When it comes to running style for triathletes, Australian coach Brett Sutton, who coached Chrissie Wellington and Daniela Ryf (pictured above on the run at the 2019 Ironman World Championship) to four Ironman World Championship titles, has long espoused what he calls the “Sutto shuffle.”
— Brett Sutton (@trisutto) April 4, 2019
“The most important thing running in Ironman it’s that it’s more efficient to land with mid-foot strike,” Sutton said in an interview with Slowtwitch more than a dozen years ago. “Not on the ball of the foot.”
Sutton’s shuffle technique, which has athletes keep their feet closer to the ground differs from the more traditional running form we’re used to seeing in high performance runners who tend to drive their knees up high and get a lot of air when they run. When it comes to figuring out whether or not which style is best for you, there may not be one right answer. According to new research, whether you’re a bouncer or a shuffler doesn’t appear to have any effect on your overall running economy.
According to the authors of the paper, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, runners employ different strategies to lower their energy costs. Runners who keep their feet closer to the ground rely more heavily on strategies that propel them forward, while runners who get more air time focus on rebound strategies to get them to the finish line. We tend to think of runners who get more air time as stronger, more efficient runners, but is that truly the case?
The researchers recruited 52 trained runners (31 males and 21 females) to answer this question. Each participant completed a series of short treadmill runs at increasing speeds with two minutes of recovery between each. While they were running, the researchers measured their rate of oxygen consumption as a way to assess their overall running economy. A higher rate of oxygen consumption indicated a lower running economy. Markers were then placed on the participants so the researchers could assess their running kinematics in a separate series of tests to collect three-dimensional kinematic data for each participant.
Shuffling vs. bouncing
After analyzing their data, the researchers found that the amount of air time the participants had while running did not appear to affect their overall running economy. In other words, it didn’t matter whether they were shufflers or bouncers, or somewhere in-between. “Therefore, there is no advantage of choosing, favouring, or prescribing one specific global running pattern based on [these] metrics,” the researchers concluded.
The authors of the study continue to say their findings are consistent with work done by earlier researchers, which suggested that runners subconsciously adopt the ideal running biomechanics (stride length, stride frequency, contact time and leg stiffness) for them, a concept known as self-optimization.
These results lead the researchers to one final conclusion: “There is no advantage of choosing, favouring, or prescribing one specific global running pattern along a continuum based on [these] metrics. Therefore, coaches should not try to modify the spontaneous running pattern of runners at endurance running speed to improve RE (running economy).”
Should you ever try to change your stride?
While Sutton would most likely answer that question with an avid “yes,” there have certainly been athletes who have utilized the more traditional high-performance marathon technique to great success at Ironman races. (Anyone remember watching Mirinda Carfrae run her 2:50:26 marathon to catch and beat Ryf to the line in 2014?)
As more research is done, it’s becoming increasingly evident that there is no one optimal way to run. Yes, there are certain characteristics of running form that are undesirable (like overstriding, pelvic drop or severe hunching of the shoulders), but generally, these issues cannot (and should not) be fixed by actively trying to change your running form. Instead, doing regular drills, stretches and a targeted strength training routine will help your body find its optimal running form on its own.
If you’re concerned about your running form, speak with a physiotherapist who specializes in running, or a coach who is trained in running biomechanics, to help you devise a stretching and strength-training routine to help you improve your running economy.
With files from Kevin Mackinnon
This story originally appeared on the Canadian Running Magazine website.