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Benedict Carey
LA Times Staff Writer

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Some people lope, some scramble and others fly off in a confusion of knees and elbows. Running isn't an art form; it's what people do at the airport when they're late for a flight or the neighbor's ill-tempered dog rounds the corner. It's what gets the job done, and everyone's style is different.

But not every style is made for 26.2 miles of pavement, or even the occasional 5-mile jog.

In the long history of distance running, no one has proved that one single running form works best. Yet good form matters, and experienced runners know it when they see it. In winning the U.S. Men's Marathon title earlier this month, 23-year-old phenom Ryan Shay put on a clinic. "He looked the exactly the same in mile one as he did at mile 26," said David E. Martin, a Georgia State University fitness researcher who advises the country's top marathoners. "The stride, the posture, everything was identical."

In the course of training, most runners will find a style that is comfortable and efficient for them, studies of distance runners suggest. "The body is a self-optimizing machine," said Martin. Bad habits abound, however, especially in young runners and novices. And those habits will be on display at this year's Los Angeles Marathon.

The most common mistake, trainers say, is over-striding. In an attempt to get the most out of each step, many runners throw their lead foot well out in front of their center of gravity, often landing on the heel. The foot then comes to a full stop for a split second, to let the rest of the body catch up. Forward momentum is broken, and the body has to work harder. With some 50,000 steps in a typical marathon, that adds up to a lot of wasted energy.

"Most people who start training for a marathon think long strides and a powerful arm swing are important," said Pat Connelly, a former cross-country coach at USC and official trainer for the Los Angeles Marathon. "In fact, it's just the opposite." Connelly, who is training 100 new marathoners for this year's race, urges runners to use shorter steps, of 6 to 10 inches between the tip of the back foot and the heel of the front, and a modest arm swing.

Many competitors favor a technique devised by Russian running coach Nicholas Romanov, based on an idealized runner's pose. The legs maintain an spring-like S shape, with knees and ankles always bent; the body tilts slightly forward from ankle to head; and strides are short, with quick steps. "If running is controlled falling, in a sense you're falling forward, using gravity to propel you," said Christopher Drozd, a personal trainer, marathoner and coach in Brentwood, who uses the method. "You feel at first like you're running behind yourself."

Runners who stay over the balls of their feet and lift them only a few inches off the ground with each step can reduce wear on the heels and arches. Connelly estimates that this compact running style can save up to 10 calories of energy per mile, compared with a longer stride. Those calories could add up even in a 10K run; but in a marathon they can mean the difference between finishing and hitting the wall, Connelly said.

A more compact stride may mean a loss in speed, at first. And doctors caution new runners against making big changes in their style all at once.

Shin splints are common in runners who try this forward-tilt for the first time. That's why coaches like Connelly and Drozd have their runners experiment with this form a few miles at a time, in the beginning, to see how it fits.

It's probably no coincidence that fatigued runners gutting out the last miles of a long race tend naturally to shorten their stride, just to keep going. "Anyone who's run a marathon knows there are two races: the first 20 miles, and the last six," said Scott Trappe, director of the human performance lab at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "You really need something left over for those last six miles. That's why we always tell people: Do not come out hard. Go slower than you need to go and conserve energy."

There's no shame in using the most compact, conservative technique of them all -- walking. A marathon is, after all, a marathon. Trainers urge novices, in particular, to take as many walking breaks as they need.

No risk of over-striding; it's easy on feet and ankles; and it's an especially good idea when approaching an aid station for fluids.

Said Trappe: "You get to actually drink your Gatorade or water, and not inhale it."

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