If the 100-up isn’t the secret, what is?


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


I’ve had some interesting e-mail exchanges over the last few days after I expressed my skepticism about the merits of the sudden enthusiasm for the 100-up exercise. Basically, my position was (a) sure, it’s a perfectly good form and/or conditioning drill, which is why it has been in pretty much continuous use for decades, but (b) I didn’t see any reason to think it was “the secret,” or any more useful than other form drills, simply because Walter George said he used it. The mere fact that someone is fast and does a particular drill is a pretty slender reed to build a training program on — and if that’s the yardstick, I pointed out to one person with tongue firmly in cheek, then I should be considered more qualified than Walter George to dispense advice, since I’ve run considerably faster than him.

Well, Justin called my bluff:

Great points all around [he wrote,] so here’s a question for you: if you had to start somewhere to learn running form — and you couldn’t afford a coach — where would you start?  What exercise would advance you the most in the shortest period of time?

That’s an excellent question. And a difficult one. So here’s my attempt to answer — or rather, to explain why I don’t have a simple, easy-to-package-and-sell answer.

The thing is, I’m still not convinced that most people do need to learn running form. I worry that all these articles about the necessity of learning the “one true way” to run are convincing people that they shouldn’t risk heading out the door in an untrained state to try this enormously complex activity.

Of course, some people definitely do need help with form. I watched the New York Marathon last weekend, and yes, there were some funky strides going past after the leaders were gone. So how do we fix those strides? Well, that depends on what’s wrong with them. Some people are leaning too far forward, others are leaning too far back. Many are overstriding, but a few are understriding. Some people are flapping their arms around like birds, others are barely moving them at all. It’s not the same fix for all of them.

Now, what Justin’s looking for isn’t a fix for a particular problem; he’s looking for a way to build the ideal stride from the ground up. And for that, maybe the 100-up is as good a place to start as any. I don’t have another exercise that I think is a “better” way to start developing a perfect stride, because I’m skeptical of the value of this perfect stride. In a sense, I’m just like Walter George in that I’m captive to my own experience and development. The way I learned to run was by heading out the door and trying it, then gradually adjusting along the way based on what felt good. That’s also how most of the people I know learned to run. Would we have been better if we’d been taught the “right” way to run right from the start? It’s possible.

By no means am I dismissing the benefits of optimizing running form. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think the single most common mistake people make is overstriding, which can often be addressed by quickening your cadence. I just have a nagging sense that form work has acquired enormous importance that is out of proportion to its value, when the real barrier for most beginning runners is still aerobic fitness. It reminds me of one of the most famous passages from Once a Runner:

And too there were the questions: What did he eat? Did he believe in isometrics? Isotonics? Ice and heat? How about aerobics, est, ESP, STP? What did he have to say about yoga, yogurt, Yogi Berra? What was his pulse rate, his blood pressure, his time for the 100-yard dash? What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret.

12 Replies to “If the 100-up isn’t the secret, what is?”

  1. Nice thoughts. I am a new reader and it’s nice to hear a cynic with some humility. I agree that the one thing that improves your running is, well, running. I had to visit a physical therapist to figure out that I had specific weaknesses that were making it difficult to get out and run consistently. But after those were addressed, consistency was the one thing that helped my running. Most of us don’t know enough about physiology to pick out specific weaknesses, but we love to self-diagnose. Anecdotal coaching fits into that paradigm nicely. A bit of a ramble. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Absolutely. I’m of the belief that simply doing enough of the activity will produce far more ‘efficiencies’ than any explicit drills.

    Run more (increasing volume in a rational manner) and run different paces (doing regular interval sessions as well as strides) and the body will find its way towards what works best for it.

    For some people there may be certain injury-causing deficiencies, but by and large, these are more responsive to targeted strengthening or stretching.

    The answer the above OAR quote leads to is: the trials of miles; miles of trials.

  3. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals or zippy mental tricks as with that most profound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that made up the bottom of his training shoes.

  4. Great post Alex. Actually, great series of posts on this topic.

    When people ask me about training, and how I run fast, I like to say that “The secret is… there is no secret”. Once you truly understand and embrace that philosophy, you can achieve greater things than you ever thought possible. It took me years to finally “get it” but now that I have, I am healthier, faster, and stronger than ever… while running more miles and workouts than ever before.

    “Little things” absolutely add up. Diet, form, recovery methods… they ALL matter. But they aren’t the secret. The secret is getting out the door every day, or twice a day, for weeks and then months and then years.

    I’m sure 100 ups have some benefits. But you know what else has some benefits? 100 miles a week! How come the NY Times doesn’t publish an article about that? 🙂

    This is an excellent blog post from Peter Gilmore that I like to read from time to time: http://www.bayareatrackclub.com/blog/20850-Get-Out-the-Door

  5. I’ve come to view shoes, form, etc. as stress modifiers. What causes most running injuries is a overload of repetitive stress. How much stress the body can take may be modified by what type of shoe you are wearing, what your form looks like, if you have imbalances, if you do or do not vary your training speed, surfaces, etc. It’s each individual’s job to determine the right mix and which factor is most likely to predispose them to or protect them from injury.

  6. Good read as always. My thoughts on this subject are a little different, from Alex. While I believe there is a “perfect form” to running, and a lot general concepts like Alex mentioned above with increasing cadence, landing more mid to forefoot, and under your center of gravity that can help most runners. However we also have to consider that this “perfect” form maybe imperfect for most runners as most people are very much less than perfect. We all come to the table with a variety of injuries, alments, and different genetic, and structural abnormalities. These differences make this “perfect” form, different from person to person. I don’t think just by running in of itself the body will correct to the right form. It’s probably better to generally learn what consitutes good form first and then adapt that by changing one feature at a time to get a “better fit” tailored to the individual.

  7. Ha! Asking Alex how to get better form! That is akin to asking Geb how to run slowly! Spending years running with (and usually behind) Alex, and watching him run as fast as he did with his ‘form’ convinced me that ‘form’ was vastly over-rated. See also: Paul McLoy, Paula Radcliffe….

  8. I’ve been a competitive runner for 3 decades and I’ve never heard of 100 ups – please enlighten me and add a description of what this is. Thanks.

  9. @Quentin: Not all of us can master the Pig Pen shuffle, with a foot lift so infinitesimally small that you kick up a cloud of dust even on an indoor track!

    @krisa: You’ve never heard of it because it’s just a fancy name for a familiar drill. Here’s how Tim Noakes described it in my 1991 edition of The Lore of Running:

    “By modern standards, George trained only very lightly. For the first 6 years of his running career he trained only with his ‘100-up’ exercise. This exercise basically involved running in place so his knees were alternatively flexed to hip level. The goal was to repeat the exercise 100 times at the maximal possible speed.”

    In other words, it’s running on the spot with high knees.

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