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Running Form: 7 Reasons Why Mo Farah Stays Injury-Free And How You Can Too (Part 7)

By on Sep 7, 2013
Image of Mo Farah's running form

In our view, there’s no shadow of a doubt. The most important aspect of any Alberto Salazar training regime is also the most fundamental aspect of running. Our countdown of the reasons behind Mo Farah’s success concludes with the coach’s obsession with running form.

Earlier this week we started our review of the top 7 factors behind Mo Farah’s consistent, injury-free success. You’ll find the start of the article here; your countdown continues below.

1   Running form

Alberto Salazar has long been known for his willingness to experiment, incorporating radical new approaches into the training regimes of his students. That trait has been particularly evident for what we believe to be the most important aspect of Salazar’s training regime: his approach to running form.

The Salazar obsession with running form arguably stems from his own running career.

In one interview, he stated that he is teaching his athletes to avoid the major mistake he made. In particular, Salazar rued the fact that no-one had tried to correct his form and technique while he was competing.

Salazar’s recognition of the importance of running form reportedly began in 2006, while watching a race on TV. The New Yorker notes that Salazar was struck by something distinctive in the stride of Ethiopian athlete, the world record holder at both 5k and 10k distances, Kenenisa Bekele.

After discussing with four-time Olympic medallist, Michael Johnson, Salazar commissioned Lance Walker (the Michael Johnson Center’s director of performance) to investigate further. Using videos of Bekele’s past races, Walker was to measure the exact angles of Bekele’s arms and legs at different points in his stride.

As Walker put it:

…The more tape we broke down, the more it became clear: he was harnessing the same advantages as a sprinter…

Salazar became convinced that there has to be one best way of running. And that if you deviate too far from that form, then it can be sizeable handicap on a runner’s performance – and, importantly, their vulnerability to injury.

As Christopher McDougall, author of Born To Run, has highlighted on his blog, Salazar’s emphasis on running form shines through in this quote:

…You show me someone with bad form, and I’ll show you someone who’s going to have a lot of injuries and a short career…

Of all aspects of running form, Salazar has paid particular attention to footstrike.

While only a limited amount of information has been revealed about the changes Salazar has made to the running form of Mo Farah, we know a great deal about general approach that Salazar has taken with his athletes over the past few years.

For athlete Dathan Ritzenhein, footstrike was a particular concern for the coach. In the words of Salazar:

…Dathan [Ritzenhein] can’t be a heel striker and expect to run as good as the best forefoot runners. You can be efficient for a while with bad form–maybe with a low shuffle stride – but eventually that’s not good for your body. It’s going to produce tightness and muscular imbalances and structural problems. Then you get injuries, and if you’re not careful – if you don’t take care of the muscular and structural issues – the injuries can put you into a downward spiral…

A further quote from the coach illustrates perfectly his view that if you land on your heel, you’re almost certainly overstriding. Indeed, Salazar likens the heel striking approach to having a square wheel on your car.

…You’re pounding your leg into the ground with each stride and increasing your risk of injury. When you land on the balls of your feet, you flow with your forward energy…

A related Salazar focus has been in limiting the length of time that the foot is in contact with the ground when running.

Mo Farah himself sums up the Salazar thinking:

…The heavier you land, the longer your foot stays on the ground, and that slows you down. Land with your front foot slightly in front of your hips, but directly under your knee…

While footstrike has been a major issue for Salazar, he has also focussed intently on other apparently lesser aspects of running form. And this is where his taste for innovation has really come to the fore.

  1. In the past, Salazar has used a weighted vest on Kara Goucher during her long runs.
  2. More recently, the coach has experimented with a shoulder brace on some of his athletes.
    The idea is that the shoulder brace improves posture, pulling the runner’s shoulders back and resulting in a more upright body position. Earlier this year, Salazar revealed that both Galen Rupp and Mary Cain are now using the device.
Alberto Salazar now makes use of a shoulder brace to improve running form, after learning of his equestrian daughter's use of the 'Shoulders Back' device

Alberto Salazar was inspired by his equestrian daughter’s use of the ‘Shoulders Back’ device

A further example is athlete Dathan Ritzenhein, for whom Salazar focused on arm positioning. Rather than running with his arms down near his waist, Salazar had Ritzenhein adjust his arms to a 45-degree upward angle, ensuring that they propel the body forward.As Salazar put it in an interview with Sports Illustrated, you can run with your arms at waist height, as some coaches suggest. And this ‘straight-jacketing’ of your arms may be efficient in some sense. But while your arms won’t use any oxygen, your legs will use 100% more.

The New Yorker also reported a further Salazar criticism of the Ritzenhein running form – the athlete’s tendency to run with his thumbs pointing up, rather than curled over in a fist.

Salazar believed that, in straining the forearm, this approach ultimately resulted in added strain to Ritzenhein’s leg muscles. (Find more analysis on the Ritzenhein form, take a look at the revealing video below.)

In short, the key characteristic of Salazar’s work with different runners has been an obsession with running form. That has resulted in a variety of modifications – some major, some apparently minor and some achieved through methods that other coaches would never contemplate.

It begs some questions, though. Are the Salazar approaches as applicable to everyday runners as they are to the elite? And, if so, just how are we meant to incorporate these techniques in our training?

In our next article, we explore the practical lessons we can take from the Salazar obsession with running form.

Click below for your Salazar-inspired guide to improving your own running form.
Mo Farah training secrets: continued image

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