September 5, 2010

Short strides, better times

— When observing runners, be mindful of the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” During the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, a distance runner from Czechoslovakia appeared in agony from the first step. Those unknowing observers might have wondered how he even qualified against the world’s greatest performers.

Emil Zatopek became famously known as the “man who ran like he had a dagger in his heart.”

Zatopek provided particular pain in that Olympics — for his competitors. He was the only participant who swept the three longest distance races: the 5,000 meters (14 minutes, 6.6 seconds), 10,000 meters (29:17) and marathon (2:23.03).

A neophyte to the marathon, Zatopek let several veterans set the early pace before pulling alongside the pacesetter to complain about the seemingly slow pace. Then Zatopek put it into overdrive and ran away from the field to capture the coveted 26.2-mile race.

If you’re preparing for the first Dalton Half Marathon, scheduled for Oct. 16, but don’t have a beautiful stride, be encouraged by Zatopek. Substance so often beats glitter.

Some years ago, I attended the King Games at Lakewood Stadium in Atlanta, a meet that attracted many of America’s elite track athletes.

An official told me, “I saw this bald-headed guy on the track before it started. He looked like some everyday jogger. I told him this was a meet for the elite,”

This unlikely looking runner was Dick Buerkle, who later set the world indoor record in the mile (3:54).

There long has been the accepted theory that taller people have an advantage with their longer strides. That is a myth. You rarely find a tall world-class runner. In the Dalton area, the most consistent 5K winner is Manuel Ferrer, who is 5-foot-5.

During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Michael Johnson of the United States swept the 200- and 400-meter dashes, setting a world mark for the former event (19.3). He did so with a short, choppy stride. As alleged experts agreed, his turnover rate was superior to his competitors.

Runner’s World Magazine did a study long ago on some Penn State distance runners, following them from their freshman to senior years. By the end, their strides all were shorter, but their times considerably better. This has gone hand-in-hand with other studies that have warned against overstriding.

For those runners concerned about their strides, particularly the newcomers, they would do well to assess themselves from video. A knowledgeable coach or fitness authority could provide some pointers.

Long ago at a week-long runners camp in Brevard, N.C., everybody was observing various individuals on video. These came from the back side. One person’s low arm style brought me a chuckle. In fact, what bad overall form!

As the man turned back around, everybody laughed. It was yours truly!

Even with an unorthodox style, you still can be OK if you are running acceptable times and staying away from injuries.

• Runners rarely have road races on Monday, but Labor Day is an exception.

Chattanooga will host the annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes 5-K race at 8 a.m. Monday at Chattanooga State.

This event always attracts numerous speedy high school cross country runners on a flat, fast course — along with the plodding adults.

This is the 11th in a 16-part series of instructional columns preceding the first national Dalton Half Marathon on Oct. 16. Doug Hawley, a competitive distance runner for more than 50 years, finished in the top 10 percent of five Boston Marathons between 1976 and 1981. You can write to him at