The Pitfalls of Run Coaching

Athletes are looking to coaches to help improve stride, efficiency and run times

This is the first in a two-part series about run coaching.


As you might expect, there are two differing viewpoints in the run coach debate. Let’s leave the planning of structured workouts aside for the moment (an obvious potential benefit of coaching) and focus specifically on run form, efficiency, and speed. Many subscribe to the theory that all runners and triathletes stand to benefit from having a run coach if they wish to run smoother and faster. Others counter that artificially tampering with stride and body position, combined with overthinking a natural movement, offers no positive reward at all.


In part 1, we focus on the possible pitfalls of run coaching.


Ten or twenty years ago, the suggestion of getting a running coach to improve stride and running form would have made many of the top runners and triathletes scoff. But times have changed and many runners and triathletes have sought their services in an attempt to improve run times.


The question is this. Is there value to be gained from being coached on how to run?


Many coaches spend hours defining correct technique and encouraging their athletes to emulate the running form of high pedigree runners. Research has shown, however, that there is danger in this method of coaching.


What is it that enables fast runners to run so quickly? There are many factors at play, but genetics aside, one of the most prominent factors is that experienced, high level runners exhibit less braking with each stride than non/inexperienced runners. But increased mileage over a period of time can drastically reduce the braking forces of new runners, and hence increase efficiency and speed. “It is an unconscious, automatic evolution,” says Matt Fitzgerald in his book, “Iron war.”


He adds that scientific testing has provided evidence that “making conscious changes to one’s natural stride actually reduces efficiency.” The reasoning is that by making conscious changes to your stride you are more actively using your brain to focus on the act of running – so while your body wants to follow its natural movement of running, the brain forces it to do otherwise, and this contradiction can be counter-productive.


Stephen McGregor, a widely quoted exercise physiologist from the USA, believes that there is no such thing as correct running form. He does concede that there are obvious differences between the strides and form of non-runners and experienced runners, but he says, “There is nothing you can capture on camera and put on a billboard and advertise as good running form. I look at some (of the runners he works with) and say ‘Wow, that person has really horrible form,’ and yet they are actually running very fast.”


It makes sense that any two runners with different body structures cannot be expected to employ identical form and stride in order to maximise their running efficiency. “Efficient running is like a puzzle that each body must solve for itself,” says Fitzgerald upon close reflection of McGregor’s work. “And that puzzle cannot be solved consciously. A runner cannot, for example, determine that if his height is X, his inseam Y, and thigh circumference Z, his optimal stride cadence is therefore 168 steps per minute. The refinement of running form must instead be left to unfold through unconscious trial and error.”


Perhaps controversially, both Fitzgerald and McGregor suggest that athletes should heed the following advice; “You just have to run hard, without thinking about it, and let the process happen. Consciously fiddling with your stride in the hope of accelerating its evolution toward greater efficiency not only can’t help but is almost guaranteed to hurt.”


McGregor suggests that this process can be accelerated by other means, including training in groups and training with relatively high intensity. He proposes that simply ‘trying harder’ day after day in training can more quickly promote stride improvement.


Dave Scott, 6 x Ironman World Champion in the 1980’s, backs McGregor’s thinking. He believes in simplicity and claims that many coaches make the running recipe more complicated than it really is. He was from the old school of training, a major advocate of doing lots of miles and keeping the intensity high. “Even if I’m doing a longer run, I make a huge part of that run hard, if not the whole thing,” he said. He, along with McGregor, stand by the old clichés – No pain, no gain. Effort is everything. Just do it. Run like a dog.


Mark Allen, one of Scott’s adversaries and widely regarded as the best male triathlete of all time, perfected the skill of ‘clearing his consciousness’ during hard workouts and races. When he did this, he ‘felt his mind emptying into his bike or his legs,’ and typically that meant race victory.


So what does all this mean for us athletes seeking ways to improve run times? By all means listen to what coaches and more experienced runners and triathletes have to say, but if you want to run well, get back to basics, run with intensity and purpose and try not to over think the physical act of running. Learn to trust your intuition.


Stay tuned for part 2 – The benefits of having a run coach.

By: Kerry Hale



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