Bicycles and cars roll right down the road, but what about runners? Given the analogies used in some of the chapters of the book, it probably won’t surprise you that the movement of the wheel is an ideal representation of the biomechanical essence of running. In chapter 13, we compared the torso of the body to the cab of a car, but we said virtually nothing about the wheels under the car. Here we go…

The 3 Key Points

The wheel is one of the most perfect appliances in existence. Despite its apparent simplicity, the wheel is a complex mechanism with three mechanical properties that have significant implications for human movement.

  1. First, the wheel is mechanically effective, in that it facilitates forward movement with minimal vertical oscillation.
  2. The second significant property is the relationship between the support point of the wheel and the body (General Center of Mass or GCM) it is moving. During the entire cycle of a wheel, the distance between the support and the body it is moving never changes. Similarly, the relative position of the two also remains constant.
  3. The final critical detail is that the point of support is constantly changing, no matter what the forward speed of the wheel might be. Further, the forward speed of the body being moved is exactly proportionate to the speed at which the support point is changed.

The Unicycle

To give a visual representation of these mechanical properties, let’s simplify our car analogy a little bit and think of a person riding a unicycle. In this analogy, the “body” is both the frame and saddle of the unicycle and the rider perched on it. Underneath is a perfect moving circumference, the wheel. At any point in the rotation of the wheel only one point on the wheel is in contact with the ground. This is the support point, upon which rests all the weight of the body.

“Unicyclist riding.” The movement happens when the unicyclist leans towards desirable direction

Reflecting the first critical mechanical point, as the unicycle rolls down the road, the wheel is turning, changing support points, but there is no vertical oscillation. The rider’s head remains perfectly level. Why is this important?

As they say on TV, let’s go to the tape, specifically the broadcast of the 1981 New York City Marathon. As Tim Noakes explained in his 1991 book, “The Lore of Running”, the broadcast included a dramatic sequence of Alberto Salazar, then the world’s top marathoner, as he crossed the Queensborough Bridge. In the angle shown on TV, only Salazar’s head and shoulders were visible above the bridge wall and it was clear that his head was remaining absolutely parallel to the top of the wall. In other words, there was no vertical oscillation created by his stride, no energy wasted in lifting and lowering the body. The “Salazar Shuffle” was indeed an efficient means of forward locomotion.

The Wheel Concept

Going back to the unicycle, we note also that as the wheel rolls forward, neither the distance between the point of support and the rider nor their spatial relationship changes. The point of support is always directly beneath the saddle, the torso and ultimately the head of the rider. This relationship is the most efficient for retaining forward motion in the horizontal plane, minimizing any potential braking effects.

Going further, we can look at the rider’s feet as the pedaling motion goes through its cycle. Whenever a foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke, where is it? Directly beneath the rider’s torso, with the leg slightly bent. Remove the unicycle from your mental image and what do you have? A runner in the Running Pose, both legs bent, support on the ball of the foot with the body in a straight line above the point of support. Landing with all the weight of the body directly above the point of support on a leg, that is bent to minimize shock, substantially decreases the load on muscles, ligaments and joints and thus decreases the chance of sustaining injury.

Key to Faster Running

Now put the rider back on the unicycle to consider the final critical mechanical property of the wheel: the proportional relationship between the speed at which the point of support is changed and the speed with which the body moves forward. Very simply, the faster support is changed, the faster the body moves. The lesson here is that the faster a runner’s stride, i.e. the faster he changes support from one foot to the next, the faster his forward speed will be. Stride frequency, not length, is the key to faster running.

It is true that while the wheel constantly changes support from one point to the next, the human can’t duplicate this exact biomechanical efficiency, given only two feet to trade the support. However, we can approach the feeling of uninterrupted change of support. The faster we change support, the more we can visualize our legs as a wheel. We can indeed roll down the road, just as we suggested at the top of this chapter.

