A few years ago, Blue Benadum was a 29-year-old with a marathon PR of 2 hours, 42 minutes and change. Though he knew this put him in the one percent category among marathoners, Benadum, who’d always shown superior ability in every sport he’d pursued, felt he could run faster. No matter how much he trained, however, he couldn’t break 2:42. He estimates he ran 2:42-something at least twelve times. It began to feel like a curse.
Frustrated, Benadum took a VO2-max test to gain some insight into his fitness potential. He blew a 85, the highest score ever recorded in running coach Richard Diaz’s testing center in Camarillo, California. (For reference, 85 puts Benadum in the same league as guys like Lance Armstrong and Steve Prefontaine.) Diaz, who hosts a weekly podcast on running, assumed with that result Benadum would likely have a marathon best somewhere between 2:14 and 2:20. When Benadum told him that he wasn’t even remotely close to hitting those times, Diaz had one thing to say.
“That means you run like shit.”
This was news to Benadum.
“I was, like, this guy is bold,” Benadum said. “I’d never met him before and he’s telling me I run like shit.”
He had always been complimented by fellow runners on his nice, even stride. He’d never had any serious injuries. Even though he was seemingly unable to get faster, he knew he was pretty damn fast. Benadum figured Diaz didn’t know what he was talking about.
But when Diaz performed a gait analysis and showed him the footage, Benadum could tell something was off. He was overstriding and heel-striking. His form looked nothing like that of the Kenyans who were the fastest runners on the planet. He told Diaz to film him again; he was sure that his gait would improve if he ran closer to his marathon pace.
“I knew it didn’t look right, but I told Rich to let me do it again at 6-minute mile pace and that I’d be better,” Benadum said. “And I was actually worse when we looked at the second video. That’s when he got my attention and, for the next three years, I apprenticed under him.”
Diaz’s approach to coaching prioritizes solid biomechanics above all else. His tenets on what constitutes good form will sound familiar to those who have been following the discussion in recent years: mid-foot strike is best; ground contact should be as near to under center of mass as possible; runners should have a slight forward lean in their stride–from the ground, not from the hip; your arms shouldn’t cross the center of your body.
For Benadum, that meant he had to change everything about his stride–from the way his feet were hitting the ground to the way he swung his arms as he ran. It was a difficult adjustment, but he had the benefit of knowing he’d already tried virtually everything else.
“I had run 35 marathons before changing my form. And, dude, I was committed to getting better. I read every magazine, tried different programs, different running volumes, different speed workouts, and I could not break 2:42.” Benadum said. “But after a year of working on my form, my times started to progress: 2:38, 2:35, 2:28, 2:24, 2:23. When I broke to 2:40, I was like ‘Oh, wow, there’s something to this.’ When I got down to 2:30, I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ To me it became like, I have to teach everybody this!”
He has since been trying to do just that. Bendaum, now 35, supplemented his multiyear apprenticeship under Diaz by taking USATF’s coaching certification program and has since founded an elite Los Angeles-based running team called the L.A. Speed Project.
Benadum’s story might give hope to some runners who worry that their race times have plateaued, but some are skeptical. Up until a few years ago, the accepted wisdom for those looking to improve performance was just to run more. Or train smarter. Or lose weight. Getting faster was about how you trained, not how you ran. While “solid fundamentals” are considered crucial for anyone looking to drive a golf ball 250 yards straight down the fairway, or become a 90 percent free throw shooter, with running, the assumption has always been that everybody already pretty much knows how to do it. Running, in other words, is not something you have to learn.
Challenging that assumption doesn’t come without its risks. If you’ve been a heel-striker all your life and you suddenly try to change that, you will be redistributing the stress loads on your feet and legs, which, at least in the short term, makes you more susceptible to getting hurt. (There’s a reason why more than 150 thousand claims were filed in the Vibram FiveFingers case.)
Benadum is a case in point. In his first year of altering his form, he overcompensated for his inefficient heel-strike by accidentally adopting the opposite problem of running too far up on his toes. He says he got injured frequently during this time, but figured such temporary setbacks were part of the process. As he puts it, “When you’re learning something new, you’re gonna screw it up.”
Benadum’s persistence paid off, but not every runner who changed their technique has been as fortunate.
In a 2010 New Yorker article, Jennifer Kahn profiled Dathan Ritzenhein, arguably the most promising American distance runner at the time. Although Ritzenhein was good enough to vanquish all of his stateside competition, his coach, Alberto Salazar, told him that the only way he would have a chance against the top Kenyans and Ethiopians was to go from being a heel-striker to a forefoot runner.
