I am currently coaching over 60 runners, so I find myself constantly repeating information. One topic I continually reiterate is that of runners tight hip flexors. Ever since I had my only injury in the year 2000, when a chronic glut issue eventually led to what I thought was a broken lower back, really was due to my tight hips. I learned the hard way, but have not been injured since. This motivates me to educate others so they will not neglect their hips, and continue to train to the point where they are on the injury list. I emphasize to all my friends and my runners that their sore glut, hamstring, groin, back, is really a consequence of the toll we put on our hips. Not just running, but with all the sitting. Finally, there are some good articles on this topic, most noteworthy by Jay Dicharry . Dicharry is director of the SPEED Clinic at the Center for Endurance Sport, University of Virginia. He has a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology, and a masters in physical therapy. The SPEED clinic works with athletes and coaches across the country to improve their understanding of proper running form. The team has extensive experience in shoe research, from working with companies to validate and continue development of their product line, to educating local running shoe stores to fit the right shoes to the right runners. If you subscribe to Running Times, he has a fantastic article in the October 2012 issue that discusses three non-negotiable aspects of posture for every runner and tips for increasing mobility and strengthening. If you do not have the October issue of Running Times, Amby Burfoot wrote a great article on an interview with Jay that covers some of the same material. (Amby Burfoot won the 1968 Boston Marathon, has a marathon PR of 2:14:29, and has been a Runner’s World editor since 1978. )
Q: Let’s dig a little deeper into your thoughts on optimal running form. What does a runner look like when he/she is running with optimal form?
A: Great, but that’s a loaded question. First let’s talk about what causes us to run with the form we have. There are 3 primary things that affect the way we move: flexibility, strength, and muscle memory. A runner needs to have enough range of motion to complete a running stride. For example you need to be able to extend your hip as you run. I’d estimate that about 75% of the runners I see actually cannot extend their hip at all. Now these folks still run, but instead of extending the hip, they wind up with excessive motion at their low back. And people wonder why about 80% of runners experience low back pain at some point. It’s simple: Lack of flexibility at one joint forces excessive motion at another. Now, this doesn’t mean you need to stretch for an hour a day. I see just as many injuries among runners who are very flexible and can’t control their body as I see from those who are too tight. So what’s the take home message here? You need enough motion to complete a running stride correctly and maybe a slight bit extra. No one has ever proven that increasing flexibility beyond the range needed for a task has any value.
Okay, now onto strength. We run in one plane – the sagittal plane. So every time you run, you are strengthening the tissues that move us forward. We walk in the sagittal plane. Many runners go to a gym and do squats, leg press, hamstring curls, calf raises, etc. They get stuck on strengthening these muscles that all operate in a singe plane. In all my years of working with runners, I have never encountered one who was weak in the quads, hamstrings, or calf. Think about how much volume of work you do with these muscles. A lot! Now think about how much you work the muscles that control lateral and rotational stability in your body. Is it the same? I doubt it. Running is a great exercise, but it doesn’t work on global stability. Ignoring your stability needs is a bit like trying to graduate high school while only studying a single subject. We need to think of ourselves as well-rounded athletes instead of simply runners. There is a vast body of research showing that deficits in stability are responsible for the majority of running injuries.
The final and perhaps most important component of running form is muscle memory. You move the way you do because it feels normal. But what if the way you learned to move wasn’t the best? Maybe you had some nagging soreness in your calf and you altered your stride a bit. This change then became permanent and now you’ve got chronic something-or-other that you just can’t get rid of. One example is a runner I saw with chronic knee pain. Now, he had some strength issues he needed to work on for long-term health, but with just a few cues, he was running the next day – and ever since then – without symptoms. Tweaking your gait can also produce instant gains in efficiency. On those days when your running form feels off, you’ll know what to do to pull your body back into alignment. You’ve heard it before: Perfect practice makes perfect.
Q: Does torso position matter?
