Running Form Comparison between Bekele, Gebrselassie, and Farah in the 2013 Great North Run

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I came across this video clip via Peter Larson. Despite the fact that Bekele is turning through much of it, it gives us an opportunity to look at the running form differences between three great runners: Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrselassie, and Mo Farah.

You may have first looked at footstrike, checking whether they heelstrike and/or overstride. These questions are so much the focus of research and discussion about running form these days that it can sometimes seem like they’re all that matters.

However, footstrike is really just the tip of the iceberg, and if you are trying to change your footstrike you need to know something about the whole iceberg, not just the part that’s most easily visible. So I’m going to walk you through a few of the things I look at when I evaluate a runner’s form and maybe this will give you some new ideas about what to feel for in your own form and look for in others’.

Before I go any farther, though, let me clarify that this commentary represents me adapting my evaluation methods to video. In reality I rarely use video to work with runners because what you can’t see in video dwarfs what you can, and my analysis doesn’t depend generally on particular moments in the gait cycle but how the cycle unfolds – in short, I analyze movements, not a series of positions.

That said, here are three very interesting positions I’ve pulled out of the video:

1. Midstance

Bekele, Gebrselassie, Farah midstance comparison

The first collage is midstance for each of the runners, plus or minus the margin of error of my reaction time on the YouTube “pause” button. If you wondered whether any of these runners were overstriding, this should set that question to rest.

Yes, yes, I know these are not pictures of footstrike! Frankly looking at initial contact of a foot with the ground can be confusing because whether it’s the impact-transient-causing type of event depends on what is on the foot, how stiffened the leg is on contact, how the weight progresses over the sole of the foot, and even how fast the runner is going. At the speed these guys were running the foot definitely touches the ground out in front of them, but their bodies are moving so fast that by the time there’s any significant force through that foot they’re on top of it.

With so many conflating factors in visually determining whether a runner is overstriding I’ve stopped caring much about the question unless it’s extreme, and I’ve switched to checking where their weight is in midstance instead. If a runner is overstriding in a meaningful way, their hip joint will be behind the ankle in midstance. These guys all have their standing hip joints exactly over their ankles in midstance. Clean as a whistle. (And in case you’re wondering how I determined midstance, I picked the moment their heads were lowest.)

So they’re not overstriding. However there’s a major difference between the first two and Farah. Bekele and Gebrselassie are both leaning forward (And please note in this part of the gait cycle it looks like “bad” leaning, just from the pelvis. It isn’t, as you’ll see in the other pictures.) If you drew a line from ankle upwards through the hip joint and continued up to head height, both their heads would be in front of it. However the back of Farah’s head lies on the line. He’s much more upright than the other two. (In this context I’m using “upright” to mean how close to vertical his spine is, not how straight it is.)

2. Toe-off

Bekele, Gebrselassie, Farah toeoff comparison

In this picture you see the three at the moment of toe-off. As you can see, their shoes have just lost contact with the ground. I’ve taken a shot at drawing lines from hip joint of the toe-off leg through the neck to the head, it looks a little sloppy and I didn’t have the control to get them exactly where I felt they were most accurate. (If anyone knows of a better tool for doing this than picmonkey.com, I’d be grateful if you’d leave a comment pointing me to it!) In pictures where someone has drawn a line through the body I often disagree with their placement of the line as being not anatomically precise. It’s easy to draw these things in a way that confirms your bias. I’ve aimed my lines to run from hip joint parallel to the spine, through the neck and into whatever part of the skull they arrive in. I didn’t get all three necks the same, Gebrselassie’s should angle yet a little more forward. Even so, you can see that Bekele and Gebrselassie are leaning forward about the same at this point (Gebrselassie actually a little bit more) and Farah is quite a bit more upright. You can also see that Farah’s chin is more tucked than the other two. In this picture it’s hard to see Gebrselassie’s chin but overall in the video you can see that he tucks his a little more than Bekele.

Aside from lean you can also see that Bekele and Farah have their left shoulders and hands behind the line I’ve drawn while Gebrselassie’s shoulder is right on it and his hand is in front of it. This shows something that will be even clearer in the next set of pictures, which is that Gebrselassie uses less trunk counterrotation than the other two when he runs. You can also see here that his back leg is not as straight as the other two have theirs. This is connected to the counterrotation issue – less rotation gives him a shorter stride length which he compensates for with a higher stride rate. I counted the stride rates of the three while watching the actual race and got approximately 180 for Farah, 188 for Bekele, and 204 for Gebrselassie! All of them are reasonable for runners of their level but it’s worth observing that Gebrselassie and Farah use opposite strategies for speed – Gebrselassie takes shorter, super-quick strides with minimal torso rotation while Farah takes super-long, slower strides with huge torso movement. Bekele is right in the middle in balancing stride rate/stride length.

