Someone once described running to me as the “original sport”; the most fundamental form of physical activity that we take part in. Unlike other sports that require equipment, skill or a particular venue, the beauty of running is that everyone can do it almost anywhere.
As one of the oldest sport around, there is tremendous depth and rich content that we as athletes, trainers, coaches, physicians and scientists alike are all fascinated with. Each equipped with unique perspectives, areas of expertise, and experience, the players within the running community continue to add layers of knowledge and research to help runners of all levels improve and thrive.
Of these experts, we had the unique opportunity to chat to Matt Fitzgerald, an expert coach, athlete, and author of popular running and triathlon books including Iron War, Racing Weight, 80/20 Running and his latest, How Bad Do You Want It? Here are the highlights of our conversation.
A little about Matt…
Matt started running at age 11 when he and his two brothers had the opportunity to run the last mile of a marathon with his father, somebody they all looked up to very much. He explains how this was an amazing introduction to the sport because of the exciting spectators cheering the three of them on. “They [the spectators] probably thought that we ran the whole marathon!”
On and off, he continued to run throughout his childhood, into high school and then took a break until after college. He picked up running seriously after college again thanks to great working opportunity. Post-grad, he landed a job at an endurance sports magazine and was introduced to the idea of sharing knowledge about running through writing. The sporty and athletic culture of the magazine pushed him to continue to take part in running and indulge himself in research and industry news. He decided to officially begin coaching in 2001 and has coached literally thousands of runners and triathletes, and published over 20 books on training, nutrition, sports psychology and more.
His favorite book of his is Iron War; a documentary-style book that tells the gripping story of the great rivalry of the 1980s between Dave Scott and Mark Allen at the Ironman World Championship. “It’s an incredibly thrilling head-to-head competition between the two polar-opposite champions, but it’s also an occasion where the “possible” was redefined. The book also goes into the science and how it was possible to break through these physical barriers that, especially at that time, were thought to be unbreakable”, describes Matt.
One question (among many) we can’t help but ask when we have the opportunity to talk face to face with one of the most respected running coaches is “how do I get better?”
As a coach, trainer or any authority figure in running, there really isn’t — or at least, there shouldn’t be — that one, golden standard you can hold any and every runner to. “Whether it’s altering foot strike patterns or your stride, trying to run like someone else is a serious mistake. The various one-size-fits-all schools of running form are just clever branding,” explains Matt. Because each runner’s body is unique, any program or running style that works perfectly for one runner won’t necessarily translate to another.
For improvement, the best advice I can give distance runners is to stick to the 80/20 rule. There’s this old-school standpoint of “just run more” to improve, but nobody should be running more until they get their intensity balance right. It’s a pretty simple rule: you should be spending 80% of your total running time at low intensity, and only spend about 20% of the time at moderate to high intensity.
By keeping the majority of your runs truly at a low intensity — this means at a conversational, easy pace — you should feel like you want to run more and that you still can. This is what’s going to fuel your fire on your high-intensity runs for the remaining 20% and help you blow down doors.
Read more on this in Matt’s book, 80/20 Running.
The thing about form…
Matt Fitzgerald is known for being a big believer in biomechanics and practicing good running form. Though there may not be such thing as one “perfect” form for every runner, there is bad form that quickly becomes dangerous form, leading to injury and complications. Check out his response to why he believes good form is important:
For anyone who questions whether running form is important, I invite them to watch a big city marathon at the 20-mile mark. Simply observe how the individual runners move as they go past you. The first set of runners — the top elites — will look beautiful; beautiful strides, beautiful movements. As you stick around for the rest of the runners to come through, you’ll notice that running form will begin to look less and less aesthetically pleasing. The takeaway here is good, beautiful form wins.
“Being physically fit and capable is a huge part of success in running. But, how you use your body is just as important,” says Matt. Practicing good biomechanics will lay out the foundation for you to build on to see the kinds of improvement we want to see and fend off unwanted injury.
When talking about form and biomechanics, one concept Matt introduced to us was Control Entropy, which he learned from Dr. Stephen J. McGregor at Eastern Michigan University. Similar to a snowflake, no two steps, even coming from the same runner, are ever the same. There are slight but sure differences in each push off and each landing that make for running to be a little chaotic, biomechanically speaking. These differences may not be visible to the naked eye, but science and sensors can tell the differences. To have a high control entropy means to have more variability one stride to the next, whereas a low control entropy would mean your steps are more uniform and controlled.
Upon hearing that, many of us (including myself) would be quick to think that more variability in your stride would subject you to more injury and imbalances, and asymmetry. However, to quite the contrary, better runners tend to have higher control entropy and more “play” in their stride motions. The reason for this, Matt explains, is that when your skill level increases, running is done less with conscious control from the brain and more automatically; your body begins to explore different ways to accomplish the same task, and that makes you adaptable for natural improvement.
While you’re out running, the objective shouldn’t be to control every aspect of your motion from push-off to landing to arm swing to hip rotation, but rather to kinesthetically learn the natural movements of your body and train your mind to listen to your body. Learning to do that will allow your body to take over and give your mind the opportunity to improve.
Update: Matt has officially joined our board of advisors and is helping us improve and refine product experience and coaching cues for Lumo Run.
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Lumo Run measures lab-grade biomechanics data for your running form including important measures like cadence, bounce, braking, and pelvic movement on all three axes. The Lumo Run app provides insights into your running form during and after each run, coaching you to become a better, more efficient runner to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.