Confirmation of this comes from practical studies that demonstrate that elite runners have a faster stride rate than run-of-the-mill athletes at all distances. In his 1997 book Daniels’ Running Formula, the respected American coach Jack Daniels noted that there is data from his many years of practical observation that indicates elite runners tend to run with a stride frequency of not less than 180 strides per minute, which he links to good technique.

The Takeaway

If you look at this statistic “backwards”, i.e. first noting that elite runners run with high stride rates, the critical importance of perfect form and efficiency becomes obvious. It is simply impossible to maintain such a high stride rate over any significant distance with poor form. There’s a common phrase race commentators use when the form of a competitive runner begins to deteriorate in the latter stages of a race and it couldn’t ring any truer. “It looks like the wheels have come off,” they say, and when you look at the runner, you know exactly what they mean. The form and efficiency are gone and the runner is now struggling to finish, no longer a contender for victory.

The meaning of the wheel concept is really very simple: to move with wheel-like efficiency, we must minimize bounce (vertical oscillation), land with support directly under the body and maintain a high stride rate. The Pose Method of Running is designed to accomplish all three of these goals.

Recommended:

The Pose running standard is a description of a runner as system working at optimum efficiency.

In a previous article I describes how traditional reductionist science doesn’t seem to be moving our understanding of running technique much further. The reason for this is that a purely reductionist approach leads many researchers to view running technique as collection of separate variables, rather than looking at how these variables relate to each other. Thus they produce study after study on one element of running technique without accounting for or controlling the other variables. Generally they are thrashing around with seemingly no direction, because they have no underlying theory of running technique nor any standard to measure their results against.

With a little digging on the internet, it shouldn’t be very difficult to find critics of Pose theory and Pose running. The vast majority of these criticisms are easily dismissed because the individual has a fundamental misunderstanding about Pose theory and technique. It also common for Pose critics to make arguments using physics incorrectly. It seems that many people do not understand that a force (like gravity) applied over a lever (like the body) changes the direction of that force. They will argue endlessly that gravity cannot be manipulated to move an object horizontally. Hmm… So how is it that monkeys can swing through the trees?

Pose running technique has a very specific standard derived from an underlying theory of movement. To the best of my knowledge, Pose is the only running technique that has a standard or for that matter is based on a specific theory of movement. All other running techniques I’m familiar with are based on disjointed rules-of-thumb, with no unifying concept. Pose running is not, as so many people seem to believe, all about “landing on the forefoot”, or “taking shorter strides”. It is much more than that, and in fact Pose running technique has very little to do with either of those things. They are at best side effects of good technique, having a forefoot landing doesn’t directly translate into good technique, nor does a heel strike necessarily signify terrible technique. Although one cannot have ideal technique without a forefoot landing.

According to Pose theory, the forefoot landing has very little to do with running efficiency.

I’m not going to give a detailed description of the theory and standard here, there are many other resources for that. What is important to understand is that Pose running technique requires an alignment of many different variables to be executed properly. Some of those variables are purely physical, some are neurological, and others are mental. The Pose running standard is a description of a runner as system working at optimum efficiency.

So, how do many studies fall short on the subject of running technique? Say for example there is a study that shows no improvement in efficiency when using a forefoot landing, and there have been many studies that show exactly this. Often those studies will then be quoted as evidence that Pose running is less efficient, usually based on the mistaken belief that Pose running is primarily about landing on the forefoot. Again the problem here is that this is just one variable with no context.

For example, where is the foot landing in relationship to the rest of the body? Is foot landing even a significant factor for efficiency? In other words, there is no attempt to explain the interaction of the variable studied against other variables, or to even understand if the question is relevant. Is foot landing even a relevant factor for efficiency?

According to Pose theory, the forefoot landing has very little to do with running efficiency. This variable has more to do with preventing injury, but only when the runner lands in alignment. A forefoot landing in front of the runner’s center-of-gravity may very well actually cause more injury and be less efficient. This data is not very useful without context, and according to Pose theory, there is an even larger context.

