Running isn’t hard in the way that yoga is hard or rock climbing is hard. Just put one foot in front of the other, repeat, and you're off. But then, if it’s that easy, why do professional runners glide across the track while we amateurs hee-haw on our treadmills like malfunctioning rodeo bulls?
We are two humans who’ve decided to try our best to learn “perfect” running form in two weeks. Two weeks isn't enough time to make significant improvements in speed, but it should be enough time to retrain our bodies — and minds — to run properly.
- We meet with a ~professional~ running coach.
- He critiques our form and teaches us how we can train to improve it.
- We run three times per week for two weeks practicing what we’ve learned.
- We meet again with our coach, he critiques our form again, and hopefully we’re running perfection!
Our history with running:
I like the idea of being a runner.
Priya: I like the idea of being a runner. You know, waking up with the sun and jogging across Brooklyn Bridge without a trace of sweat on my perfectly sculpted runner’s body. Yeah, I like the idea. However, my relationship to running* involves bouts of intense motivation where I pound the treadmill in my basement facing an empty brick wall. I listen to rap music and think about the people who did me wrong (read: got my order wrong). On these runs, there is no sun and a lot of sweat.
Some people eat to run, but I run to eat.
James: I started running to stay in shape when I was 19. What started as exercise soon became something I genuinely enjoyed. I’ve run 5Ks, 10Ks, and a half marathon. And let me tell you: Runner's high is real, and I'm addicted. If I don't run every third day (at least), I begin to feel mentally and physically bad. I'm talking true blue melancholy, anxiety, and restlessness. Running keeps me well and keeps me feeling good, BUT most importantly, running allows me to eat a nutritionally irresponsible diet without having to buy bigger pants. Some people eat to run, but I run to eat. I cannot stress enough how important this philosophy is to my lifestyle (as evidenced by the above photo of me eating leftover brunch bacon pancakes with my hands).
What we know (or don't know) about form:
James: Not gonna lie, I’ve actively tried to learn how to run “properly.” I read running magazines to kill time in airports. I’ve been known to watch running videos online and then run in place in front of my bedroom mirror trying to emulate the moves. This is what I've learned: Fast distance runners are runners who’ve trained their bodies to assume this unnatural but efficient motion. That means keeping a strong core, striking with the front of your foot, and keeping your arms in check (no wild wings!). I try to think of these things when I run, especially in a race.
Priya: Absolutely nothing. One of my proudest achievements is skipping PE for like six weeks straight without anybody noticing. I’m assuming anything I would have learned about "form" would have been covered then. Oops.
What we want to get out of this:
James: To me, "perfect form" means improving my body mechanics so I can run longer and faster. I want to improve!
Priya: Running is something I do out of obligation rather than enjoyment. I hope that mastering proper form will make running less hellish and even make me like it maybe?
We arrive and meet our trainer, Andrew Kalley. He seems cool! We tell him the game plan, and he tells us we should rethink the idea of "perfect" running form; "efficient," he says, is a better descriptor. Everyone runs differently, but there are a few form adjustments that will help anyone run more efficiently. Runners who are more efficient will run faster with less effort. Less effort? Sounds awesome to us. Andrew suggests we run a few warm-up laps while he inspects our form and records some teaching footage.
I am doing literally everything wrong.
James: I go first. Andrew slows down the video of my stride so he can analyze. The verdict? I am doing literally everything wrong. I’m shocked! I thought I knew better. Apparently, I’m heel striking big time, my shoulders are too far back, and my arms are flopping side to side. Suddenly, I’m remembering all the highly unflattering race photos I've illegally screencapped over the years. Maybe the reason I looked so bad was because I was running so bad?
Priya: First of all, James is missing a key detail. We run two laps as a "warm-up" before the trainer even arrives. So I waste all my precious two-cups-of-coffee-induced energy and become so exhausted just trying to make it through the session that I'm not thinking about my form at all. I fully expect the trainer to tell me I'm running so slowly that I'm actually going backward.
