Keep It Going: End-Of-Race Form Tips For Ultrarunners

Last fall, I paced a friend over the final 26 miles of the Pine to Palm 100. The course is a mix of fire road and technical rock and switches. He struggled a bit, and he got an earful. Of running form cues and tips.

When he finished, after thanking his crew and me, he said, “I’ve never thought about running mechanics that much in my whole life.”

Really?

I think about running form all the time. Maybe because it’s my job, but when I’m racing, I find it helps me run faster, especially at the end of ultras, for a couple reasons. Firstly, my mechanics are always a work-in-progress: there’s always something to work on. Secondly, stride cues can be crucial in maintaining forward momentum when the late-race walls of fatigue close in.

Here are four of my most effective running-form cues to keep it going at the end of a race:

Get Tall
The first thing to go for many fatigued ultrarunners is posture. Mounting fatigue, as well as heavy hydration packs, can cause a forward-slumped trunk. Besides looking slouchy, there are multiple consequences to poor posture:

  • Compromised breathing — A flexed trunk restricts ribcage motion, making it difficult to get a full breath. Try it. Take the deepest possible breath standing tall and with your back slightly arched. Then take another with your back slumped and shoulders rounded. Getting a full breath is integral in mitigating hard efforts, especially on inclines and at altitude when oxygen is at a premium. Taking a full breath also helps keep the heart rate in control.
  • Decreased trunk mobility — The most efficient run stride has a nominal amount of trunk lengthening, shortening, and rotation. Slumped postures restricts these efficient motions.
  • Decreased hip push-off — A flexed trunk causes a ‘flexed pelvis’, which limits how easily and strongly the hip can extend. This robs the stride of precious power.

How-to: Arch your back and stick your butt out–slightly. A good cue for what the head and neck should feel like is ‘long and tall’.

Lean Forward
Overstriding is, in my opinion, the number-one cause of inefficiency and injury in running. Anytime the foot lands in front of the body’s center of mass, this constitutes overstriding.

Trunk positioning is the primary factor in foot-strike efficiency. It’s also one of the first things to go during an ultramarathon. Fatigue makes it difficult to maintain the forward-trunk position, but trail factors can also influence forward trunk engagement: long descents and tiptoeing over technical terrain make it all too easy to lose forward momentum.

How-to: Simply leaning forward is an effective starting point toward reestablishing forward momentum. But the hip-hinge position is more powerful, and sustainable. A hip hinge feels like a balanced combination of ‘sticking your butt out’ and a chest-forward lean.

A good indicator of adequate forward engagement is the ability to see your feet landing beneath you. This ensures that you’re adequately forward, with minimal overstriding.

Pick up the Knees
Hip flexion goes pretty quickly with mounting fatigue in an ultramarathon, and a normally short, compact stride can become long and slow. Long strides create braking forces, which must be absorbed by the quads and calves, and stress out the hip flexors, which strain to swing a long and heavy leg.

How-to: Pick the knee straight up, using the abdominals. This straight-up motion has two effects: one, a straight-upward leg and foot lands straight beneath, limiting overstriding. Two, a strong, upward hip drive on one leg automatically enhances push-off on the other. Win-win.

Swing the Arms
One of the most overlooked, under-used form strategies in ultrarunning is arm swing. Hydration and fueling are huge factors in deficient arm swing: ultrarunners tend to be using their hands far more than conventional runners, carrying water bottles and handling gels and other food.

How-to: Swing the arms strong, small, and quick. Efficient arm swing is strong but compact and fast. Aim to drive elbows behind and slightly downward. This creates the same effect at the hips: enhanced forward drive and rearward push-off. Lastly, get the shoulder blades involved: shoulder blades should ‘slide’ down and back, leading the arms. This action also helps reinforce tall trunk posture.

Refer to this post on arm swing for helpful exercises and drills.

