The Biomechanics of Running
Gotcha! You've clicked on the link because, like so many of us, we want to know how to run better. To make us faster. To prevent injury. And to even just make it suck a little less. And we're going to go over all of that, but from a different lens than you were expecting.
I am not a running coach, but I am a student of and teach of movement, and have been working with runners for about 20 years. My education and work as a certified athletic trainer mean understanding the biomechanics of many sports in order to better aid in the prevention and treatment of injuries that occur. You can learn more about my background here if you're just joining me, but what I want to do today is look beyond the foot strike and body position, and explore the movements that are keeping us from attaining these well-studied biomechanical necessities of the sport of running.
So here's the thing…
We have so many tools available to assess our biomechanical approaches to our given sport. Video programs like Dartfish that record and break down the movement, treadmill running analysis, strike plates, etc. And these tools are awesome for identifying error and imbalances and giving us a starting point to move from. But the problem is that we're often identifying just that - only the errors and not the causes.
You can come to me with plantar fascia pain and we can look at your form. I might see that your pronating, or maybe you're overstriding. I could give you an orthotic or put you in a shoe to help correct the pronation. And then I could tell you to start telling you to tune into your foot strike and aim for a shorter stride and a mid-foot strike. Great - you're off and back to running for now. Yes, for now, because you'll be back with the pain.
Why is this?
Well, I've given you a band-aid and not looked at the true nature of the problem. Why is your foot pronating? I'm just going to guess that you have some weakness in the foot and lower leg muscles that don't allow you to walk any other way. Or, maybe for a short time until those muscles get tired. There's a good chance that this weakness extends to the hip with lack of stabilization there because you spend the majority of your day sitting in a chair and not moving much from that general position. Or, standing at a desk without changing position much. Yes, the habits of your day play into the mechanics of your sport.
And over striding. Is it because you have long legs and a zealous for running and just can't help but bound through your workouts? Or is it that your limited ankle range of motion doesn't allow for a short stride? Or maybe it's because your glutes and hamstrings aren't in a position to propel your workout and the longer stride makes it easier for the quads to take over and pull you through.
Those high heels that are oh-so-cute are actually shortening the range of motion of your ankle. So you can do you basic calf stretching before and after your workout, but it's no match for 12 hours of your foot propped up and keeping your calf in a shortened position. Moving to a lower heel (or ultimately to a zero drop) for your everyday shoe is going to help naturally increase the range of motion of your ankle. And it also helps to send your hips back so that they are stacked over your ankles, instead of jutting forward and tucking the tailbone under. Wake up hammys! This hips-back position puts the two ends of the hamstring muscles in a better position to contract and give power. Do me a favor. Look at your quads. Now, look at your glutes and hamstrings. Which group is meatier? It is always the backside. This is where the power is and this is where we need to tap into. Increasing the range of motion of the ankle and tapping into that backside power is going to do more for your gait than any kind of shoe, orthotic, or taping will ever do.
OK, let's look up. Shoulders.
What are they doing on your run? The shoulders are connected to the lower body (even our feet) via the abdominal muscles, psoas, and a lot of fascia. What I often see are runners with silent upper bodies and a lot of tension. This is not right. Our bodies have a natural gait dance where when one leg goes forward, the opposite arm and shoulder go back. Rotation is a huge movement that for some reason we try to squelch in sports training.
Take a paper clip and attach it to the center of a rubber band. Twist it. Now let go. You can see the potential energy that is stored in the rubber band spring to life in the release. This is the same in our bodies. There is a HUGE amount of potential energy stored in our cores, but when we don't allow that rotation to happen between the lower and upper parts of our bodies, the energy isn't used as designed. But as we all know from science class, it has to go somewhere. Amazingly there just aren't a lot of research articles out there on this topic, but here's my guess. I see a heck of a lot of biceps and cuff tendonitis in my runner. And neck pain, and low back pain. My guess is that the majority of the energy is being used by not allowing our upper bodies to rotate and being transferred to these tissues. That constant tension takes some of that energy that should be transferred to the lower body to move forward is actually being used to keep parts that should be moving still. And this is causing a lot of tension in the tissues that's leading to inflammation.
I could keep going, but I'm going to stop here. I hope my point is clear - if you're looking to improve your running biomechanics, then you really need to start taking a whole-body approach to assessing what's affecting your running mechanics from head to toe - both in your training form and your daily habits. Then start addressing the mobility and stability issues that are keeping your body from achieving the joint positions needed for optimal biomechanics to improve your training and performance.
So while we do have optimal sports-specific movement and mechanics that help us perform at our best, it's often the daily habits we engage in that are slowing us down. Making adjustments to how you move for the 12+ hours of your day when you're not training is going to make a much bigger impact than simply focusing on exercises to improve the hour of training time. You need both to move well and achieve your athletic goals.
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