If you are a serious runner you probably are always on the lookout for ways to maximize your performance. The odds are you look to experts including top coaches to show you how to pull this off. You might even be considering spending a lot of money to tap into this font of insight and advice. The good news is you can put away your wallet or purse because I am going to lay out how you can do this pretty much on your own.
Running in a healthy way is not built into people like an instinct. It requires knowing how to run in ways that complement the body’s design as opposed to violating its limitations and winding up injured or worse.
Think for a minute about the things that can influence how you run:
Consider running shoes. Some enhance a runner’s gait especially on hard surfaces while others adversely affect it. And what do you think happens if you run on poorly fitted or designed shoes for years on end? Foot doctors know because they see people who’ve done this and show up in their offices with painful bone spurs and other issues caused by problem shoes.
Then there is the way in which people run. Most of us learn to run by watching and imitating others. The running role models we zero in on are not world class runners but local “athletic heroes” who run marathons or track in school, or just folks who jog in the neighborhood.
We also learn from feedback coming from our bodies, something that can distorted or masked. For instance, when we over stride and slam our heels down into a hard surface we experience pain. However, what many individuals do is buy heavily cushioned shoes which reduces or eliminates what they feel. They then continue running so as to slam the ground hard with their feet but think all is well because it no longer hurts.
OK, so running correctly reduces the risk of injury and pain, and also tends to increase ones basic speed. This includes mastering how to sprint correctly, which may require some special coaching or a visit to a gait analysis lab (such as the one at the clinic I head up).
Coaches and scientists naturally break the human running stride into manageable blocks they can convert to numbers and analyze (so as to reveal patterns including healthy and unhealthy ones). While this is helpful at various levels it also gets runners and others to view their running in a reductionist (i.e., isolated segments), fragmented way. What I have found is needed is a comprehensive, holistic approach to gait, stride and such that takes into account the interactions that occur between feet, legs, hips and more (What is technically known as “biomechanics”).
In order to understand how to run in a healthy way, it helps to first look at the flow of bodily events involved in running.
We can begin with the foot and its role in running. Normally, the foot makes initial contact with the ground on its the outside edge. Many runners, however, land on their heels which is not good insofar as this involves more effect to brake, less availability of elastic energy, and extended contact with the ground. A better way is to come down on the ground with the forefoot or mid-foot which reduces the energy needed to brake and lowers the initial impact peak
Additionally, when the foot lands it should do so in a way that makes maximum use of the stored up elastic energy. After the foot has landed it is vital to allow the foot to “reload” its elastic energy. Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of lifting their foot off the ground before it has had a chance to “recharge”.
The best way to properly transfer force to the foot is to allow it to move naturally through initial contact to fully supporting one’s body. Given the fact initial contact occurs on the outside of the foot, bodily support will logically shift inwardly.
After the recharge phase, one propels forward starting with the foot beginning to lift off the ground. Unlike what some coaches and other experts suggest, it is not wise to try to get greater propulsion by pushing off with the toes. A better way is to propel forward from the hip.
During this process, the calf and Achilles tendon goes from a relaxed or neutral position to a fully stretched one and is completely contracted upon toe off. This facilitates energy storage with ground impact and its release upon take off.
One thing to avoid is staying too high up on the balls of your feet or letting your heel touch the ground. This results in the Achilles-calf unit not being fully stretched and by virtue of this means less elastic energy is stored and released.
As your foot comes into contact with the ground, your focus should shift to your hip as your running power comes from extending the hip (and not pushing with your toes). If you produce a strong hip extension you will enjoy greater speed.
Now, as you come off the ground your goal is to optimize both the vertical and horizontal aspects of your stride. If you are “too horizontal”, your body will flatten out and fail to properly come off the ground which will compromise your stride length. On the other hand, if you are “too vertical”, you will end up in the air for too long and begin bouncing along, which will also make a mess of your stride. With this in mind try to optimize the horizontal and vertical angles and extend your hips. If you do this right you’ll wind up with a slight bounce in your running stride. One good way to figure out if you are doing this just right is to look at the horizon. If it remain even, you are too horizontal. Conversely, if the horizon “bounces” a great deal, you are too vertical.
