When it comes to good running technique, Tirunesh Dibaba is definitely an athlete to keep an eye on, says Dr Sean Carey
There was no space for Ethiopia’s three-time Olympic gold medallist Tirunesh Dibaba on Steve Cram’s ‘10 stars to watch’ blog on the BBC website ahead of the IAAF World Championships in London.
That is a great shame, because although we can all applaud the brilliance of Usain Bolt, Wayde van Niekerk and Nafissatou Thiam (who all justifiably make the cut), Dibaba is still the athlete that all aspiring distance runners, male or female, should watch and marvel at.
Dibaba has not raced on the track this season, though she has run on the roads – specifically, the London Marathon in April when she finished second in a time of 2:17:56. But some commentators are tipping her to beat compatriot Almaz Ayana, who broke the 10,000m world record at last year’s Rio Olympics and relegated Dibaba into a distant third place, in Saturday evening’s race. They point out that Ayana is unlikely to be at her best on Saturday after 11 months out through injury.
Nevertheless, win or lose, Dibaba always provides a lesson in good running technique. But what is exactly so good about it? Well, consider Dibaba’s demeanour at the start line. I know she’s on record as saying that she does get nervous before each race, but if so this must be relative to what can only be assumed is a normal ultra-Zen-like calmness.
For example, she doesn’t get twitchy or show signs of tension in her face (not for nothing was she nicknamed ‘the baby-faced assassin’ when she first burst on to the scene in 2003), and she is wonderfully symmetrical. That body symmetry is enormously helpful in allowing her head to balance with the minimum of effort on top of an upwardly stretching spinal column and torso musculature. And her head poise, in turn, helps enormously when the race goes up a gear in the final lap or two.
Observe closely and you will see that when Dibaba wants to run faster she doesn’t do it by directly moving the legs or arms faster but indirectly by maintaining her head poise and then leaning forward and upwards from the pivot point of her ankle joints. (The legs and arms then work to amplify that advantage bestowed by using gravity well.) By contrast, most runners trying to increase their speed, especially in competitive races, overwork their legs and arms, and in so doing stiffen the muscles (like the trapezius and the sternocleidomastoid muscles) that connect their torso to their head and attach to the back of their skull.
With their head now tilting backwards, such athletes tend to compound the problem by unnecessarily pulling up their shoulders, while also pushing their pelvis forward and pulling in their lower back. The last is particularly harmful because that anatomical distortion squeezes the rib cage and interferes with its free movement – exactly at the moment when maximum breathing capacity is required. (Interestingly, Tirunesh’s younger sister, Genzebe, is prone to do this when under pressure. You can watch her in the 1500m and 5000m.)
Which is why it’s so interesting that at the end of a hard-fought race, unlike many of her competitors, Tirunesh Dibaba never looks distressed, exhausted or out of breath. As I said, she is definitely the runner to watch.
» Dr Sean Carey is a social anthropologist and a member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT). He teaches the technique in London’s Old Street and St Albans. For more information on running and movement you can read his book Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run (Hite; £14.99) which is available to order here
» You can read an analysis feature on head poise and speed by Dr Sean Carey here