Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Basics of Running Form

Today I'm getting away from the "shoe talk" for a moment to discuss a few key principles of good running form.  With research you may find there exists a few consistent tips on how to run better, things like stand tall, keep your knees soft, and don't over-stride.  I need to add this caveat, you shouldn't believe everything you hear out there.  Why?  Because even some residency-trained orthopedic radiologists still believe that running will ruin your knees despite very high-quality evidence to the contrary.  The lack of truth in modern medicine is probably more than most people realize or would feel comfortable knowing about.  As soon as we uncovered the human genome we realized that gene expression (epigenetics) was going to muddle the whole idea that you can predict someone's future health based on their genes.  There are very few cases of disease processes so predictable.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I want you to feel a little warm and fuzzy about this post because there's actually good evidence behind it.  Keep in mind this isn't about perfection but instead about motor learning.  How we accomplish the same task may change over time for a variety of reasons but understanding what constitutes "good fundamentals" gives you a place to start and a way to go about experimenting.

So here goes the story of basic running. 

#1 - Get your posture right.

This is an example of slouched posture.  Neight is loading my back and I'm collapsing under his force.  Mama always told you to sit up straight, she was right of course.  Live your life in good posture and bring it to your workouts as well.

Posture correction.  There are several ways to train this but one of the easiest is to lengthen your spine as though there is a string attached to the back of your head (on top) that's raising you up.  My spine is neither flexed or extended but engaged somewhere comfortably in the middle.  It's easy to do this as a short person, I'm always trying to stand as tall as possible.

When Neight loads my spine I have no issues holding good posture.  My vertebra are stacked like legos and it takes minimal effort to remain upright.

#2 - Know Thy Spring

Before I get too specific regarding the other components of your running form, I'd like a say a few words about "spring" and note some key differences between walking and running.  Speed of movement is not the only way in which they differ.  In walking, you have at least one foot in contact with the ground at all times while in running you have no more than one foot in contact with the ground at any given time.  The implications of this mean that walking and running are very different gaits.

Walking requires active muscle contracts to produce all of the energy needed to move forward while running allows you to load (or store) energy in your muscles and tendons that can be used for the next step (your legs act a little like a pogo stick).  While not all of the energy to move forward is "free" in running, the spring provides a very important and significant contribution.  This is very different than the stiff-knee, heel-to-toe gait we see in walking.  When we walk our leg acts more like an inverted pendulum than a spring.  This is fine mind you; it's great for walking.  With running this gait is inefficient at best and injury-provoking in nature.  It's called "jogging."

This is "jogging" or the "walking gait" that's been transferred to running.  So what we see instead of a spring is a stiff leg and heel-toe gait pattern that's not able to store and release energy.    No one jumps rope with a stiff knee and heel-toe landing and push off strategy but this running style is common.  Why?  I believe it is a lack of proprioception and awareness encouraged by shoes with thick-cushioned heels, stiff midsoles, and toe spring.  Those types of running shoes are "designed" to encourage you to run with this exact form.  More bad news, your spring weakens over time if not used.
I begged my friend to over-stride while running downhill so that I could get a good picture of this.  Many people would look at this photo and not notice much or even give her a kudo for having nice spine posture.  But that said, over-striding downhill is about the worse thing you can do for your joints outside of an accident with a crowbar.  Again this is a walking gait taken to the extreme.  Instead of using her spring to store energy she is braking all the way down the hill using her joints to cushion her landing.  If you run downhill and get a lot of knee pain, you need to assess if you are over-striding.  My friend made a sacrifice for this photo saying, "it hurt so bad to run that way!"

First notice that I have good posture and my head is facing forward, not down towards my feet.  My foot isn't quite ready to land yet but in a few frames prior to this shot my knee was slightly more extended.  This is fine for the flight phase but when I am ready to land I need to be able to engage my spring with a bent knee.

This frame is close to the point at which I've made initial contact with the ground.  Let's employ the KISS principle and just say, "keep the knees soft" and "land quiet like a ninja."  I am in the process of loading my spring in this photo.

#3 - You need excellent single leg stability.

My "spring-leg-pogo-stick" is fully loaded here.  This photo is significant for another reason as well.  Most of you have seen the "pelvic drop" or "hip drop" discussed in running.  You want to see your hips level throughout the loading phase.  At this point in the photo I am placing the most force through my body as all of my weight is on my left leg (key point here, the max force on your legs when running is NOT your landing or contact with the ground but when you are in THIS position).  Anything that compromises this stability (muscle weakness, compensation, foot problems, balance, etc) can negatively affect your alignment.  If you find this is out of whack, try to using different cues to see if it clears up.  Studies show with the right feedback this can often be corrected.  If you're failing to correct a pelvic or hip drop, please get some help.  Left unchecked this can lead to all kinds of overuse injuries (feet, ankles, shins, knees, hips, spine, every kind of tendonitis imaginable).  Finally, your foot should be pointing straight ahead when you are running.  If you cannot self correct this there may be an anatomical reason for it or you may just need some help.  The foot facing straight forward is vital to the actual function of the foot/ankle complex and affects everything upstream.

