What It Takes to Run

The saying about running as “a controlled fall” is deeply true. /

“The secret of my success over the 400 meters is that I run the first 200 meters as hard as I can. Then, for the second 200 meters, with God’s help, I run harder.” —Eric Liddell

When a sprinter’s legs ease into the starting blocks before a race, they know a few things. Pressure-sensing nerves in the skin of the feet know exactly how dense the ground is beneath their cleats. Stretch receptors in the tendons know just how much tension pulls taught muscles and the bones they lace together. Position-sensing nerves called proprioceptors know where each joint lies and how much further they can bend when the body above them leans over the line. As the runner drops into position, tenses just slightly, and waits for the pop of a starter pistol, her legs are brimming with information. While they don’t know what that first step will look like or how far off the finish line lies, what they—and everyone who is watching them—will be sure of with that explosive first leap forward is that human legs were made to run.

The mantra of experts around the world is that running is nothing more than a controlled fall. But as the breathtaking precision of an athlete’s stride can attest, it is a fall our bodies learn to take faithfully. With each step, the legs seamlessly progress through four phases as a foot plants firmly onto the ground (Strike!) rocks forward to springload the joints (Stand!), thrusts the runner into the air (Drive!), and swings forward to landing position again (Leap!).

But while the propulsion of a stride is powered by the thrust between foot and track, only a small proportion of the time—as little as 30 percent in the best runners—is spent in contact with the ground. ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 54 / August 4, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from August 04, 2016

    Issue 54: Antarctic ice, Alaskan bears, running mysteries, and wild babies. /

  2. The Last Desert

    Pilgrimages on Antarctica’s wild ice. /

  3. His Hand Feeds Us Both

    Thoughts on bears from an Alaska fisherwoman. /

  4. Aw and Wonder in the Baby Animal Kingdom

    A photographer looks at the wild’s cute, tiny, and vulnerable. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 54: Links to amazing stuff.

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