“Changing your form will impair your performance and impact your body's natural movement pattern.” This phrase is very popular currently among the running and sports performance community. Whether it’s coming from a performance coach who deals with speed and power athletes; or an endurance coach dealing with running form; more coaches are repeating this line. The reasoning behind this idea is that any change in form creates a “slow down” or “unnatural” change in movement as the body already has a preprogrammed movement pattern. As a track coach who has worked with speed and endurance athletes, I can say that I agree that those observations 100%. At least in the short term. We know that diets can affect our energy levels when we first start them. We know that changing smoking or drinking patterns can affect mood. We know that changes to the body's status quo can have negative impacts in the short term. But we also know many of these negatives disappear as our body adapts to those changes. As a result, we can develop healthier routines. The same can be said when looking to change running form. Just because there may be potential negatives in the short term doesn't mean one shouldn’t start a diet because it may impact your energy levels; meaning it’s a poor reason if your goal is to eat better. When it comes to improving form the same holds true.
Running form is a combination of a whole host of factors including coordination, balance, stability, motor learning, strength, power, and even endurance; amongst many others. One of the failures of coaches who attempt to change running form is that they usually try to change one single factor; most often motor pattern or cueing; without also addressing the other areas. Usually, they attempt to achieve changes through running drills that while mimicking the movements don’t train all the skills necessary to execute the movement at speed. For example, taking an athlete from heel strike to full, or forefoot strike; may seem as simple as cueing the athlete to land on that part of the foot. However, it’s not always that simple. When changing foot strike patterns you begin to alter the muscles and forces involved. By changing the muscles and forces involved we also change the coordination and timing demands of the run. By changing the coordination and timing demands we will have different levels of strength and power to control those changes. So changing form is about a lot more than simply cueing, or drilling a movement.
One group that I feel struggles the most with running form changes are endurance coaches. When it comes to energy systems and nutrition most distance coaches are ahead of most speed and power coaches. However, most power and speed coaches are ahead of most endurance coaches when it comes to technique and biomotor learning. The observed issues of a “slow down” or “unnatural movement” from the view of a speed coach is often seen as a temporary and necessary evil. We know that it takes time to unpackage a learned movement and for a while, those movements may change from more unconscious automatic to more conscious and delayed. This leads to the perception of being slow and unnatural. However, this is a natural progression in motor learning. An example outside of running may be an athlete squatting. Just because an athlete has done it for a while doesn't mean that they can’t get better. Maybe they’re having knee issues, or want to start competing in competitions. They may have to take a step back. The weight lifted may drop a little in the short term, however, once their knees feel better because of the changes, and they lift a new personal best it’ll all be worth it. Again these effects aren’t permanent. With running it’s the same. One example is overuse injuries. Especially among distance athletes, these can be resolved, and increases in performance will make those temporary setbacks worth it. Improved form leads to the ability to achieve faster running speed that wouldn’t have been possible before. It’s important to note that these changes and improvements should be properly timed within a training program. I wouldn’t suggest changing running form 2 weeks before a major competition. But if used properly and supported by other training qualities like strength and coordination you can make the athlete better; and isn’t that the main goal as a coach??