3. Maximum Trunk Counterrotation

Bekele, Gebrselassie, Farah torso counterrotation comparison

In this final collage I’ve selected what looks like the point of maximum trunk counterrotation for each of them, which happens in the flight phase of the gait cycle. These pictures are the hardest to compare because each runner is captured at a different angle and Bekele’s head is still turned, which limits how much he could turn his upper body the other direction. It looks from the leg and foot position like I’ve caught Farah a little bit later in the gait cycle than the others but I’ve watched the video a million times and this seems to be the moment of maximum forward movement of his shoulder, so I’m going to go with it.

The first thing that stands out to me is that the difference between the forward lean of the first two runners and Farah has become very large indeed. His spine looks absolutely vertical. We’ve seen this change in the angle of his trunk to the ground over the course of his gait cycle, and this reveals the biggest difference between him and the other two: Farah moves his trunk in the sagittal plane when running and they do not. He goes from a moderate forward lean at midstance to almost upright, then leans forward again for the next stride. The other two maintain a steady lean through out their gait cycles.

You can easily see an indicator of Farah’s sagittal-plane movement in full-speed race video, for instance the 10,000 meter final from the Olympics. When seen from the side, his head clearly bobs forward and backward (relative to the speed of his body overall) in contrast to the heads of all the runners around him which just move smoothly forward. Farah positions his trunk so that when he pushes off in late stance his head is behind the line of force and is pushed backwards – in other words, pushing off makes him arch his back a little. And then he has to counter that movement by activating his trunk flexors to bring both his head and leg forward for his next footstrike. Very few world-class runners do this; I believe very few runners who do this rise to world-class level because it is less economical than positioning the torso so the force in late stance is transmitted through the spine to the head, pushing it smoothly forwards instead of backwards. However, a runner’s success is created by a constellation of attributes and economy is only of them, and Farah depends on it less than the other two.

What causes Farah to organize his running in this more expensive manner is something that can’t be determined visually; I’d have to put my hands on him and feel what his neck is like, his ankles, his upper spine, and so forth to know the answer. (Incidentally, the level of tension a runner would feel in their neck, face, and jaw running like this would lead to a lot of grimacing.) In my experience, people instinctively choose to be economical when they can feel how to do it, and if a runner isn’t making that choice there is probably what Feldenkrais practitioners call “parasitic effort” getting in the way.

There’s still more to say about this: the possibility that Farah is at maximum trunk rotation later in his gait cycle than the other two points to the overall larger trunk movements he makes, much of which can’t be seen from the side. His head moves more side-to-side than other runners’, as do his shoulders and ribcage. When he stretches out his stride at the end of a race he makes his fabulous stride length happen without overstriding through this huge trunk movement. The possibility that it might be slightly out of sync with his legs – slightly delayed – coupled with the sagittal-plane trunk movement so unusual for a runner add detail to the impression I always get that he’s “pumping” not only with his arms but somehow with his torso, pushing harder against the ground and driving his legs through the whole cycle by tremendous auxiliary motion of his trunk. This is strength, not economy, that he calls upon to perform his best.

You can see a small difference between Bekele and Gebrselassie’s backs in these pictures as well. Gebrselassie is a little straighter, you could almost say his back looks arched as well. That difference would likely seem larger if Bekele were looking forward and his shoulder were able to move naturally – he would look even more relaxed and forward-leaning, based on how he looked in the rest of this race and how he usually looks. Gebrselassie has always had a slightly more arched back than the average East African distance runner, and a tendency to tuck his chin as well though under pressure he lets it move forward in more efficient fashion – the opposite of Farah’s response to pressure. Bekele by contrast has always had an exceedingly clean lean and easy trunk mechanics free of distortion. If I had to be any runner in the world other than myself, I’d want to be him.

(If you haven’t seen the whole race, you can probably find it on YouTube and if you’ve read this far you should really just go watch it! Then read the rest of this blog post.)

Under pressure at the end of the race, Farah pumped in all the ways I’ve described, reaching out of his form for more power anywhere he could find it. He found it and closed on Bekele in amazing fashion. Bekele, nearly overtaken, seemed to smile calmly and then inexplicably sped up without appearing to do anything different, and won the race.