The actual feedback? I’m making the whole thing much harder for myself by tilting my upper body backward. What I assumed to be good upright posture has actually been working against me. I also learn that the sound of my feet pounding the floor is not normal. I’m supposed to be light on my feet and making contact with the ball/midsole of my foot rather than the heel.
James: Andrew walks us through a few dynamic stretches that hurt realllll good. Then we do exercises to shorten our stride length and practice landing softly on our toes. At one point, we take our shoes off to feel the way our feet hit the ground. This is extremely helpful. It’s not natural to stomp around on your heels barefoot, but for some reason we do it while wearing shoes.
Priya: I grew up dancing, which meant hours and hours of stretching, so this part I can actually do. The most useful exercise for me is practicing the smaller and quicker strides. Andrew chants "short short, fast fast” to remind us to land gracefully and silently on the balls of our feet. Short short, fast fast... Short short, fast fast... Shortshortfastfast…
After the session, I help myself to a white robe and a healthy share of free toiletries from the changing room. I think of it as a sort of reward for running...while on camera...with my co-worker.
One of my proudest achievements is skipping PE for like six weeks straight without anybody noticing.
Priya: I approach my Saturday morning run with an unnecessary amount of coffee, carbs, and procrastination. I choose to run on the treadmill so that I can run barefoot. This initially feels strange, but it forces me to become more aware of how I'm landing and pushing off. I reluctantly pause the music every now and then to listen to the sounds I make. It's clear that once I get tired, my form completely slacks. I’m used to sprinting (badly), so trying to run at a constant pace for miles is a real challenge for me. I’m not feeling great about my endurance, but honestly my thighs have been on fire since Thursday, so if running with good form is right, I’m happy to carry on being wrong.
James: I run at my neighborhood park. Running with "efficient" form feels very odd — like the GIF of the penguin with the top hat and the briefcase who’s late to work. Lots of small and fast steps! My music player tracks my pace and suggests music at a matching BPM. Normally, I run at 170–175 BMP, but my shorter and faster strides help bump me up to 190 BPM! Progress sounds like deep house music, apparently.
Andrew mentioned that the higher turnover rate (aka more small steps) would make me feel as if I were working harder to travel the same distance. He was right. I feel like I'm exerting a ton of effort and going nowhere, but my running app says I’m running only slightly slower than my normal pace. Go figure.
I foam-roll after my run. The pain is real.
Priya: James and I go for a run in Central Park. Today is somewhat easier, now that I’m not aching. I’m trying not to heel strike, but regardless, I still feel the burn run through my legs pretty damn quickly. I’m not sure whether I’m overexerting myself due to really poor form or just because I haven’t built up any stamina.
Speaking of stamina, I leave James and head back to the office on the subway. When I get back in, James is already there. He'd run back and BEATEN ME. But I got to cool off in that sweet, stale subway air, so who's winning really?
James: I beat Priya back to the office because #signalproblems. I am routinely surprised by how quickly running can get you from point A to point B, especially in cities where public transportation forces you to travel indirectly, or traffic leaves you standing still. It's often faster to travel as the crow runs.
My calves are sore the day after this run. Not like “kill us” sore but definitely “angry with you rn” sore. I feel it in my shins. Andrew warned us of this. He said it isn’t shin splits; it’s fatigue from activating underdeveloped muscles. The soreness seems like a good sign.
Priya: I decide to brave the rain this morning, but my bravery lasts about 12 minutes before I get scared of water damage and retreat to the treadmill with stinging ears and the remnants of yesterday's mascara dripping into my eyes. In these brief moments, though, I increase my stride pace and feel the most athletic in my life. As I pass the concerned gaze of a crossing guard and a school bus full of elementary kids, I imagine them looking on in awe at my dedication and flawless running form. Wow, look at her speedy strides! She must be training for something really important! Thanks to my runny black mascara, however, I look less like I'm running toward a gold medal and more like I'm running away from a bad breakup.