Salazar also wanted Ritz to improve his posture. Unlike paragon striders Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie, who ran with their torso, hips and feet evenly aligned, Ritzenhein had a tendency to kick his feet out too far in front of him when he ran; he was a “sitter.” According to Salazar, it was slowing him down.
From the start, Salazar was open about the fact that tweaking Ritz’s form could lead to injury, but Ritz was willing to give it a try to get to the next level.
That next level proved elusive, however. Although Ritzenhein did run an impressive 2:07:47 at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, his gait adjustment was accompanied by a slew of injuries, from sesamoiditis (pain in the ball of the foot) to repeated stress fractures, that kept him from competing. His Chicago time from 2012 only garnered him 9th place.
“When I came to Alberto, I thought I was done being hurt,” Ritzenhein says in the New Yorker article. “But this is the longest cycle of injuries that I’ve ever had: probably by double, or even triple.”
Ritzenhein is clearly not your typical runner, but his example suggests that aggressively changing the mechanics of how you run isn’t always a good idea, at least when you’ve already been having moderate, injury-free, success with how you run naturally. (Most of Ritz’s fastest performances came in 2009, before the extensive overhaul of his running style.) It’s worth noting that the majority of Diaz’s clients seek his advice not because they want to get faster, but because they’ve been getting hurt. For them, the decision to change their form is an easy one to make–it’s either that or quit running altogether.
Terry Crawford, the director USATF’s coaching program and formerly a head coach of the women’s track U.S. Olympic team, believes that you can work on your form as long as the process is gradual, like slowly building up mileage.
“I don’t think there’s a huge risk in trying to improve running style, if it’s based on becoming more efficient, but it shouldn’t be an overnight change,” she says. “There should be a progression of skill acquisition. And understanding body movements. Even though you don’t need extensive knowledge about muscle structure, it would still be wise to say, okay, where am I going to be putting additional stress if I change my running style?”
Of course, such awareness in itself is no guarantee that you won’t get injured anyway.
“If you have a 10K runner who is a flatfooted heel-striker, and someone tells them they can be more efficient and run much faster if they got up on the ball of their foot, and then they do that for 10K, then they’re probably going to get muscle cramps and maybe strain a calf muscle, because they’ve never used those muscles in that fashion,” Crawford says.
Whether or not healthy runners are willing to risk that strained calf, or worse, will ultimately depend on why they run. Benadum and Ritzenhein were highly competitive athletes willing to try anything to get faster. Both had to contend with injury as a result of changing their form, which might be a deal-breaker for those who are more concerned with consistently getting in their weekly jog than being in the first corral at Boston.
And even those who do compete at the top level don’t all have textbook form. Most do not. Paula Radcliffe, the women’s marathon world record holder, was always a picture of arm-flailing, head-bobbing agony late in the race, while Meb Keflezghi is just one of many elite runners who are noted heel strikers. For every champion runner who represents the ideal–Diaz says right now it’s Galen Rupp, Salazar’s current protégé–there will be someone who has been having great success with a more unorthodox style. Another athlete who Diaz reprimanded for “running like shit” is multiple Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson.
Needless to say, this complicates the debate on coaching form.
“There can be runners with all types of different running styles, because running style is often determined by your body structure,” Crawford says. “You don’t want to teach a set model. You don’t want to say everyone should run like Justin Gatlin because he’s one of the fastest people in the world. Or Usain Bolt. Because your efficiency has a lot to do with your body size and structure. One of the reasons Usain Bolt runs the way he does is because he’s 6’ 5”. You wouldn’t tell a five foot person to model their body movements after Usain Bolt.”
I suggested to Crawford that, to some extent, this challenges the idea that good running form can be taught.
Crawford agrees, but claims that there are some basic mechanical principles–keeping your body parts aligned with your center of gravity, not leaning too far back or swinging your arms side to side–that are useful to everyone interested in making small improvements to their form. For most amateurs, however, Crawford doesn’t think it needs to be a major priority.
“In terms of how we work with our elite athletes, yes, they’re going to get down to the finer points of analyzing form and technique, but that’s not anything that the average runner needs to be overly concerned with,” Crawford said. “The average runner should be concerned with a running style that will increase their efficiency, prevent them from getting hurt, and increase their pleasure.”
Fortunate is the athlete for whom those three things are mutually inclusive.