Train as hard as you want, but until you've tapped the secrets of top-notch form you'll be all go and no flow
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
TECHNIQUE IS not so much a dying art as it is a rotting corpse. This seems especially true in the notoriously individualistic, hard-charging world of outdoor sports, where “Just Do It” is our motto, not “Just Do It Right.” Let the Romanian gymnasts obsess over good form. It’s not something Shaun Palmer worries about; he just goes out there and rips it, right? Not exactly. “Culturally, people have bought into the idea that sports are about physical effort, to the exclusion of everything else,” says New Paltz, New Yorkbased swim coach Terry Laughlin. “But if you talk to an Olympic swimmer after a big win, they don’t talk about enduring the pain. For them it was about being in a flow state where things came easy. If you believe that, you should work toward finding flow rather than enduring pain.”
Good technique, it turns out, is the gateway to flow, and not just for swimming. Form becomes especially important as you–masters swimmer, age-group bike racer, middle-of-the-pack marathoner–find your training time more precious and fitness gains more elusive. Getting better by economizing movements (the way, say, John Stockton one-hands a pass straight off the dribble) is all about the connection between effort and flow. And there isn’t an athlete alive who couldn’t use less of the former and more of the latter.
To help you along the path to this biomechanical nirvana, on the following pages we present the secrets of flawless form in swimming, road biking, mountain biking, and running. We also provide some simple drills to help nail down proper form, courtesy of the world’s technique gurus–Olympic runner Jeff Galloway, pool pro Terry Laughlin, road-cycling and sports-medicine expert Andy Pruitt, and Olympic mountain biker Anne Trombley. We won’t punish you if you ignore their wisdom–but your competition will.
Debug Your Stride
Sprinters have long put their form under the microscope, but the conventional wisdom for distance runners has been that you only need to be in top shape. Such logic is changing. Wunderkind Alan Webb, the 18-year-old from Virginia who, this past May, broke the 36-year-old high-school record for the mile, works on running biomechanics six days a week. Webb has even logged hours training on a treadmill in front of a mirror to eliminate an inefficient swing in his left arm.
Achieving a picture-perfect gait is something Jeff Galloway, 56, 10k runner in the ’74 Olympics and author of Galloway’s Book on Running, has long espoused. From his home base in Atlanta, Galloway videotapes runners to help them identify problems in their stride, focusing primarily on three that commonly plague amateurs: poor posture, over-striding, and bouncing. No Handycam? Check your reflection as you run past a store window (like you’ve never done that before). Are you leaning forward? If so, you’re asking for, or already have, neck and lower-back fatigue; try running “taller” and more relaxed. Are your fists clenched, arms swinging across your body? Lift your thumbs, turn your open palms inward, and relax your shoulders so your arms stay loose, moving in vertical planes at your sides. Do your feet land in front of you, where you can see them, rather than out of sight beneath you? Your stride’s too long, which saps forward momentum as your foot hits the ground. “Most people are within an inch or two of their optimal stride length,” says Galloway. “The problem is that when you get tired, you need to maintain concentration or your form goes haywire.”
Last but not least, if you’re coming to running from sports that demand short, intense sprints–soccer, tennis, Roller Derby–your muscular development could be causing you to bounce (springing too high off your toes with each stride), particularly on downhills.
To maintain an efficient gait, even when fatigued, Galloway recommends the following cadence drill twice a week. Warm up by jogging at a very easy pace; then set your stopwatch and run at a comfortable pace on flat terrain for 30 seconds, focusing on correct posture, arm position, and stride length as described above. Count how many times your left foot touches the ground. Walk a few minutes and repeat. Your goal: to add two strides to the count of your original set (that first count will probably be around 45 left-foot strikes). “Once you get in the habit of trying to pick up your turnover rate,” says Galloway, “then you will begin to intuitively do that when you get tired in races or on long runs.”
Become More Fishlike Through Balance
Dolphins we’re not. “Even the world’s most efficient swimmers translate less than 10 percent of their energy directly into forward motion. For the typical 30-plus masters swimmer it drops as low as 3 percent,” says Terry Laughlin, creator of Total Immersion, the most popular masters-swimming clinic in the country. “Most of the rest is consumed by wave-making and trying not to sink.” Translation: Your flailing ain’t pretty. Worse, you’re going nowhere, and not fast. Consequently, building power and endurance is less important than reducing energy loss by making yourself more aquadynamic–more fishlike. “Think of it like this,” says Laughlin. “You are a fuel line with a catastrophic leak. Patching that leak is more important than putting more fuel in the tank.”
The key is to sink into the water in a horizontal position and to convert the movements you use to stay afloat into movements that propel you forward. To breathe, roll your torso like a log instead of turning just your head, which should remain aligned with your spine. Your body should stay straight and long to slip through the smallest possible imaginary hole, and movements should be slow and graceful to minimize splash. As you achieve balance in the water, you’ll start to feel weightless and unencumbered, your hips will seem to float to the surface, and rather than fighting for every yard, you’ll knife through the water like a moray eel (well, almost).
Laughlin uses a three-step drill to create better balance.