I have some pain in my right shin, but Andrew warned us that this is normal and not shin splints, so it’s not a reason to quit (unfortunately). I hope this is a sign that my form is improving. I usually feel discomfort in my knees and haven't felt any so far. Maybe that means I’m no longer pounding the ground with my heels. Is this what progress feels like?!
James: I run over the Williamsburg Bridge in the rain this morning. This is my usual neighborhood run because it's near my apartment, free of traffic, and scenic in a grimy, cyborg-gangs-have-taken-over-New-York sort of way. Best of all: It's raining! I love running in the rain for three reasons:
- You feel like you're battling the elements.
- Rain usually means the temperature is warmer in cold seasons and cooler in warm seasons.
- Taking a hot shower after a rainy run is abso-freaking-lutely sublime.
This is my longest run with the new form, and I'm definitely feeling it below my knees. My calves are burning, and I LIKE IT. People have always told me I have "chicken legs," and I'm kind of hoping this new stride will beef up the old trotters. I want my calves to look like turkey legs from the county fair.
Another thing: When running, I’ve always noticed my right stride pulls me along, and the left seems to follow. This drives me crazy, but the moment I stop thinking about it, I slip into my old patterns. Retooling my stride has definitely made my legs more consistent. Hopefully this will break my time-hardened inefficiencies.
Priya: This weekend, I decide to revisit the track at my local high school. (JK, I had never stepped foot on there.) There are a few “track stars” practicing on it too who overtake me more times than my pride allows me to admit. It’s just like high school PE classes all over again! Although I still feel exhausted pretty quickly, each stride doesn’t feel like it exerts my body as much because my movements are smaller. I’m pretty sure my strides are too small, though, because it takes me a lifetime to make it around the track.
Also, I’m not hitting the ground with as much impact, which is great because I’m really worried about my knees. My mom damaged hers at a very young age, and I’ve had more warnings about protecting my joints during workouts than I have about smoking cigarettes. When I was young and reckless, I would disregard my precious patellas and drop my ass to the floor whenever my soooong came on. Nowadays, my fear of doing permanent damage is usually my go-to excuse for skipping the treadmill.
James: I take a run in the mountains while visiting a friend in Montana this weekend. Lemme tell ya, the altitude has me PUFFING. I only run one mile, and I'm spent. Apparently, I'm at about 8,000 feet. My lungs are empty, but my form feels solid. My legs are getting stronger!
One of the absolute best things about running is that you can do it anywhere. I can stuff my running clothes into my running shoes and put those in my suitcase. An entire workout fits in the space of two tennis shoes! Running travels well, but running is also a great way to travel. Going on a run in an unfamiliar place will show you a different side of the city. And talk about views!
Priya: This morning, I go for a run around a lake before work (*humblebrag*). In those fleeting, precious moments when I settle into a pace, and my thighs/lungs aren’t on fire, it genuinely feels refreshing to be running for the sake of running without having to monitor calories and distance and optimal fat-burning zones, and did I say calories? Instead, this is probably one of the few times where I’m exercising and just focusing on how my body FEELS. Admittedly, a lot of these feelings aren’t fun and majorly concentrated in my shins, but considering a majority of my conversations with women about working out are sadly dominated by concerns of how our body looks rather than what we can do with it, this is a welcome change.
Feeling that runner’s high is still nothing more than a pipe dream, though, and I’m struggling to maintain good form for a prolonged period of time. Here's a haiku I write instead of running:
James: Back in NYC! I run my usual route over the bridge again. This time, no rain. I play a favorite running game of mine called Race the Sunset. Here's how to play:
- Use a weather app on your phone to see when exactly the sun will set.
- Pick a vantage point near you that offers a nice sunset view.
- Run to the vantage point and try to get there before the sun goes down.
