By: Sean Smith
Deciding when to change a runner’s technique is similar to determining when to increase mileage, implement specific drills and strength work, alter workouts, and much more. I believe a runner’s form should change when it is appropriate and effective. There could be many reasons for finding it appropriate to change biomechanics of an athlete; mechanics are leading to injuries, potential is already being maximized in other areas (e.g. mileage, mentality, pacing, strength work, sleep, diet, etc.), or form is lacking efficiency. If an athlete exhibits any of these characteristics, it is likely that a change in running technique would be beneficial. It is rare that you find an athlete who is not dealing with repetitive injuries, doing everything in the realm of running to optimize potential, AND wastes no energy. Even top running groups (e.g. New Balance, Nike Oregon Project, etc.) employ biomechanical laboratories and biomechanists to work with athletes on form, thus it is sage to say most runners could benefit from improvements in running form.
Before delving into the kinematics associated with efficient form, I should note that altering form is better done sooner rather than later. The longer an athlete runs with certain, perhaps ineffective, mechanics the more efficient they become with those mechanics. The muscles get used to firing at specific lengths and a sense of comfort sets in. Alberto Salazar, head coach of arguably the best running group in the world, the Nike Oregon Project, realized this upon the start of the professional running group. “The athletes he was coaching were older, their habits and biomechanics already ingrained after years of running so many miles. He realized that he had to catch them younger, before the bad habits had had a chance to take over.”1 I have spoken with several high school coaches, who value getting their runners to enjoy the sport and worry that an emphasis on running mechanics will depreciate their enthusiasm. With this shifted emphasis, running mechanics were neglected, but not only for the first year or two while the athlete was finding their love for the sport, but for many form is ignored for all 4 years of high school running, and for some this continues through college. Although enjoying the sport is crucial, it is my hope that the blogs in this series A Biomechanical Approach to Coaching Distance Running, will provide coaches at the high school and college levels with an understanding of the importance of running mechanics and insight on the topic that they can implement in their programs.
There are countless ways to break down a runner’s mechanics and many more ways to work on adjusting these mechanics. The kinematics I choose to focus on while working with runners stem from a combination of both anecdotal and research based information. The first concept I focus on when working with athletes is their coordination pattern (i.e., the timing and sequencing of body segments). A more simultaneous coordination pattern during running should serve to maximize running economy. For example, in running, after pushing off we would like to see hip flexion happening at a similar rate to knee flexion. However, often times we see knee flexion occurring at a much faster rate and much sooner than hip flexion, leaving runners in a poor position that can lead to a large over-stride and increase peak breaking forces. For example, in the first image the runner is exhibiting a more sequential pattern of coordination. We see a large amount of knee flexion that has already occurred before any noticeable hip flexion, in the trailing leg. At the same time, we can see that in the leading leg that knee extension is almost entirely complete while hip extension has only just begun. At a very fundamental level, in biomechanics, this athlete would benefit from a more simultaneous movement. To help the athlete adopt a more simultaneous movement pattern it would be helpful to understand factors that may be inhibiting the more simultaneous movement.
If we use the runner in this first image as an example there may be several factors causing this type of undesired coordination, but the one that stands out is the anterior pelvic tilt. Pelvic tilt is typically seen in runners who display a reduced absolute peak hip extension when pushing off.2 This is important as maintaining a neutral pelvic position and increasing hip extension leads to a powerful push off and a faster elastic recoil which drives the knee forward during stance phase, causing hip flexion.3 There are a few different techniques I have successfully used in working with athletes on “tucking the hips” under them (i.e., helping them to adopt a neutral pelvic position). The first thing I will usually try involves them standing up and squeezing their glutei together, pushing their hips under them. This gives them the feel of a more favorable lumbo-pelvic tilt. Giving athletes an idea of what it feels like to have the hips where you want them is a valuable first step. Using descriptors such as “pretend your pelvic girdle is a bowl filled with water and you do not want it to tilt too far forward, because this will spill all of the water” is another method I have successfully used. I have also heard coaches tell athletes to “pull their belly button up.” Depending on the athlete, just saying “tuck your hips while running” may do the trick. As with any verbal intervention you provide for a runner, the athlete needs to connect with that idea. Keeping the hips tucked under the body can certainly help hip flexion begin sooner after toeing off via elastic properties aiding the muscular effort.
