Alberto Salazar has shown that tweaking a runner’s technique can lead to better performances
Not only did athletes like Mo Farah, Usain Bolt, David Rudisha, Tirunesh Dibaba and Allyson Felix win multiple gold medals at the London Olympics, they did it with beautiful running style. This raises a question: how much of their technique was taught?
In the latest issue of Athletics Weekly, the coach Tom McNab continues his observations on technical elements emerging from London 2012. Medals in field events, hurdles and relays are won and lost due to technical errors, but I wonder how important technique is if you “only” run.
Coaches have forever wrestled with the dilemma of whether to tweak a runner’s natural style. In Chariots of Fire we saw Harold Abrahams’ running action chiselled into shape with a strict diet of drills, while Eric Liddell ran free on hills and beaches. Seb Coe’s style was also honed with the help of hill sprints and bounding, while rivals Steve Ovett and Steve Cram always seemed more raw and untouched.
Percy Cerutty, the coach of 1960 Olympic 1500m champion Herb Elliott, even toyed with mimicking the action of wild animals. More recently, there has been great focus on footstrike particularly, linked to the growth in popularity of barefoot running.
Today’s equivalent of Cerutty is Alberto Salazar. The American coach masterminded a one-two in the Olympic 10,000m and is a firm believer in teaching runners to cover the ground more efficiently.
In his recent autobiography, Salazar says he “tossed and turned one night in October 2011, consumed by thoughts of the nearly invisible hitch in Galen Rupp’s stride. This infinitesimal hitch may cost him only 10 seconds over 10,000m but that translates to almost 70 yards – the gap between a gold medal and obscurity.”
Later, Salazar talks about fiddling with Farah’s style, especially his tendency to swing his arms across his body instead of driving straight ahead. “If he corrected that glitch,” says Salazar, “Mo could be virtually unbeatable.”
So should club runners tinker with their technique? Paula’s bobbing head and Haile’s flailing arm didn’t do them any harm, after all.
I always felt it was dangerous to alter natural biomechanics, but Salazar’s success is helping to change my mind.
» Jason Henderson edits Athletics Weekly and tweets at @Jason_AW