A: A critical component of optimal running form is aligning forces through your body. I don’t really have a trademark name for this, but it all begins with posture. Trunk alignment has a major effect on where your center of mass is. Having a trunk position that is too far back towards the heels, or leaning too far forward, affects basically everything. Mom always told us to get our shoulders back, and like most thing mom asked us to do, we screwed it up. One component of proper postural alignment involves sliding your shoulder blades down the back so they lie flat along the the rib cage. This opens up the front of the chest and broadens the shoulders. But instead of doing this, most of us learned we could cheat by increasing the extension, or curve, in the lower back. While this does get our shoulders to move back, it does so by over-arching the lower back. Why is this a bad strategy? First, it shifts our center of mass back toward the heels, which decreases our ability to use the foot effectively for balance in the stance phase. Shifting the center of mass back also tends to increase the braking forces acting on the body, while increasing the impact forces, and perhaps increasing the loading rate. Finally, it decreases activation of our core stabilizers. Even if you’ve been working on lots of core muscle training, you’ll lose the muscle recruitment you want if you stand, walk, sit, and run with your back extended too much.
flexors that are too tight. That tilts the pelvis forward and the low back backward. Muscle weakness of the glutes is yet another problem, since deficits there can cause the runner to lean too far forward. Fixing postural alignment when running is not a running-specific issue. Its an all the time issue. Your posture feels normal because it’s the way you align your body during each and every task you do. The more you stand with poor posture, the more it feels normal. This is why you run with poor posture. The most effective way to improve your postural alignment is to take the principles we spoke of above and apply them. Is a limit in flexibility the main reason? Maybe the front of your chest is tight from sitting at a desk 50 hours a week and it needs to be opened. Maybe your range is fine, but your core muscles aren’t developed enough to keep your spine in a neutral position. Maybe its a combination of both, maybe its something else. Its best to figure out the limits to improving your trunk position, and to target them. As you are able to incorporate these postural changes into everything you do, starting to run with this form will be a no-brainer.
Q: What about foot strike, rear, mid, fore? Does footstrike determine speed, or vice versa?
A: A lot of focus has been given to the idea that heel strike is bad. Heel strike in itself is not inherently bad, but striking out too far in front of your center of mass is not the best thing. For the majority of runners, focusing on more of a mid-foot strike is probably a good thing to imagine. I know a lot of readers will raise a red flag at this and say that some footage of the 10K or marathon world champs shows that some of the lead pack are heel striking. That’s because foot strike pattern is important, but it’s just one part of the puzzle. In short, the forces at contact are incredibly small, and they peak in mid-stance. Elite runners moving at race pace might have a heel contact, but their body alignment – where their trunk is in relation to their foot placement – may still be exactly where it should be. It might not. You can see changes in range of motion, but you cannot see forces acting on individual runners. You have to examine this stuff in a lab environment on an individual basis. To say anything else is pure speculation.
A: The only way to run faster is to increase stride length and stride frequency. Period. Stride frequency seems to reach optimal values for runners between 88-94 rpm (single leg). If you think about it, this is a fairly narrow window compared to sports like cycling where a rider will vary from 30 up the steepest hills to 120 on the flats. The difference has to do with the weight bearing aspect of running and maximizing the effect of the elastic recoil in the muscles. Stride length is another issue. I am always cautious when I hear a coach say their runner needs to lengthen their stride. Usually, the runner hears this advice, and reaches his foot further forward for each stride. This actually causes a number of negative things to occur. Increases in stride length should occur from the propulsion phase. However, most runners can’t do this for reasons stated above with limitations in hip extension.
Q: What is the most common form mistake you see?
A: Runners who don’t extend the hips! Runners need to work on hip extension stretching so that they can actually extend the hip and not the back. Tightness of the hip flexors, which prohibits hip extension, leads to so many other compensations that it’s crazy not to do it. I can say pretty confidently that about 90% of the folks reading this article will directly benefit from working on their hip extension.
Q: Do you actually have success changing runners’ form? What advice do you find yourself giving most often to runners who need to improve on their form?
A: Yes, we’ve had lots of success with changing form. Not just subjectively, but we’ve objectively measured form changes, and seen improvement when you give them the help they need. The best advice I could give would be what I mentioned above – find out what YOU need to do. Targeting your deficits is the best single way to become a more well rounded athlete. And if you want one for the masses: Practice standing on one foot. Running is just a bunch of single leg stance exercises with a flight phase in between. I am always amazed at how many runners can’t stand on one leg. You should be able to place your hands on your hips and stand on one foot with your eyes closed for 30 seconds. If you can’t stand on one leg and remain stable, how do you expect to maintain stability while you’re running, where the forces your body sees are 2-3 times this much?
Q: How would you define optimal running form in just a sentence or two?
A: I’ve given enough info to write a book, so let’s keep this simple: Run tall. Run soft.