Do “fast” runners run differently than “slow” runners?

Recently I filmed part of the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon to look at the form of different runners. And today, I want your help!

Running Form

Running form is often a controversial topic. Nike Oregon Project Head Coach Alberto Salazar has said:

There has to be one best way of running. It’s got to be like a law of physics. And if you deviate too much from that… it can be a big handicap.

But I disagree. Much like Pete Larson explained, in biology the only constant is variation. Runners are going to have very different form characteristics based on their body structure, neuromuscular wiring, experience, strength, and preferences.

From a physics perspective, there’s definitely a perfect way to run. Your legs are like levers propelling you forward and there is indeed “one best way” to move.

But we’re not machines. We’re animals. And variation among animals is normal and expected. While I don’t believe there’s a “perfect” form, there is likely good running form that sticks to basic principles.

Just the other day a runner told me he was going to unsubscribe from my email list because I included a picture of a woman heel striking.

Well in that case, I guess we can’t include pictures of Meb Keflizighi (watch at :40sec mark), Kara Goucher or Shalane Flanagan (see 4th picture down)!

What’s more important to remember is that instead of dogmatic “rules,” there are instead several basic principles that govern good running form.

We’ll get to that later, but first let’s take a look at the variation in our running form from the Rock ‘n’ Roll half.

Running Form Among “Fast” Runners

The footage below is of the top 6 male runners at approximately the 9.8-mile mark on the half marathon course.

First, take a look at normal speed:

Now, let’s watch in slow motion:

We can learn quite a bit from these videos. But a big disclaimer! I did not film with a high-end, slow-motion camera. I simply used my GoPro and slowed down the footage as best I could.

More interesting metrics can be gleaned from better footage but let’s use what we have today.

And let’s also define our terms:

  • Cadence is your step rate – or how many steps you take per minute with both feet.
  • Heel strike is when you first make contact with the ground with the heel
  • Midfoot strike is when you first make contact with the ground with your midfoot (or “landing flat-footed”)
  • Proprioceptive heel strike is when you first make contact with the ground with the heel, but your bodyweight doesn’t fully come down until the foot is flat

Here are a few notes from what I can tell:

  • #1 runner takes 13 steps in 4 seconds, giving a cadence of about 195. This runner has a proprioceptive heel strike.
  • #2 runner takes 11 steps in 3.5 seconds, giving a cadence of about 188. This runner has a midfoot strike.
  • #3 runner takes 17 steps in 5 seconds, giving a cadence of about 204. This runner has a midfoot strike.
  • #4 runner takes 12 steps in 3.5 seconds, giving a cadence of about 205. This runner has a proprioceptive heel strike.
  • #5 runner takes 10 steps in 3.1 seconds, giving a cadence of about 193. This runner has a mild proprioceptive heel strike or midfoot strike.
  • #6 runner takes 12 steps in 3.8 seconds, giving a cadence of about 189. This runner has a proprioceptive heel strike (most significant heel strike as far as I can tell).

There’s quite a bit of variability in this data. But from my perspective, these runners have more similarities than differences.

First, each runner has a fairly high cadence. I’m sure you’ve been advised to run with a cadence of 180 steps per minute, but this is during your easy pace – not a faster pace.

Cadence will naturally increase the faster you run. And since we’re looking at the six fastest runners through 10 miles of the half marathon, I’m not surprised their cadence is much higher than 180.

Next, it’s clear that none of these runners have a “bad” heel strike – the aggressive, heel-smashing variety that sends shockwaves of impact forces up through your legs.

Instead, they all have either a midfoot strike or a proprioceptive heel strike. Just like Meb Keflizighi (and me), this is an acceptable way to run. I don’t get worried about a proprioceptive heel strike.

What else do you notice?

Running Form Among Average Runners

Next, let’s do something interesting and look at the form of average runners. The videos below show runners who finished in about 2:10 – 2:15 for the half (9:55 – 10:20 mile pace).

This is filmed at about the 8.7-mile mark:

Here’s a slow motion version:

There are too many people to review individually, so I’ll leave these videos for you to look over.

But I will say that the most glaring difference between the two groups is the amount of excessive movement among the slower runners:

  • They look around more frequently
  • Many of them are talking, waving or carrying things
  • There’s more frequent weaving or putting hands on their hips

This excess movement is wasting a lot of energy, causing fatigue earlier in the race. What do you think would happen if all that extra movement was eliminated?

Leave your reactions in the comments below; I’d love to hear what you think.

“Fast” vs. “Slow” Runners

Speed isn’t the only thing that differentiates fast runners from slower runners.

Did you notice any glaring differences in running form between the two groups in the videos above?

Look at:

  • Foot strike
  • Cadence
  • Arm carriage
  • The amount of bounce or “vertical oscillation” in the stride
  • Excess movement
  • Posture

Faster runners don’t have as much variation in their form. Running “fast” requires you to be more efficient, so you likely won’t see aggressive heel strikes, slow cadences, poor posture, and excess movement.

One of the (many) reasons these runnesr are fast is because they’re efficient. They have a high running economy that wastes less energy at higher speeds.

And the best part? Efficiency can be learned! Even if you’re making all of the classic mistakes, there’s tremendous room for improvement.

By focusing on the right drills, strength exercises, and dynamic stretches you’ll teach your body how to run through your optimal gait cycle.

If you’d like a detailed program on how to develop an efficient, strong running stride then check out RunnersConnect’s Running Form Course.

It was created by Olympic Trials qualifier Jeff Gaudette, who’s helped thousands of runners with their form over the years (including mine – I own the course, too!). You can also check out my running form interview with Jeff.

After you check out the course, leave a comment below: What are the main form differences between “fast” and “slow” runners in the videos above?

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