The One-Thought Rule for Running Form Improvement

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Just thinking on the next step

Photo Credit: Just thinking on the next step from Flickr user Juan de Dios Santander Vela, used under a Creative Commons license.

Before I re-discovered running, I was a weekend duffer (i.e., golfer), diligently out in the Sunday predawn to be ready when the course opened.  I was absolutely horrible, despite having what most observers agreed was a “good swing”.  I didn’t enjoy the game that much, though there was usually that one decent shot late in a round that kept the hope springing eternally.  I’d hit the driving range diligently, read a bit on the sport – all the things I now do with running – but there was zero progress on dropping my embarrassing (even incalculable) handicap.

A few (OK, it was a dozen or so) years ago, my wife gave me a week of golf school in Las Vegas for a birthday present.  I received an overwhelming amount of instruction that week and with all these new thoughts, I figured there was zero probability that I wouldn’t get better.  How wrong I was.

See the one piece of advice, given too late in the week, that I always had trouble following was this – allow yourself only one “swing thought”.  In other words, you couldn’t think first about your stance, then about your grip, then about your backswing, then about your extension, then about your follow-through.  You had to focus on getting only one of those right each time you stepped up to the ball.  Your mind can’t shift focus that quickly, and you get flustered, with disastrous results.

Of course, with a very active mind, I could not adhere to that policy – I overthought every swing.  I’m not sure I played another round, other than for business purposes, after golf school – my game got even worse.  Maybe it was a good investment by my wife – spending a few hundred dollars on golf school (we were going to Las Vegas anyway) to get me to give up the game. It’s scary how well she knows me.

I find myself gravitating back towards the “one thought” idea as a runner.  There is so much advice and “new thinking” out there on running form that it is becoming like a golf swing.  You can easily be overwhelmed while trying to incorporate all of the good thoughts included in this post on proper running form, for example.  You may even end up worse off – just like my golf game.

This is why I try to focus on only one element each time out, and preferably for a sufficient period of time that it becomes natural.  Right now, for example, I’m focusing on my arm swing, thinking “hands through hips” in order to minimize the tendency of my arms to cross my midline.

But even this is not enough, there are certain types of thoughts that work and can help drive gains, and there are other thoughts that – well, you might as well just be listening to your iPod and zoning out.  So there are a couple of corollaries to this one-thought policy.

  • Think positive thoughts – this is another place where the golf analogy is illustrative.  What do you think happens to the golfer who thinks, “don’t hook this one”?  Nine times out of ten, they hook it – the body ignores the “don’t” and hears the “hook this one”, and that becomes the visual, and the fate of the shot is sealed.  The same thing is true for running – don’t swing your arms across the body becomes a tendency to do just that.  So focus your thought on doing the right thing, not on “not doing” the wrong thing.
  • Think simple thoughts – you need to keep in mind that some elements of your form are an “output,” not an “input”.  You can’t directly control “outputs”, you can only control the “inputs” that impact them.  Landing on your midfoot/forefoot is an example – you can’t go from being a heel-striker (not that there’s anything wrong with that, in many cases) to a midfoot striker just by thinking about doing so.  You need to work through a progression, at the least, and you may need to develop the right balance of strength in your glutes, quads, hips, and everything else in the kinetic chain to let this happen.  Focus first on cadence, for example – quick steps.  The focus on standing tall, once cadence comes naturally, and so on.
  • Think visually – your mind needs to translate the words into what success looks (or feels) like.  “Quick steps” doesn’t mean anything unless you can picture your legs turning over quickly.  “Hands through hips” is just a phrase without having the visualization.  Eventually, more complex thoughts like landing on your midfoot become possible as the other elements come naturally and your vision evolves from a sounder base.

In today’s world, the desire for instant gratification is prevalent; everything is available on demand.  This makes it tempting to seek the shortcuts to better running form.  And the temptation to multi-task – to divide your attention among multiple priorities at once – is irresistible at times.  Multi-tasking doesn’t work, and running is not a sport that lends itself to instant gratification.

If you feel like you need to work on your form to improve your performance or resist injuries, there are no shortcuts.  Minimal shoes won’t do the trick by themselves.  Willing your way to landing with less impact force won’t yield results.  Like most things about running, you gain through a progression, of strength and of thinking.  Take your thinking one step at a time, focus on the task at hand each time you head out, and you’ll eventually grow by leaps and bounds.

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  • Ann Wilson Brennan

    Nice post Greg. I am definitely guilty of making it harder than it needs to be.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Ann – I think we all reach the point where we do that, and hopefully we step back and recognize that it should be simpler.

  • Carolyn

    I get all flustered if I think about too many things. I do much better with just one…that is to say, before I lose focus.

  • Greg Strosaker

    It is impossible to focus for as long as we usually run, but when I realize I’m losing focus, I try to make sure to go back to the one thing I’m supposed to be thinking about, instead of jumping to something else.

  • Jennifer Burton Brannon

    Great advice, Greg… I’m a terrible multi-tasker, too, and was just trying to concentrate on my arm swing this morning, as well as landing “under” my body… I’ve I tried thinking about anything else, I would have looked like a crazy person, flailing around!

  • Jamie

    Great post! I’ve noticed that my brain and body both freak out when I try to focus on form. I’ll try this, it sounds much better. Thank you! :)

  • Greg Strosaker

    It’s tough to stay focused on one thing – whether when running, working, or doing stuff around the house. I’m a terrible multi-tasker too, and working on fixing that. For some reason, I find it easier to focus when running then when doing other things, now – maybe because I enjoy running.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Jamie, hope it helps!

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  • Paul Davidson

    Great Article. Thanks for the info. Does anyone know where I can find a blank “2012 NY DTF ST-124, [2/12]” to fill out?