Does Bekele’s win mean his way of running is best? I think at this level “best” is a vague and possibly useless word. Farah beat Bekele in the Olympics 10,000m, after all, and Gebrselassie is more accomplished than either. I think we could eventually agree that Bekele’s style is most efficient and Farah’s least, or, to flip it around, Farah’s is most powerful – even extraordinarily so – and Bekele’s least, with Gebrselassie striking perhaps the perfect balance and possessing more versatility than either.

For me this becomes an aesthetic question. They are three extraordinary runners with very different styles, bodies, and personalities, and so they give very different gifts to those of us watching. I think we love to watch Farah run because he embodies desire and force of will, Gebrselassie displays amazing speed and lightness, and Bekele channels calm and grace.

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21 comments on “Running Form Comparison between Bekele, Gebrselassie, and Farah in the 2013 Great North Run

  1. Jan Hetherington on said:

    Wow Jae – thanks for your detailed analysis!! Very meaningful, and a great reminder that (much as it would simplify everything), we really can’t give a one-prescription-fits-all solution.

    I am so glad I went to watch the race, upon your suggestion, though our broadband isn’t as ‘broad ‘ as we would like so the resolution wasn’t good enough to really see too much form detail. Always amazes me how thrilling it is to watch elite runners in distance mode. Never tire of it. And it was exciting not knowing who won…… I was jumping up and down at the end!

    Thx!!

    • Glad you saw it, I was jumping up and down too — even when I watched the end for a second time! Really exciting.

      Thanks for your comments, I’m really happy you like the post. I spent a lot of time here writing about the differences between them and the significance rather than writing about the things they were all doing the same, and right, because it was an awfully long post as it was and I decided to draw the line at writing about what was new and interesting to me. That said, I do think there are a few features of running form that do fit all (or at least those with bodies not too far outside the norm). These guys are doing those things. They are all leaning from the ankles, they all have a nice counterrotation of the trunk even if they deploy it in different amounts and to different effect. Their arms are virtually identical and absolutely correct. As I did point out above they’re not overstriding or heelstriking. Those are the main crucial things and I should have said so! Running right is important but three people can all run “right” without running the same. Make sense?

  2. scott forrester on said:

    Loved this article. Indeed people must run with their personalities. Have you watched the difference between OJ Simpson ( I know his reputation is completely gone) and Barry Sanders?

  3. Stuart Ainslie on said:

    Thanks for this – very interesting analysis!

  4. Jae,

    Can you elaborate on the upright posture of Farrah and why you think it is less economical?

    When looking at some of the worlds top distance runners who are on the 100 mile circuits, someone like Anton Kupricka realy stands out as running in this upright position, and of course they are running at very different speeds, but looks amazingly comfortable in this position.

    Do you think that the speed of the race versus distance they have to cover greatly affects the posture they must adopt?

    In my own experience of Mountain and Distance running, I have experienced great Sciatic issues with a forward lean and on adopting a more upright posture have found I can run better, further and for longer without suffering the Sciatic problems of my past.

    What are your thoughts on this??

    Cheers

    Charlie

    PS I enjoyed your talk at the Scottish Barefoot Confernence

    • Hi Charlie! Thanks for your commments. I don’t know why you had sciatic issues when leaning forward in your running, though I can think of a general movement pattern that would bring that on: contracting your abs so that you “lean” by flexing your trunk and interfering with your lumbar curve. That would be pretty rough on your lumbar discs. Don’t know if that’s what you were doing but it’s one possibility.

      In this particular discussion it’s not so much Farah’s lean or lack thereof that’s less economical, it’s the movement of his trunk in the sagittal plane — the fact that he leans in stance but by the time he’s in flight he’s upright, causing his head to move forwards and backwards.

      That said, though, an inadequate lean for a runner’s speed will require more work to “push” them along — they don’t have the benefits of falling forward and having their skeleton lined up so that their push-off goes through the spine to the head. Not having your skeleton in position to receive and transmit force requires a lot of extra muscle effort.

      It is speed related, however, so it’s not surprising that ultramarathoners would lean less, perhaps even to the point of it not being very noticeable. I haven’t watched many ultras myself and don’t know a lot about it, though the runners I’ve worked with who have run them have found that leaning helps.

  5. I would love to do this comparison again after Mo has done many more longer distance races. They all have brilliant expression of the elastic return available from the ankle/leg/hip suspension systems they were all gifted with. Mo has adapted his for the power required over the shorter distances. Gebrselassie has the perfect balance of power and economy needed to go fast for a lot further …. watch Farahs hips as he goes through the mid point and releases the stored energy no wonder his head struggles to keep up :o )

    • Thanks for your comments, Chris! Yes, it’ll be interesting to watch his evolution. Even with all the energy Mo has stored, if he leaned a bit more throughout his gait cycle the energy he’s stored would move more economically through his body to his head. But economy is only one asset, and now how everybody wins, and if Mo has enough power it may not be a choice he ever takes.

