habits. Part 3: Damage Limitation identifies common running injuries and causes, rehabilitation strategies and first-aid recommendations.
The authors of Running Well are ambitious in their attempts to provide a comprehensive resource on running and have done a good job in providing a wealth of useful information in a well packaged manual. First off, the book is well published and assembled. It looks nice, with lots of aesthetically pleasing photos, healthy-looking models and easy-to-read typeface and diagrams. It is the kind of book that you can’t help picking up and flipping through the pages, even if you aren’t interested in running or exercising. It is not too big and cumbersome like an encyclopedia, but provides enough detailed information to serve as a handy resource to individuals hoping to improve their performance.
The book is obviously intended to reach the largest demographic of runners – recreational runners and joggers who may or may not participate in road races, trail runs, triathlons and other inclusive running events. It is not really intended for track and field athletes or team sport athletes who are primarily intending to improve acceleration, top speed abilities or even mid-range speed. However, there is still good information on general training philosophy, injury prevention, nutrition and technique that even developing athletes in various sports could benefit from.
Because I spend a good deal of my time examining and correcting running mechanics in athletes of all abilities and backgrounds, I did invest a bit more time reviewing Running Well’s recommendations on running technique. While most of their recommendations are appropriate, there are a few details that could be improved upon or, at the very least, further developed to provide a clearer picture to readers. For example, their discussion of knee lift and foot placement is, I believe, off the mark. They identify proper foot placement as landing “directly under your center of gravity.” A simple review of running biomechanics tells us that the foot must land slightly ahead of the center of mass to prevent us from rotating forward over the foot and falling toward the ground. This is demonstrated throughout the book in their profile photos of running athletes – their feet landing six to ten inches ahead of their centers of mass on touchdown. I believe that sometimes we tell the athlete to land under their hip, even though we know that they will land just in front of that target. Our verbal cues as coaches often aim for emphasis, not exactness.
Additionally, the authors go on to say that athletes should not be lifting their knees up, but forward, to prevent a “wasteful bouncing motion.” Lifting the knee through the leg recovery phase not only results in the knee moving up, but also forward. My experience has shown me that telling an athlete to move their knee forward almost always results in reaching, over-striding and landing too far in front of the center of mass. The knee lifts to a point where it no longer moves forward (as it is on the distal end of the femur) then it drives downwards toward the ground. You want the athlete to think of the leg motion as a vertical action, not only to provide adequate vertical force to oppose gravity, but also to prevent the athlete from landing too far in front of the center of mass and braking their forward progress. If you simply think of the vertical action of the legs, the feet land where they should and provide efficient locomotion.
This is one of the challenges of creating a book on running technique. It is very difficult to find photo or a series of photos to demonstrate the technique you are intending to communicate. Not only do you have to capture the photo at the right time, but you also must have access to a runner that is executing good technique. With sprinters, the top athletes must have good technique or else they cannot compete at the highest level. The further the racing distances, the less optimal their running mechanics need to be. A good set of lungs will get you quite far, even with sub-par technique. Having said that an endurance athlete with good form and good physiology will always prevail.
Training, Recovery and Injury Management
There are some sections of the book that I really was glad to see. Chapter 4 (Down to Earth) spends a good deal of time discussing the choice of footwear for individual runners. They have a 10-point buying guide for running shoes, fitting and lacing guidelines and even a common sense discussion regarding orthotics. They also point out that shoes should last approximately six months or 300 to 500 miles of running. I’ve heard of people dumping their running shoes after three to four months, but we can’t all afford that type of luxury. The author’s also spend time discussing running surfaces – an area that I am always bringing up with runners. The choice of running surface can play a significant role in the durability of an athlete. My favorite choice for running surface – grass – however, was not brought up in their discussion. There are also some handy tips for treadmill running included in this section.
The discussion of strength training for runners in Running Well is likely appropriate for beginner and intermediate runners. There is a good deal of discussion on core strength, although many of the exercises are spent horizontal on the ground (i.e. plank position). I’m a firm believer that most core strengthening for running should be done in the vertical position performing specific running drills that enhance posture and eccentric strength. It is a specific form of core strengthening that prepares the athlete for the effects of gravity on the runner’s posture and force production. Excessive horizontal core training can be stressful for the hip flexors and back, and can result in significant undesirable tightening of the core muscles – negatively impacting the body’s ability to absorb force.
The cross-training and nutritional information provided in this book is sound and will provide the typical recreational runner with appropriate guidelines for supporting their training program. These sections are followed up with useful injury management prescriptions. One of the best recommendations in the book is the reference to keeping a detailed diary and reviewing your recent training to determine the causes of possible injuries. Too often runners try to turn to medication or the medical community without examining why they went wrong in the first place. Issues such as training volume, muscle tightness, running surfaces and running shoes can be the catalysts of injury that need to be rectified in order to prevent future problems.
Although it is difficult to be everything to everyone when it comes to a runner’s manual, Running Well does a very good job at providing common-sense solutions for recreational athletes that may not be well equipped to engage in a comprehensive training program. There are many helpful photos and diagrams provided in this book. And, the overall arrangement of sections, recommendations and figures allow for an easy and enjoyable cover-to-cover read. Given the book’s very reasonable price tag, I would highly recommend this book as a cost-effective purchase for recreational runners.
Buy Running Well direct from Human Kinetics