Once your hip is extended, the recovery phase begins. When extended correctly a natural stretch reflex mechanism kicks in. A combination of this with the lower leg’s own built-in mechanical properties ensures the recovery aspect will happen automatically and effortlessly. Then, the lower leg will lift off the ground and bend such that it comes close to your buttocks and then passes beneath your hips with the knee leading. Once this occurs, the lower leg unfolds and should land underneath you, ideally close to the center of your body and directly underneath the knee.
Things to avoid at this moment include trying to move the leg through the recovery phase (which wastes energy) or trying to lift the knees at the end of the recovery cycle or snapping the lower leg to the butt at the beginning of this cycle. Instead, the knee should cycle through and lift on its own while the lower leg should not be pulled up to the butt and is then dropped to the ground such that it lines up with your center of gravity.
Also to be avoided is extending the lower leg slightly and then pulling it back in a paw-like (“pawback”) manner before making ground contact. This utilizes the hamstrings and other muscles more than is necessary which wastes energy. Instead, the leg should simply unfold and drop underneath you.
Of course, the lower and upper body interact so we cannot neglect the latter. What you want to do is run with an upright body posture and lean very slightly forward (though not from the waist). Your arms and legs should work together in the sense that when, for instance, your left leg is forward your right arm should also be forward. And when your arm stops moving forward and is poised to swing backwards, the opposite leg needs to reach maximum knee height before starting downwards. In similar fashion, when your arm is at its maximum backwards position you should make sure the opposite leg and hip are at fully extended backwards (before your arm switches directions and swings forward).
As your arms swing make sure they do so from your shoulders and do not turn or sway. When your arm is making a forward upswing make sure the angle decreases slightly and keep your fists relaxed and not clinched. Then, on the backswing your arms should swing back behind your hip joint.
The proper and coordinated use of the arms and legs is vital to healthy running. Great runners actually have their timing down to the point their limbs work in synch. If yours do not, refrain from viewing this as a failing but rather as merely a symptom that needs remedying (Zero in on the cause and fix it, which may be the arm or leg observed to be “off kilter” or another part of the body that is affecting the arm or leg in question).
Above all it is vital to look at the body holistically and take into account how body parts and limbs interact and intermesh.
Begin well below the flare-up line and slowly increase your activity (But make sure to map out each step ahead of time). Do more each new day than you did on the day before.
As you increase your activity the flare-up line will inch upwards. In short it will take longer to trigger a flare-up because you are training & conditioning your brain and body in a nonthreatening way.
As you steadily boost your activity the protect-by-pain line will rise upwards, reflecting the fact your pain sensitivity is decreasing.
With slow, ever increasing activity done on a daily basis your tissues will strengthen and with this your tolerance line will move upwards.
Running properly is important but so is insuring a running form that maximizes performance. Many people approach this by breaking their running stride into discrete blocks of activity or segments and then work on improving each one in isolation. This approach doesn’t really pan out because the various parts are interconnected which means changes to one part may cause problems for another. The goal then is to work on the whole which boils down to refining ones running form while running.
To pull this off, you would focus on one simple task while doing low stress running such as putting your feet down, extending your hip, etc., and then make modest changes and look for improvements and changes (good or bad) to other body functions. Then you make additional changes and watch for those that are good for the whole. You then repeat these moves until they become ingrained.
Many runners find that this process works best when they do short strides and identify and focus one aspect of running form at a time. It may help to shoot video clips of these sessions and ask a coach or biomechanics expert to analyze them and suggest running form changes (We have a sophisticated lab that does this gait record and analysis at my clinic. For more information go to Sports Medicine page ).
Finally, after having settled on and implemented changes that result in improvements to your running form, you now are ready to run under stress (such as you do when in a race or marathon). Many runners find that some old bad habits emerge once again while running under stress. If you do have such old ways reemerge, focus of working on these problem areas by consciously imposing the changes you made while running under non-stress conditions. With gradual, consistent effort your target changes in running form should become second nature for you in both non-stress and stressful running settings.