Distance Running Technique
Watching a cheetah run is a majestically experience, their body adapted over years, specialized for pure speed. The hips recoil on every stride producing the longest stride length possible. A giraffe on the other hand is far less majestic, their discrepancy in leg lengths and incredibly long neck make running at exceptional speeds impossible. The giraffe’s technique is best suited to its own body much like the cheetahs technique is specialized to its own. Adaption from the giraffe although possible would take generations of change. Despite this biomechanically principles can still be established, and improving these principles will still result in a faster running speed.
Similarly with humans the most graceful technique cannot be achieved by all people. Bone structures have already been formed and some physiological traits are predominately unchangeable. On the other side of the coin biomechanical principles still stand and techniques can be altered to modify running efficiency, joint forces and injuries.
So what does a graceful and efficient running technique look like and why is it so. Above is a slow motion capture of a Mo Farah running a 1:00:10 Half Marathon. Some key points to notice is that the landing is between forefoot and mid-foot, but heal quickly drops into a mid-foot position with increasing load. From here the ankle dorsi flexes as the knee is driven forward and down by both gravity and his forward inertia. His knee flexes as his center of mass travels over his foot. From here the spring like effect of the foot and ankle complex pushes him forward as the quads, glutes and hamstrings drive the leg back. Notice the large amount of hip extension late stance. The foot is then lifted sharply into an efficient heel flick position as the rear foot recovers through ready for the next stance. The trunk is forward tilted but not in excess and no accentuated pelvic tilt or shoulder rounding can be seen.
To the side there is a front on image of Kenenisa Bekele running a 2:05 in the Paris Marathon. His arms are relaxed and raised slightly but the shoulders are down. His feet and knees never leave the midline and the arm swing only slightly across the body to control for the small lateral forces in his gait
Optimizing running technique is of interest as changes in technique have the ability to influence running economy and performance as well as occurrence of injuries
Running Technique Analysis
Foot strike Position
Foot contact or strike positioning is categorized as forefoot, midfoot or heal strike. It’s important to note that footwear has an effect on foot strike positioning. Lower heel drop or minimalist shoes have been shown to shift contact points further anteriorly whilst higher heel drop shoes have been shown to increase the likelihood of heel striking. Research indicates at moderate speeds neither technique is more efficient (Cunningham et al, 2010, Perl et al, 2012) but it has been shown as speed increases forefoot striking also increases and ground contact time decreases suggesting forefoot striking may be required for high speed running. It has been shown to be inefficient to at least walk with a forefoot strike (Cunningham et al, 2010)
Running Injuries and Foot strike positioning
Modifying you’re footwear and inevitably your technique will change the forces placed upon certain areas of your body. Wearing higher heeled shoes and running with an increased heel strike will increase the loading forces on the tibial platue (area between the thigh and lower leg bone) and anterior shins. There may be an increase in the rotation of the hips possibly increase pressure on the lower back. Similarly wearing minimalistic shoes or running with a forefoot runnign gait will place increased loads on the foot bones, and the soleus, (deep calve muscle) increasing the chances of tears. The Achilles tendon and possibly the patella tendon will also experience higher forces.
For more information see barefoot running versus running in shoes and how to choose your running shoes.
Its important to note both strike types will have their own associated injuries, indentifying your injuries trends and where your weaknesses lie may allow you to make an informed choice about your desired running technique
The positioning of both the pelvis and the torso changes running gait. An element of forward lean in required for propulsion with acceleration phases such as a sprint start requiring the greatest degree of lean. An excessive forward leaning posture in a jogging technique effectively moves the ground closer to the running increasing the chance of heel striking whilst increasing stride frequency. Leaning backwards has the opposing effect
Anterior pelvic tilt comes about through tightness of the lumbar and hip flexor, mainly iliopsoas and erector spinae muscles and concurrent weakness of the abdominals and hamstrings may also be seen. Anterior pelvic tilt is more prevalent in women and could be connected to the increased occurrence of pronation and internal rotation injuries found in women. Anterior pelvic tilt reduces external hip rotation and possible contributes to overpronation, whilst posterior pelvic tilt increases external hip rotation. Posterior pelvic tilt is a result of stronger shorter abdominals, tight hamstrings and under an underactive Gluteus Maximus. The lower back muscles may be weak or just lengthened from a rounded back sitting posture. This position is more common in men
Lateral foot swing
Excessive lateral movement is likely to increase the energy cost of running. This means more energy is used to cover the same distance resulting in slower running times. Injury risk is likely to also increase. It is common to swing the leg laterally during the recovery phase. This occurrence is a result of tight internal rotators, most likely gluteus medius and weaker external rotators. Strengthening the gluteus medius and maximus muscles along with the deep external hip rotators will reduce this internally rotated leg swing. See Gluteus strengthening exercises for runners. Women with wider hips will experience greater rotation forces, therefore arm and torso movement may be greater to help balance these forces. Narrower hips and lower rotational forces may be one of the reasons men have lower running economies then women. Anterior pelvic tilt reduces external rotation and as a result will contribute to this running gait. Strengthening abdominal and hamstrings will help correct this running gait
Correcting lateral foot swing
- Strengthen hip external rotators and abductors (see Gluteus strengthening exercises for runners)
- Stretch internal hip rotators (Glute split stretch, Seated clam stretch)
- Correct anterior pelvic tilt with abdominal strengthening (Swiss ball crunches, reverse crunch, bridge, single leg bridge, kneeling swiss ball roll aways, standing swiss ball roll aways), hip flexors stretches (Kneeling hip flexor stretch, standing quad stretch, kneeling quad stretch) and hamstring strengthening (hamstring curls, single leg hamstring curls)
Upper body and Arm positioning
Jogging doesn’t call for excessive arm movement as seen with sprinting technique. The arms should be relaxed and raised from the torso by 20-40deg with the elbows bent to roughly 90 degrees. Shrugging of the shoulders and running with high elbows indicates tension in the upper trapezius which can have a negative impact on efficiency. A wide flailing arm could be an indication of excessive pronation or inward rotation on the stance leg. Swinging the arm wide will produce a force to help pull the body back to the center. This though waists energy and keeping the arm closer to the midline is encouraged
Foot swing (butt kick)
Faster running is accompanied by a higher foot lift on the swing leg. Little research exists as to the effects of the level of knee flexion during the swing phase and running economy. Modica and Kram (2005) calculated that leg swing could account for up to 20% of the energy cost of running. This could explain the abnormally high increases in running economy seen with heavy shoes as opposed to the same weight added to a backpack. It would be expected that pulling the heel closer to the butt during gait would decrease the energy required to swing the leg through. Research has shown that the further a weight is placed away from the hip the greater effect that weight has on running economy (Martin, 1985). Lighter shoes due to a decrease load on the hamstring will make it easier to pull the heel towards the butt. Heavier shoes will cause a lower foot running gait. Whether the level of heel lift or knee flexion in the swing leg has a significant effect on running economy is unknown
Cunningham, C. B., et al. "The influence of foot posture on the cost of transport in humans." The Journal of Experimental Biology 213.5 (2010): 790-797.
Martin, PHILIP E. "Mechanical and physiological responses to lower extremity loading during running." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 17.4 (1985): 427-433.
Modica, Jesse R., and Rodger Kram. "Metabolic energy and muscular activity required for leg swing in running." Journal of Applied Physiology 98.6 (2005): 2126-2131.
Perl, Daniel P., Adam I. Daoud, and Daniel E. Lieberman. "Effects of footwear and strike type on running economy." Med Sci Sports Exerc 44.7 (2012): 1335-43.
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