There's skill in finding what works for you.
There's skill in finding what works for you.
In Stride

Sure They’re Fit, But Do Runners Actually Have Skills?

Perfect form takes more than placing one foot in front of the other.

There's skill in finding what works for you.

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In response to a recent article about running’s viability as a spectator sport, one reader claimed that it’s difficult to watch because there was no skill involved, only fitness. Elite runners may be in really good shape, the commenter argued, but that’s it. After all, anybody can put one foot in front of the other. As a sport, running is hardly comparable to, say, pro basketball where players hit fadeaway jump shots over the outstretched arms of six-and-a half foot defenders, or World Cup alpine skiing where racers negotiate tight turns while bombing down icy slopes. 

Our commenter may have a point. But, leaving the question of entertainment value out of it, does running really not require any skill, beyond being in killer shape?

“Someone who doesn’t know anything about running would think, well, anybody can go out and run, and they’d be right of course,” says John Henwood, a former Olympian from New Zealand, who now coaches in New York.  “But there’s a skill in the training aspect and getting it right–finding what works for you.” 

Henwood knows what he’s talking about. When I spoke to him, he was about to head out on a run with none other than Mary Cain, the 19-year-old prodigy, whom Henwood co-coaches with Alberto Salazar. Cain, who recently relocated back to New York from Oregon after an underwhelming season, exemplifies Henwood’s point that a central challenge in running is finding a training system that helps you maximize your potential. 

“After a disappointing year, I knew that I needed a change,” Mary Cain writes on her blog. “For me, that meant returning home to New York (and its bagels) or where it all started. With 2016 being such an important year, it’s a blessing to be able to, as my mom says, ‘Go back to basics.’” 

“It’s not an obvious skill like throwing and catching a football,” says Nick Symmonds. “It’s a subtle skill like knee drive, or the way that someone keeps their foot dorsiflexed. That’s muscle memory ingrained in the human body over years and years of practice.”

For non-runners, it’s easy to underestimate how intricate the training process is for those who pursue the sport at a high level. According to Henwood, even getting to the starting line healthy and avoiding injury in the lead up to a target race constitutes a kind of skill.

“Becoming a good runner is like being a cook with a recipe made up of a lot of different ingredients,” Henwood says.  “The process of getting fitter requires skill. Just running a lot is not the way you get fitter and faster. You have to do speed work, tempo runs, long runs, get massages, strength training, injury prevention, eat right, take rest days, etc.” 

Then there is the aspect of racing and tactics. 
“There’s a skill in knowing your strengths and weaknesses,” says Henwood, “like if you have a fast kick, or if you have a slower time [PR] than the people you’re racing against. When Meb won Boston, that’s a perfect example. They were all going really slow and he knew that he couldn’t just run along because they would have blown him away at the end. He wanted a solid race. So he stuck to his game plan, which was a specific tactic.” (To push the pace early on.)

Of course, a coach would be inclined to argue that running is indeed a skill-based sport. To get another perspective, I figured it would make sense to reach out to professional runner. 

Nick Symmonds seemed like a logical choice. Aside from being an Olympian, world championships silver medalist and multiple American champion in the 800 meters, Symmonds is known for his “extracurricular” pursuits like fly-fishing, where technique is critical. 

Did Symmonds think running requires skill?

“I would say the majority of what we do is fitness-related, but there’s quite a bit of skill involved as well,” Symmonds told me over the phone. “It’s not an overtly obvious skill like throwing and catching a football–it’s a subtle skill like knee drive, or the way that someone keeps their foot dorsiflexed. I don’t think that’s fitness. That’s muscle memory, and it’s been ingrained in the human body over years and years of practice.”

Along with intelligent training and solid racing tactics, it seems, good mechanics are a vital asset to a successful runner.

“I think a good example is when you watch me vs. [Olympic gold medalist and world record holder] David Rudisha,” Symmonds said. 

“I mean, David’s form is just so perfect, he spends so much time working on the way that he carries his arms and the way that he drives his legs. God, if I had his stride, I think I could run a world record, too [laughs] and I work pretty hard on my form. If you were to look at the race videos from way back in my college days, I think you would say that, wow, he’s not just fitter, but a more skilled runner.”

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