An example of hip drop.  Your trunk will compensate by leaning the opposite direction just so you can maintain balance.

#4 - Learn to minimize "bounce"

We've talked about "spring" this whole time and now I'm asking you to minimize your bouncing.  A quick lesson in trajectories will clear up any confusion I've created here.  Just imagine that you want to throw a ball as far as possible.  To do this you wouldn't want to throw the ball directly over your head.  The other extreme would be to attempt to throw it perfectly horizontal, like a torpedo; it would fall to the ground in no time.  We all employ roughly the same technique of throwing as far as possible, we estimate a trajectory and try to let go of the ball at just the right time so that we are throwing only as vertical as we need to in order to hit our target.  Now imagine your center of gravity or your body's center of mass as the ball.  Excess bounce means wasted energy but we know that some vertical lift must occur for us to move forward.

How much bounce is too much?  Try to keep your running smooth and allow your springy legs to "spin" under your body.  The more excess motion through your trunk the more energy is diverted away from your forward movement.

#5 - Downhill running usually requires a faster stepping cadence and a deeper knee bend

By keeping your knees "soft" and stepping faster you prevent the "braking" effect of over-striding.  Instead of "pushing off" while running downhill, try to "ease your body down the hill."  This makes for softer steps, quicker steps, and very minimal bounce.  Remember whatever you're thrusting upward has to come down so the higher you push your body upward with a strong "push off" the more force you'll bring to your landing.  Imagine you're taking your body down an escalator (think funny sitcom pretend escalator) and you should get the picture.

Soft knees and quick steps protects your joints.  It's no different than jumping off a high platform and attempting to land softly.  It requires everything from your core to your legs coordinating to control your descent.  This is the essence of eccentric muscle activity, to control the rate of flexion (loading) occurring at your joints.

Lean slightly forward when running downhill.  Leaning back will encourage over-striding and braking (increasing joint stress).  Instead, attempt to lean your trunk perpendicular to whatever grade you are descending.  This takes some getting used to for most people but it's a lot like skiing down a hill.  Pretend you are an awesome skier.
#6 - Running uphill is kinda like running downhill

Lean forward (into the hill) slightly and be sure to avoid the urge to over-stride.  Note that "leaning forward" is not the same as "slouching."  Taking shorter, quicker steps may seem like more work but it's kind of like spinning on a bicycle with the easy gear.  It's less work per step because you aren't trying to cover a lot of ground per step, you're just moving forward a little.  There is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to stepping cadence, most find between 170-180 to work well depending on the terrain.  Downhill running may require that you increase this somewhere between 180-190 in order to maintain good form.  You don't necessarily need to count steps when running, you can just play with how fast you are stepping to find what seems like the least amount of work (and allows you to land quietly and softly).

Depending on the grade of the slope, you may want to try to keep your foot flat when running uphill.  That is to say, if you were moving up a long hill, consider allowing your foot to rest flat for as long as possible during each step to save your calves.  There are times when you will be on your forefoot entirely for a few steps (think of rocky, technical trails and extremely steep slopes) but it's not ideal to do this for long periods of time as you could overuse your calf and achilles tendon.  If you have issues specifically with keeping your foot straight while running uphill (no problem on flat land) you likely have an ankle mobility problem that needs to be addressed.

Running rocky trails at the Air Force Academy in Luna Mono Sandals.  My only critique here is that I am looking down (at the upcoming rocks) instead of forward.  Be flexible in your running understanding that different runs will require different skills of you.  In this case, I need to watch closely where I am stepping but should make sure that I am not slouching because of it...

A great example of a "soft knee" landing.

You can learn to run very fast without over-striding.  The pendulums that are your legs will swing with a larger arc the faster you run.  The key is that when I land my feet are always close to my body and my knee has some bend regardless of speed.  Said another way, I land quietly, softly, and with my feet "under me" not "in front of me."

The arms will follow the legs and the legs will follow the arms.  I don't speak too much about arms because often the arms will compensate for the legs so if the arms are inefficient it may be that we are using them for balance (like the trunk leaning when the hip drops).  That said, on trails or terrain requiring more balance, you may find that your arm carriage widens somewhat.  This is normal.  If you have a habit of over-reaching your arms in front of you when running, you'll want to bring the hands closer to your body.  Extending the hands far forward encourages your foot to move forward as well (over-stride).

Good example of a level pelvis and erect spine (without leaning compensation).   If your pelvis is dropping you may need some help figuring out why it is happening.  I often place runners on a stability program to train them to move properly.  In addition, there may be range of motion deficits that need to be cleared up.

While I have made massive improvements to my own running form I will tell you that it is not a "steady-state" affair.  Hold fast to the principles but allow your body to experiment with the small details.  You will feel different from day to day, season to season, and your mindset, fitness level, energy, and stress level, etc will all play a role in your technique and form.   Listening to your body is the best way to go.

Until next time...

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