Another piece of verbal feedback that may help to produce a more simultaneous coordination pattern, is to tell the athlete to, “push the knees forward after toeing off”. If the hips are in a neutral position and the athlete’s trail leg is still lagging after toeing off, I find this feedback useful. You might hear coaches trying to get their athletes to drive the knees up, but I have found that it feels much easier, physically, to focus on driving the knees forward rather than up and both of these forms of feedback can result in the desired hip flexion.
So far I have discussed how to develop a more favorable coordination pattern through postural means (lumbopelvic tilt) and in working on the trail leg motion (pushing the knee forward). There is one more form of feedback that I find is useful to give athletes when coordination is an issue. Once the trail leg has swung forward enough and is now, essentially, the lead leg (second picture, above), have the athlete focus on driving the foot down into the ground. In other words, right after the athlete pushes off with one leg, they should be pushing the other leg’s foot down and into the ground. This initiation can activate the glutei sooner and doesn’t allow for the foot to kick out in front of the body as easily, thus starting hip and knee extension more simultaneously.
Using the techniques of the Pose running method may be another means of indirectly developing a more simultaneous coordination pattern, though the emphasis of this technique focuses largely on shoulder, hip, and ankle vertical alignment.4,5 Pose method is one of the few well-documented and successful interventions that has been shown to result in improved running technique. Pose method does this by reducing the loss of horizontal velocity, decreasing peak breaking forces, and lowering vertical oscillation of the center of mass. To put it simply, being more aligned through the ankles, hips, and shoulders when ground reaction forces are high results in running technique associated with elite running. Pose method has, however, faced some scrutiny as participants reported lower leg injuries (14 out of 20 runners) in follow-up interviews.6 Furthermore, the Pose method of relearning running technique though successful in improving running technique, is very intricate and time consuming, and thus perhaps not practical for implementation by high school and college coaches.
That being said, the idea of vertically aligning the body may have many beneficial outcomes, including having the foot land more closely under the center of mass of the body. When athletes are not landing with the foot in this desired position coaches may use terms like “over-stride” to describe the runner’s form. I have found it easiest to quantify over-striding using angles, rather than linear distance. Video recording the athletes and using the angles function in the Coaches Eye app (an affordable app available on Apple and Android devices) is easy. Image 3 (above) illustrate how I have used this app to evaluate over-striding. I begin by using the pelvis to approximate the position of the center of mass, though this method has some limitations it has proven effective with my athletes in this context. The first ray in this angle originates at the center of the head (ear) and runs through the pelvis. The second ray starts at the head and runs through the point at which foot contact occurs. In the reference picture to the left, these videos were taken at 60 fps, so finding the exact moment of impact was difficult but this should give you a rough idea. The athlete on the left realistically has an over-stride angle of approximately 11-12 degrees and the runner on the right has an angle closer to 8 degrees. If you have a phone (or tablet) that records in slow motion at 120 fps, this will help you gather more accurate angles, repeatedly, which will then help you monitor progression in mechanics more reliably. A smaller over-stride angle would imply a more vertical alignment and an improvement in many of the kinematics discussed above. I have personally seen this trend in working with athletes at Chico State. The faster the runner is, the smaller their over-stride angle, with the exception of a couple outliers. Rather than implement the entire Pose Method, drills, and process, I take small pieces from this literature and combine it with other tips based on scientific evidence to achieve better alignment. In fact, the idea of video recording the athletes and showing them what they could be doing better is shared in the Pose method. Subsequent blogs will discuss the implementation of some Pose methods and feedback I have developed from reading biomechanical literature, running, and coaching.
- Schache, A. G., Blanch, P. D., & Murphy, A. T. (2000). Relation of anterior pelvic tilt during running to clinical and kinematic measures of hip extension. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34, 279-283.
- Arendse, R. E., Noakes, T. D., Azevedo, L. B., Romanov, N., Schwellnus, M. P., & Fletcher, G. J. (2004). Reduced eccentric loading of the knee with the Pose Running Method, Medicine Science in Sport and Exercise, 36(2), 272-277.
- Fetcher, G., Romanov, N., & Bartlett, R. (2008). Pose® method technique improves running performance without economy changes. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 3(3), 365-380.
- Tucker, R. (27 Sep 2007). Running technique. The Science of Sport (Part III). Retrieved from http://sportsscientists.com/2007/09/running-technique-part-iii-the-scientific-evidence-for-running-technique/