Spring into Running
By: James Hendricks, D.C.
Now that it seems spring is here and warmer weather hopefully not far away, many people are itching to get out of the house, kick the dust off the sneakers and hit the pavement. There are many factors that attribute to running longer distances or at a faster pace. Some of these factors can be controlled, like: sleep, nutrition, proper foot wear, training, desire/passion for running, over all muscular strength and proper mechanics. However, sometimes the most important factors like; natural athletic ability, VO2 Max (how much oxygen your body is able to consume), pain threshold and economy of motion (the ratio of how much energy you actually use & how fast you go) are ones you are born with. It is any one of these in-born or “genetic” factors that are the differences between your every day runner and the elite runners say like a Freeport, ME favorite Joan Benoit Samuelson.
While all the above controllable factors are important, today I am going to focus on mechanics alone. Improper mechanics can not only hold back your potential but more importantly cause injuries. While there is no such thing as an “ideal” or normal running form, it is more about having an efficient stride. An efficient runner is relaxed, smooth, quick, powerful, and light on their feet.
In contrast, an inefficient stride looks labored, sloppy, and uncoordinated. These same qualities that define an efficient stride also make good mental cues. Thinking about relaxing or being light on your feet is very helpful towards improving your stride.
It is important to learn the stages of the gait cycle before trying to improve your running.
- The gait cycle begins as your foot hits the ground, marking the Contact Phase or Foot-strike.
- The contact phase transitions into the Mid-Stance Phase as your foot absorbs the forces of impact.
- As force of impact moves forward in the foot, the mid-stance transitions into Propulsion or Drive Phase.
- As the drive foot leaves the ground, your other leg is in the Swing Phase, moving through the air like a pendulum, unfolding underneath your body with the foot extending toward the ground.
The foot-strike should be light and quick and your foot should not be extended too far out in front of you with a locked knee, but remain under your center of mass. Having your foot hit the ground close to your center of facilitates the transition from mid-stance to propulsion.
The power in your stride should come during the drive phase. Focus on driving your leg straight behind you using your hips and not reaching forward with your leg during the swing phase.
As you run, think about “floating” over the ground, use hip extension (pushing leg back) and a quick cadence to make your body feel as if it were just gliding along the road. As your foot leaves the ground, resist the temptation to “pull through” and extending your knee immediately.
The swing phase is the time to think about relaxing. Simply let your leg swing underneath you and unfold beneath your body.
Improving running form is a combination of targeted strengthening and repeating good movement patterns. A recent study suggests that mindfulness about body positioning can lead to better mechanics. Work on one aspect of form at a time for small portions of runs. For example, pick a nearby landmark and run toward it while concentrating on keeping your shoulders low and aligned with your hips and head. Return to your normal running form, and then pick another element of good running form, such as a quick, light cadence, to focus on until another landmark. Over time, the improvements should come more naturally.
Runner’s Check List:
- Everything relaxed, smooth, quick, and efficient
- All energy goes towards forward propulsion
- Balanced side-to-side
- Lower Leg: don’t “reach”—let leg “unfold” underneath you
- Foot lands nearly underneath the center of mass
- Knee drive and back-kick come from hip drive and extension
- Hips create drive, realize forward hip drive (flexion) is linked to hip extension
- Slight forward lean from ankles
- Strong arms swinging waist-to-chest
- Stride frequency—light and quick.
The key to being able to improve mechanics many times lies with having a detailed assessment completed by a professional. From an analysis of running gait, walking gait and mechanics of the foot, including the arch, much can be derived in terms of possible muscular weaknesses or structural deficiencies contributing to poor overall mechanics, pain or injury. Most commonly, I find that there are similar areas that continually plaque many patients I evaluate. The majority suffer from any one or more of the following: weakness of the gluteus group (butt) or the quadriceps (front of your thigh) and dropping of the arch of the foot causing over pronation of the foot. While these are the most common, there of course can be many other structural issues leading to poor form or injury.
The biggest take home from this article should be if things are “not feeling quite right” or you are starting to have discomfort or pain on your run, it may be more than just an “off” day. Best have it checked out before something minor turns into significant injury, causing you to have to stop running.