Running well takes skill. Good form doesn't come naturally to most people.
But falling, now that's easy.
And the principle of letting gravity pull you forward as if you were falling, one train of thought says, is an integral part of running faster and with less effort.
Just ask Vinky Mehta, a 48-year-old senior manager at Deloitte Consulting. Mehta says he trimmed 36 minutes off his half-marathon time after learning the Pose Method of Running, a technique developed by Nicholas Romanov, a Russian sports scientist and former Olympic triathlon coach now based in Miami. Austin coaches Valerie Hunt and Mike Maggio teach Pose locally.
Mehta ran the 2009 Austin Half Marathon in 2 hours and 24 minutes but was plagued by injuries as he prepared for it. Frustrated, he signed up for some coaching and quickly realized his running form needed improvement. Hunt and Maggio showed him how to land on the ball of his foot instead of his heel, then had him focus on pulling his foot up instead of pushing his leg forward with each stride.
This year, he ran the same half marathon in 1 hour and 48 minutes. He ran his first marathon and improved his time in every other race he entered. Now, he's looking to qualify for the Boston Marathon, something he says he couldn't have imagined last year.
"It almost feels like I'm cheating a little bit," Mehta says.
Intrigued, I dropped by for an all-day clinic at Castle Hill Fitness to learn more a few months ago, then met with Hunt and Maggio again recently for more pointers.
The concept sounds simple but takes practice to perfect. That and I'm definitely not a natural runner. I lurch along more like Quasimodo.
But first things first.
The "pose" is the exact moment in your running stride when your center of mass is directly over your support leg, and your body is in proper alignment, Maggio says. From the side view, that proper alignment means your head, shoulders and hip are lined up, knee slightly bent and a little in front of this imaginary line, with your weight on the ball of your foot. The opposite foot is pulled up, the ankle directly below the hip.
When you run, you hit this pose, fall forward, then lift up the other foot. And repeat, ad nauseam.
The key, Hunt and Maggio say, is using gravity instead of muscular effort to move forward. That means leaning — from the ankle, not the waist — and letting gravity do its work.
"There's only one action you must learn, and that's pulling the foot from the ground using your hamstring," Hunt says.
Notice that she specifies using your hamstring, the big muscle along the back of your thigh. If you use your quadriceps, the big muscle on the front of your leg, to step out, you'll actually inhibit forward progress and decelerate, the coaches say.
Hunt can easily demonstrate the difference.
She ran past me on the grassy field at the Dell Jewish Community Center, picking up her feet very quickly. A quick cadence is important.
"Pretend the ground is on fire," she said.
I tried next, looking significantly less like Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, who probably never needed a Pose Method class to perfect his running form. (Professional triathlete Hunter Kemper, who came in seventh in the Beijing Olympics, attributes some of his success to the Pose Method.)
"Lean more!" she called after me. The more you lean, the faster you go. But that demands a strong core.
Other tips? Don't push off the ground — that makes you go up, not forward. Avoid landing on your heel. Anything that lands before the ball of the foot shocks the system and impedes forward motion. Try wearing thin-soled running shoes, so you can feel the ground better.
When you figure out proper form, proponents of the Pose Method say, it takes less effort to run at the same pace — or the same amount of effort to run at a faster pace.
Not that running is as quite as effortless as falling to the ground. It's still a cardiovascular activity.
"When we talk about taking effort out of running, we're talking about taking effort out of the movement part of running," Hunt says. "We're just harnessing energy that's already here."
When you've mastered the technique, you reduce impact on your knees. You don't have to log as many training miles, either, Hunt says. That perked this 46-year-old runner's ears.
Most traditional running programs prescribe five or six days of running a week, including at least one long-distance day. But "Posers" (sorry!) say four days of shorter distances — combined with strength training for the hips, feet and core — is plenty.
"We focus on technique, so it's more important to train form than distance," Hunt says. There's little physiological benefit to long-distance runs, and that's when wear-and-tear injuries occur, she says.
Hunt, 39, who operates a small gym called Xpress Fitness in Northwest Austin, says her pace has improved from 8 minutes per mile to 6:30 since tweaking her form seven years ago. She won overall female in the Race for a Cure this year, and overall female in the Half-Track Distance Challenge.
Maggio, 43, cut his pace by more than a minute per mile, too.
I'm still trying to perfect my fall.