STEP ONE: Float on your back, arms at your sides, with just a sliver of your face, from your forehead to the top of your chin, breaching the surface. The waterline should be at the corners of your goggles. Keep your back rounded like the hull of a boat. Gently lean on your upper back to elevate your hips. Flutter kick from the hips while attempting to remain still enough to ferry a full champagne glass on your forehead.
STEP TWO: Now, from this position, roll slightly to one side, just enough that the knuckles of one hand clear the water. Find a comfortable position in this new rotated alignment–Laughlin’s “sweet spot.” (After some practice it should be as comfy as floating on your back.) Kick lightly from the hips. Then roll easily to the other side and repeat.
STEP THREE: Reduce your drag by extending your body line. From the sweet-spot position, sneak your bottom arm to full extension (pointing the direction you’re traveling), with your hand an inch or two beneath the surface. Kick lightly from your hips. Try to pierce the water like a needle.
Devote one workout a week to this drill by doing laps in each position–as many as you can do without having to use your arms in any way. When your form begins to fail, take a short rest. Be patient. It may take up to six months until this balanced position is second nature. And don’t worry, you’ll be getting a plenty good workout, too. “Conditioning is something that happens while you learn your skills,” says Laughlin. “Once students pick it up, they’re stunned at what it feels like to have the water support them.” (Get Laughlin’s entire program at www.totalimmersion.net.)
Get Your Legs into Alignment
We weren’t built for swimming, nor, unfortunately, were we built for cycling. “We’re bipedal,” says Andy Pruitt, a former competitive cyclist and current clinical director of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, a sort of Olympic Training Center for non-Olympians where Pruitt analyzes cycling biomechanics using three-dimensional computer modeling. “The foot is designed for ambulation involving the whole foot; our stride goes heel-strike, mid-stance, ball. But the cycling stroke takes place in the balls of the foot exclusively.” Further complicating matters is forefoot varus, common to 85 percent of cyclists. Forefoot varus means that the inner ball of your foot is elevated above the rest of the foot by a couple of millimeters, resulting in a knock-kneed pedal stroke (as you push down, you’re essentially standing on a tilted platform, which throws the other joints out of alignment). In some cases, this can lead to overuse injuries for novice cyclists, but it’s also a real biomechanical bugaboo. Driving your pedal downward on a knee angled inward uses more energy than necessary to spin your pedals. The deviation may be minor, but the loss of efficiency can be significant. Your goal, then, is to train your muscles to guide your legs in a near-perfect vertical plane. “Think about a piston in a car,” says Pruitt. “Pushing down in a straight line is far more efficient than in an arc.”
There are two direct routes to achieving vertical knee-hip alignment: Pick up a pair of Pruitt-designed alignment-correcting Body Geometry Pro cycling shoes from Specialized (see “Full Tilt,” right), or master the following exercise. Two to three times a week for three weeks, get to a leg-press machine and load it up with the equivalent of your body weight. Center your knees visually over the second toe (they’ll want to veer inside) and do three to four sets of ten to 15 leg presses on each leg. Focus on controlled, steady movements. Viewed from the front, your hip joint, the middle of your knee, and your second toe should be in a straight line. After three weeks, increase the weight slightly and lower the reps, continuing to focus on form. By then you’ll be training for a variety of riding conditions. “More weight impacts your climbing muscles,” says Pruitt. “In theory, once the weight gets heavier you’re riding uphill or into a headwind.”
Spin in Circles
Mountain-biking coach and former Olympian Ann Trombley says too many of us are mashers, not spinners. She’s talking about our pedal strokes. Specifically, instead of mashing–pushing on the pedals through the downstroke only–she applies force to each leg throughout the pedal rotation: Push down in the vertical piston motion described in the road-biking section, “scrape” the shoe (as if to wipe mud off the sole) at the bottom of the stroke, actively lift the leg on the upstroke, and push your foot forward at the top of the rotation. While it’s beneficial in any kind of cycling, a circular pedal stroke can be especially helpful off-road. “In order to climb hills with loose rocks you have to be really smooth,” she says. “You can’t be pounding. You want equal pressure all the way around your stroke.”
The best way to develop a solid circular stroke–which works in harmony with the vertical alignment discussed in the road-biking section–is to practice one-legged pedaling. Trombley places one foot on her water-bottle cage (your rear axle also works well–just don’t kick loose your quick-release) for 30 seconds, rests for a minute, and then switches feet. Warm up with easy spinning for 15 minutes on flat, paved road, working up to a minute on, a minute off, alternating legs, for 20 minutes before you hit the trail. It’s harder than it sounds, so be sure to save a little juice for your actual ride.
Chances are you’re among the 85 percent of the population with a natural forefoot varus. (Check this by kneeling in a chair with your legs together. Have a friend look down at your feet, which should be hanging in a neutral position. Does the inside ball of your foot rest slightly above the outside? That’s forefoot varus.) If so, consider investing in Body Geometry Pro cycling shoes by Specialized. Codeveloped by biomechanics expert Andy Pruitt, the shoes feature a built-in wedge that slightly elevates the outside of the foot. The adjusted position keeps the foot from rocking on the pedal and allows an optimal transfer of energy to each stroke. ($150; 408-779-6229; www.specialized.com.)