Conclusion
Fatigue is inevitable in ultras, but slowing down is optional. Use your head to keep your legs moving. Best of all, a form-focused approach at the end of a race is a great way to keep your brain focused on something other than the pain!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What is the first part of your running stride to go when you get tired?
  • Have you found ‘extra’ energy by tapping into better form at the end of a long race?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 18 comments

  1. tiboux123

    Thanks for the insights Joe! Should we try and incorporate a drills session into an already bi weekly strength session? Or should we just randomly pick out a couple drills before each run? Also, what would a weekly strength/core/running workout look like?

  2. E_C_C

    This is an interesting one:

    "A good indicator of adequate forward engagement is the ability to see your feet landing beneath you. This ensures that you’re adequately forward, with minimal overstriding."

    It occurs to me that one good way to make sure you can see your feet hitting the ground … is to overstride. But maybe I'm just really good at getting things wrong. :)

  3. @SageCanaday

    I've found that thinking about a cue like "quick and light" or "light and fast" to keep stride rate up (usually try for 180 steps/min on a flat road…on hilly trails it's a bit less) as fatigue sets in. Stride rate is everything because a high rate ensures you don't overstrike and land too far out in front of your center of mass. When you do that you also will land more mid-foot/fore-foot with less heel striking.

    The focus on form also seems to help me detach (somewhat) from the pain in the later stages of the race!

    1. 00joeuhan

      Thanks, Sage, I agree on multiple points:

      – Stride rate/turnover is KING, and the best way to keep the feet quick is to keep the arms quick!
      – Form-focus is a fantastic way to give your brain something to focus on, other than "pain"!

  4. @srbagofcrap

    Learning Pose has 'fixed' my issues however does anyone else find it confusing when someone says to "run/get tall" then says to "lean forward" ? Am I the only one that feels those are contradictory actions ? Not ragging on the author of the article since I believe I know what the intent is but we must have better language choices ?

    Of course I can't say anything since I don't have any better words either :) but for me I "get tall" in order to stop and "lean forward" in order to unbalance and fall/move forward. Perhaps I am associating "get tall" with "get vertical" but if those are not the same then what is the difference ?

    One thing I would disagree with is "pick up the knees". If you pick up the knee when standing still and drop the the leg the foot lands a little in front of your GCM. If you just pull the 'foot' and let it drop, then it lands right under you. I prefer a feeling of the knee being down and forward when pulling the forward instead of pull the knee up towards the chest which just slows us down IMO.

    1. @SageCanaday

      I agree with this. "Pose Running" and "Chi Running" have some flaws IMHO. The difference terminology also doesn't always make things very cut and dry. "Controlled falling" etc.

      I think the important thing to remember is to lean forward from the ankles (not the waist). "Run Tall" meaning as to open up your diaphragm and run like a cable is pulling your chest upwards and forwards while making sure your pelvis isn't riding your hips low (like you are "sitting in a bucket" as you run as you don't want that either!).

      With the "pick up your knees" of course a very good form drill is to do marching high knees. Yes, it's more like how a sprinter would run the 100m dash (knee drive is not and should not be nearly as high in distance running), but the leg lifting action is key. I'd focus on what happens more behind the center of mass though: Your leg that kicks back after push-off and how your shin lifts upwards to be at least parallel with the ground. Another good form drill to feel this is Butt Kicks: flick your heels into your butt as you move along slowly…it really stretches the quads. Of course you'd only run like this if you were sprinting, but the mechanics are also very sound for the light/quick flick what you want in your stride (of course at a lesser degree for distance running).

      As mentioned in my earlier comment, usually the one key element that fixes most form problems is this: Stride Rate. When running on flat/smooth surfaces count how many steps you take in 1min. For optimal efficiency you want to be at least 170 steps/min (closer to 180 is better) at pretty much your easy run pace to 10k race pace (only stride length changes with an increase in speed). This will ensure you are landing under your center of mass, at least near mid-foot strike and are staying light on your feet. Of course on techy trail and going up/down steep hills this rate will change quite a bit – but on the roads/track/flat trails it is tried and true! Just my 2 cents

      1. @srbagofcrap

        Awesome, thanka for contributing Sage.