The secret to winning this game is to leave yourself plenty of time to beat the sun. Today, I win! Technically speaking, I never lose. Technically speaking, I don’t care!
The form feels easier than ever today. Short short, fast fast! I’m doing it. I am definitely feeling less sore and far less winded now that I'm back at sea level. I guess my body is adjusting.
Priya: Today, James is still faster than me, and I’m still breathing like I’m in a lamaze class, BUT at least now the sound of my panting is louder than the sound of my feet hitting the ground — and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the mark of sweet progress. I don’t know if I'm spurred on due to running with James, the magic of a New York City sunset, or the promise of a burger on the way home (yes, running while also calling in an order for burgers is a real thing), but it feels more manageable — and I only think about faking an injury and going home once, I swear! I think, given my lack of long-distance running experience, I’m definitely going to need more practice and coaching to correct years of bad habits formed by sprinting on a treadmill with no regard to form and calling it a "health kick." As much as I’m now in the habit of reminding myself to watch posture, stride pace, length, and how I’m landing…I have no idea if any of it is right. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.
Distance running is a golden ticket to high-calorie town, and I am on that train.
James: The final run! Priya and I run a couple miles around the Reservoir in Central Park. Priya keeps telling me she's doubting her progress. I'm feeling pretty good about my stride. I think I've adjusted my form to be more efficient (but then again, I thought I was running with efficient form in the first place, and I was DEAD WRONG). Tomorrow will be the test!
After our run, we eat dinner. I have a bacon cheeseburger. Priya is healthy and eats a grilled chicken sandwich on wheat. I'm all for eating healthy, but distance running is a golden ticket to high-calorie town, and I am on that train.
What's the best part of running?
Priya: Today is great because I get to do two of my favorite things at once: run laps (plural) around a giant track with my co-worker and have my photograph taken while I do it!
James: We meet with Andrew for the second and final time today. We run our laps in form and then review the footage like last time. And the verdict: I have (more or less) adopted the "perfect" efficient running form! Hooray! I am still wasting energy by moving my arms from side to side, but all in all, I'm much better than last time. Gold star!
Andrew goes over some post-run stretches with a foam roller (aka the pain maker, aka the torture cylinder, aka the sinister steam roller for my legs). The exercises feel good, especially in my calves, which are sore because they're growing into turkey legs (probably).
Priya: Andrew compares before-and-after footage of my running form...
Have I actually improved? Am I "perfect"?!
Andrew says my posture and pacing has definitely improved. My lower body isn’t so tight, I’m not heel striking anymore, and I’m not unnecessarily exerting myself by leaning backward. There is definitely room for further improvement in each of those areas, but who cares because I’m getting better, faster, stronger. So I'm not quite perfect, but who among us is?
This is probably the most excited I've felt about anything to do with running possibly ever, and it has nothing to do with calories burned or pounds lost! Are my days of seeing running as repentance over?
James: This was an educational and only mildly painful process. I plan to continue practicing this more efficient running form. Hopefully it will give me county fair legs and new PR times! I'm signed up for the Brooklyn Half Marathon. If I can break my PR from two years ago, I’ll be one happy, healthy, efficient-running dude. And the best news? All this very good running form means I can eat things that are very bad for me.
Priya: OK, so I’m still not totally in love with running. There are no sparks and heart-eye emojis. Am I about to enter a race? Definitely not. However, this whole process has been incredibly useful. Having advice tailored to me specifically instead of making it up as I go along is invaluable. My precious patellas are hella grateful.
Clearly learning to run efficiently is a work in progress, regardless of your ability level, so it's up to me to be diligent on watching my form. Now I’ll focus on being efficient rather than just assessing my progress on how many calories I can burn with total disregard for my body. I’m looking forward to steadily improving instead of plodding on in ignorance and agony. It’s only going to get easier from here...right? I’m also looking forward to speaking about running with a sense of authority, so get ready for my unsolicited advice and side-eyes at your heel strikes, fellow runners!