  6. For me, the most remarkable thing is how similar the running styles of the Ethiopians are. Having witnessed the Ethiopian Track & Field training in person, I can attest to the “military style” of their drills…..rows of runners running at exactly the same pace with all legs moving and striking the ground at almost identical times. It was incredible.

    • Hi Mike,

      Thank you very much for your comment! Due to some sort of wordpress glitch I didn’t see this or a few others here for a couple of weeks, so my apologies for the long wait you’ve had.

      I can definitely believe what you’ve said about the drills. The Ethiopian style is so distinctive that, without it necessarily being taught as such I’ve always assumed it was communicated and reinforced. Ditto for the Kenyans, whose style is quite different but just as distinctive and consistent.

  7. Matt Holton on said:

    Great article and analysis of the three phases of running. Amazing to see the subtle yet important differences in these three great runners. The last sentence is well put

  8. Andy DuBois on said:

    Wondering your thoughts on the advantages gained by leaning forwards vs when more upright you can elastically load the hip flexors and abdominals more than you can leaning forward ?
    The Sagitall plane forward and back movement of Mo is obviuosly not the most economical but maybe he makes up for that by taking greater advantage of eccentrically loading his hip flexors and abs ?

    • That is quite possibly the case. So then the question is what distance does Farah want to run and what’s his best strategy. Running more upright — just a bit! — than Bekele worked for him in a 10k but not in a half marathon, and I doubt it would be his best strategy for a marathon either. Hence Salazar’s desire to change it, which seems like a good idea to me. Mo will always have this ability to call upon when he wants to kick, but he’ll be better off for longer distances if it becomes optional for him, and not the only way he knows how to run.

      But let me also back up and emphasize that we’re not comparing leaning to upright running here, the difference between Farah and the other two is a matter of degree. Farah leans quite a bit, but not enough to put his head on the line of force from his foot, and so it moves backwards and forwards. I taught a workshop tonight where I helped runners feel the line of force from the foot and learn how to put their heads on it, and they flew. I think Farah would too.

  9. thanks for the great read. however, and not to be fastidious, Bekele form worked for him in this half marathon and the 5k and 10k since he is the WR holder in those events as well. Regardless of the distance…if the event is still a distance event, Bekele’s form is far more efficient than Haile’s and Mo’s.

    • That’s true. However performance is not the final word on how excellent a runner’s form is — I need only mention Paula Radcliffe. There are too many other factors involved, and in shorter distances a runner doing something more powerful but less efficient could have an advantage — you see that within a race in comparing runners’ ability to kick. Bekele’s form has worked (to put it mildly) at a range of distances, and I agree that it’s more efficient, period. However it’s not necessarily efficiency that wins the race, and the way Farah pumps with his trunk is something he can use to his advantage a long as he has the strength to sustain it… which might not be at half marathon distance or above.

  10. Try using Gimp for photo-work. It has similar tools as Photoshop but is open source (free).

  11. Great article. i wonder how much of this would be coachable and whether particularly Bekele and G-Silassie did it just naturally. I used to be a long distance runner competing at regional and national levels inmy home country and later while i was in the UK at Loughborough university with the great professor Gorge Ghandi. But i was running enthusiastically with little knowledge about the “right” mechanics of running although i used to be a lecturer in engineering dynamics at a university which partly explains my naivety. My running was some thing like that i am always feeling that i am dropping from heaven each time my legs touch the ground , laying static some time and then lifting my seemingly “enormous” body forward. It is an exorbitantly taxing movement from energy point of view and with my body weight of 68 Kg which is considered an over weight for distance races at top level, i used to feel the tiredness pretty soon despite the many mileages i put day in and day out. It never occurred to me that running does a lot of favour if the stored energy could be elastically released so that the body would move economically from step to step with optimized energy. For this the contact time of the foot with the ground and the body posture and the level of floating in the air are essential. It is very essential to teach young athletes of the right bio mechanics of running so that they can maximize their potential and possibly their dream of becoming great athletes.

    • I’m not sure it’s very coachable though Farah did reduce his upper body movement by the time of the London marathon this spring. However I do find that it is teachable.

      There’s always a very good reason why a runner runs the way they do, having to do with their basic movement habits. Trying to cue changes while running won’t really affect the runner’s fundamental coordination and results at best in minor, cosmetic changes. However, working on coordination in a setting completely outside of running can help a runner become aware of and change very deep movement habits that affect their running. That’s the role of the movement educator, such as myself.

      Thanks for your observations!

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