        Do you not find that the cue to pull your chest up and forward sometimes causes people to put themselves into a hyperextemded position ? (increased lower back curve, disengaged midsection/abs). I find it is difficult to communicate the correct perceptions in words.

        Thanks, obviously whatever you are doing works for you and congrats for all your success :)

    2. 00joeuhan

      Good points!

      The optimal trunk position is a *combination* of both a neutral (e.g. arched lumbar) spine AND a forward-oriented trunk.

      The optimal – and sustainable – way to do this is through a HIP HINGE. This is described here:
      http://www.irunfar.com/2014/08/the-best-running-e

      The HIP HINGE position is the combination of lumbar neutral (e.g. "get tall") and forward engagement.

      I **disagree** with Sage on where the forward engagement best comes from. An ankle lean is simply unsustainable: this can be experienced/demonstrated by testing in standing: leaning at the ankle (like you're ski-jumping) is simply not sustainable, versus a HIP HINGE, which is easily maintained.

      The hip hinge is a universal athletic ready position, and is the best, most sustainable way to maintain forward trunk momentum.

      1. @srbagofcrap

        Excellent points. I do tend to favor more of a 'hollow body' type of posture along with your 'hip hinge'. I find it too easy to let my mid section get lazy if I feel like I am "trying" to keep an arched lumbar.

        I disagree with Sage as well on a few points but the idea of "push off" and "knee drive" is so entrenched in the language that it is difficult to discuss without getting into a technique war :)

        Knee drive, or lifting the leg, does nothing for us to move forward. In fact it is a breaking motion because it tenses the hip flexor which delays forward motion. By 'shooting' the knee forward and down via a foot pull keeps the hip flexor engagement to a minimum and does not interfering with forward momentum.

        As far as an active push that, is of course, unnecessary as well. All we can do is 'push up' which we don't need to do because we will regain the height via elasticity. Our muscles don't work in a way that allows us to consciously 'push forward' as far as I have understood the biomechanics.

        I have tried so many different 'methodologies' that so far Pose is the only one that has not yet led me astray :)

        A lot of camps confuse what "happens" with what we should "do". Of course there are things like pushing, etc but none of it is anything we need to "do".

        I love a good running technique discussion :)

        Jason

      2. @srbagofcrap

        Another issue that came up during my running journey is how do you separate a "hip hinge" from "bending at the waist" ? Performing a deadlift involves bending forward at the waist which you don't want to do while running, however a proper hip hinge in running is important.

        The best I have come up with is that in order to have a "bad" bend at the waist requires the participation of a leg/foot that is also too far forward when running (heel striking, etc).

        That was another confusing point when I was learning, how to lean forward without bending at the waist. Generally you can feel bending at the waist fairly quickly in the lower back.

        How would you describe the different between bending at the waist and "hip hinging" during running ?

        Jason

  5. chrispyb

    I feel like arching your back and sticking your butt out is going to cause anterior pelvic tilt issues. I try and stay upright bit swing my pelvis up under me to keep upright form, and then leaning forward through my whole body, practicing keeping my body straight and leaning forward to wear all my weight is on my toes.

    1. 00joeuhan

      Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      Refer to my post above: a forward engagement where the lean is from the ankle only – or "all the weight on the toes" – is not sustainable and is going to overload the lower leg muscles. The most sustainable forward engagement position is through a hip hinge…

      … with a neutral (but moderately arched) lumbar spine and pelvis. :-)

  6. ClownRunner

    If you have under 5 miles to go in any ultra and you want to win, I say forget about it and let it fly, form doesn't matter (but of course you may get injured or take longer to resume training)….If there's more than 5 miles to go, it's time to look silly and get all the moving parts properly aligned…

    At any big money race you can increase the magic over/under number to 10 miles :)

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