All movement is governed by interactions with gravity. If you take that concept and work backward, all of a sudden many of the central questions many studies attempt to address appear to be fundamentally flawed.

In order for a study to add much to our knowledge about Pose running, the runners in the study representing Pose running technique would ideally have to meet or exceed the Pose running standard. Alternatively the study would have to account for variations from the standard in each of the runners. Another possibility would be that the runners would be measured against another standard (if one existed), but ultimately there would have to be some way to account for how well all the variables align, and not just the variations in one specific element of running technique.

In future articles I hope to discuss specific studies and how they relate to Pose. I will also discuss some of the fundamental mistakes people make when they attempt to apply studies to understanding Pose.

 

Credits

I would like to credit Ivan Rivera Bours whose blog runninginsystems.com introduced me to the idea of applying systems science to running. I would also like to thank Ivan for his invaluable assistance and feedback in the writing of this article.

Introduction

It’s very common, when debating subjects of a scientific nature, for people to quote a study as “proof” of their point or opinion. If they have a more sophisticated understanding of the science, they may even quote several studies. The conversation usually ends with the person who referenced the studies walking away smugly believing that he or she has proven his or her point and the debate is over.  While it’s great that people are referencing scientific studies, they often do so incorrectly and inappropriately. Unfortunately, I’m not just referring to scientific lay people, but often to actual scientist, doctors, and engineers. The very people who should know better.

The reality is that not all studies are created equal. Some studies provide a great deal of insight, while others provide little of value. Designing a good study usually requires a great deal of practical knowledge about the subject,  allowing the researchers to avoid collecting data that has no real meaning or practical use.  Unfortunately, it is almost a cliché, that many of those doing research often lack the practical experience needed to ask the relevant questions needed to avoid these problems.

How many studies have been conducted on forefoot vs heel-striking? There have been many, and the data have been very ambiguous. Why? Because footstrike is one variable among many in regard to running technique, and it’s not  very meaningful without a great deal more context. Studies on stride-length are another example.  Again, a single variable that is not very meaningful by itself.

Generally, these studies add little to what is already known, and yet they keep coming, with many people quoting these studies believing that they offer valuable insight. The unfortunate result has been that the often heated discussions about running technique have generally not progressed much beyond arguments over foot-strike and stride-length lacking any other context, and missing the larger and more important concepts.

Common Mistakes in the Interpretation of Studies

When lay people (and sometimes actual scientists) attempt to interpret studies, they often make certain assumptions that they shouldn’t.  Here are some important things to keep in mind.

  • All studies are not created equal. Studies vary wildly in quality, and no single study is perfect. Before quoting a study it is important to understand the strengths a weakness of its design,  and the questions those strengths and weakness raise.  Many studies are deeply flawed,  and those flaws often undermine the author’s conclusions.  Because of this, no study should be taken simply at face value.  Unfortunately more often than not people do no more than read the conclusion, assuming that everything else about the study was in order.
  • Studies rarely, if ever, “prove” anything.  Outside of mathematics, “proof” is actually quite rare.  All studies must be evaluated in the context of all other related studies, and the value of the data must be weighed based on the quality of the study’s design and methodology.  Simply selecting studies that support one’s opinion, or “cherry picking” can be a very misleading. Also, if there are only a limited number of relevant studies, one should not draw hard conclusions.  It is quite common that further research will expose flaws in earlier research.
  • Another issue is that many people often assume that the current scientific consensus is definitive.  Science is a process, and that process is slow and error prone.  One should always consider the possibility that new research can completely shift the context of preceding research.

I could go on; the design and interpretation of scientific studies are subjects that could fill many books, but the basic point is that designing meaningful and relevant studies is not a straightforward or obvious process.

Limitations with Reductionist Methodology

In school everyone learns the basics of how science is performed. It goes something like this; researchers are supposed to strictly control all the variables, leaving all but one constant. Methodically and diligently checking every possible combination of the variables in order to fully understand how they interact. Unfortunately, in practice this is not practical or even possible, particularly in the biological and social sciences, and more specifically on studies involving human subjects. This reality has important implications when interpreting the meaning of scientific research.

What I described above is called reductionism.  This approach assumes that by studying the individual variables, it is possible to understand how they all work together.  Often, though we don’t even know what all of the significant variables are.  This opens up the concept of ‘Confounding Variables’.  If a variable is unknown, then it is unlikely to be controlled, and the resulting data are likely to be ambiguous.  There are statistical methods to help analyze and make sense of such data, despite the presence of confounding variables. However, statistical studies can rarely be used to uncover causal relationships. That is to say, they do not determine cause and effect directly.  Usually they simply lead researchers to likely possibilities for further research.

Researchers lacking much practical knowledge of a subject have no choice but to use the reductionist approach. Basically they are forced to thrash around hoping to uncover meaningful data. In new areas of study, there may not be any other choice. However after data has accumulated, and the pieces of the puzzle are starting fall into place, there are alternative methods that often lead to deeper and more meaning insights.

 

Analysis of the running stride within the Pose Method concept.

Alignment of Variables in Systems

Reductionist methodology has an important place as the most fundamental form of scientific investigation to be sure. However, in practice, it is slow, cumbersome and impractical. Firstly, it is almost never possible to control every relevant variable within a study, because people have so many differences between them, such as genetics, diets, dimensions, life experiences and so forth. It is simply not possible, or even ethical, to attempt to control for everything. Secondly, even if it was possible to control for all of the important variables, it is not always possible to identify them all. The result is that researchers are forced to use statistical tools and methods, which, as I already stated, generally don’t uncover the underlying mechanisms of cause and effect.

So what happens if clear differences in results can only be identified when the variables align in specific ways? This is common in many types of systems, where  ideal efficiency or effectiveness is only achieved when all of the variables are “just right”.  In theory, it is possible to uncover this “alignment of variables” using a purely reductionist methodology, but in practice it’s neither practical nor likely. For the sake of expediency researchers are forced to make educated guesses in order to eliminate as many combinations of variables as possible.  However, to do this they must have some underlying concept or model of the system, and how the variables relate to each other.  The branch of study called “Systems Science” (also referred to as Cybernetics) addresses this.  Systems Science recognizes that often the relationships between the variables can be as important, or even more important, than variations in specific variables. This method of analysis based on relationships is referred to a “synthesis”. The reductionist approach ultimately must use synthesis to place the variables in some kind of meaningful context. If the context is too limited, the bigger picture is missed and the results can be misleading. This is also one reason why so many studies seem to contradict each other. They lack proper context when analyzed.

By evaluating a runner as a system, interestingly, it places many arguments about running and running technique in a context that can help explain some perplexing observations.  One key element of a system is resiliency.  Systems must often continue working well, or at least well enough, despite less than ideal conditions. The reason for this is the need for adaptability. If a system is too specialized, and only works well under ideal conditions,  then it is of limited value. This would explain why so many runners are able to run well despite having less than ideal technique.  However,  it is important to understand that although they may be running well, they are not achieving their full potential.

Another way to frame this discussion is as “Conceptual Science” versus “Descriptive Science”.  The concept of conceptual science is akin to systems science, and the concept of descriptive science is more similar to the reductionist approach. However one chooses to frame the discussion, these concepts are not mutually exclusive. They are interdependent methods when studying complex subjects with many relevant variables. One method is more concerned with the specific variables, and the other is more concerned with the relationships between them. The problem with a lot of research is that rather than studying the relationships between the variables, many researchers only focus on specific variables failing to advance our understanding of the subject significantly.

Credits

I would like to credit Ivan Rivera Bours whose blog runninginsystems.com introduced me to the idea of applying systems science to running. I would also like to thank Ivan for his invaluable assistance and feedback in the writing of this article.