Part 3 – What to Look for and How to Change It: Promoting Efficient Muscle Activation

By: Sean Smith

In Part 2 I focused on two concepts which go hand in hand; having a more simultaneous coordination pattern and achieving vertical alignment of the ankles, hips, and shoulders upon initial ground contact through similar means to Pose method. I would like to wrap-up my tips on “what to look for” by discussing concepts I’ve taken from Pose method, and move into the last big movement errors I look for and how to change them. One focus of Pose running, that I have not mentioned previously, is to try to get the athlete to bring the heel up to the butt while simultaneously letting gravity pull the other foot to the ground. Helping athletes understanding what it feels like to lean from the ankles, instead of the hips can help, in my experience. I start by having the athlete tuck their hips under them and lean forward from the ankles Once this forward lean from the ankles is established, I work with the athlete on pulling their foot straight up under the glutei, almost tracking the ankle alongside the opposite supporting leg as you lift. The verbal cue that I typically say is “get the heels up”.

Another way you might see the body misaligned is in the head and neck. It is not uncommon to see a runner with their head leaning to far forward or tilted too far back with their chin up. Most of the time when you watch elite runners compete their head will be directly over their shoulders, with the top of their head pulled up and their chin level. I’ve found that having the athlete pretend they are dangling from a string attached to the very top of their head typically works to help the athlete improve their head and neck alignment.

Having the head aligned over the shoulders may also helps to relax the neck.  This idea of creating a more relaxed passageway for breathing, isn’t as much evidence-based, but rather something that I have observed when watching elite athletes and experienced while running. Being able to relax your neck while running results in less tension in the muscles surrounding your larynx which should allow for oxygen to flow more easily. This also pertains to running economy as it allows blood to flow to muscles involved in propelling the body forward, rather than “wasting” such blood flow on muscles in the neck and face. It does not make sense to send large amounts of blood to keep the muscles in your neck and face contracting when that blood could be more useful in the core, lower extremities, heart, lungs, etc. In addition to “dangling from a string”, advising athletes to focus on relaxing their neck may be useful. Sport scientist, Ross Tucker wrote in a series on running technique that consciously relaxing the head, face, and shoulders can have an effect on the rest of the body.1 I have found that when athletes focus on relaxing the neck in particular, not only does their neck relax, but the shoulders, jaw, and face relax as well. Another postural characteristic to look for which can promote a more efficient oxygen flow is how much anterior tilting of the shoulder girdle is occuring. This upward rotation and protraction of the shoulder girdle can lead to abduction and transverse adduction of the shoulder joint. When the shoulders are hunched forward and facing downward like this it can promote transverse action, or twisting about the spine (when we would like our efforts to remain mostly in the sagittal plane or forward direction). This can also make it difficult to breathe as thoracic scapular retraction occurs during inhalation or extension.2 The constant protraction of the shoulder girdle can inhibit a runner’s ability to easily inhale and to take a full breath. This postural characteristic is something athletes can consciously work on while running, whether it be easy running or hard. Certainly, it would seem more appropriate to have them work on this during more aerobic sessions. Athletes with this “rounded shoulder” posture can work on keeping the shoulders relaxed and retracted outside of running as well.

As it was mentioned above, the poor shoulder posture can lead to a lot of “side-to-side”  action and overall twisting of the upper body. Working with athletes who have this tendency of allowing their arms to cross over their body is another key to improving running technique. In the most fundamental realms of biomechanics, increasing sagittal action (forward motion) and decreasing transverse action (twisting motion) typically improves running technique. That’s not to say that some forms of transverse action aren’t associated with elite running. Faster rotation of the shoulders in the transverse plane is a characteristic associated with better economy in runners.3 Although faster rotation is associated with better economy, this is very different from more rotation. Distance runners at an elite level usually have very similar arm carrying techniques which has elbows tucked in close to the side of the athlete and thumbs that are pointing up and even laterally. Two things to look for and change, which often happen simultaneously, are elbows that are abducted from the sides and thumbs that are rotated inward. The verbal feedback I give these athletes is to simply rotate the thumbs up, bring elbows in to the sides, and finally, focus on driving the elbows back. I should add that I’ve seen athletes run with the elbows out and not twist the arms across midline (mostly in middle distance running). Perhaps this happens in events like the 800 and 1500 because these events often become more physical due to the fast pace and short allotment of time to make tacticlal moves, so protecting their space and putting themselves in a position to accellerate is crucial. Abduction of the arms should not be confused as improper running technique, but its potential to increase transverse action should be taken into account. If the athlete’s elbows are sticking out but the upper body is not twisting in a detrimental manor, the technique probably isn’t wasting too much energy.

In addition to promoting forward motion (or sagital plane motion) it is also important to promote muscle activation in the right muscles through reduced motion in the upper body and more efficient motion in the lower body. Keeping the arms working in the right plane of motion is not the only kinematic variable to look for when it comes to upper extremities. When looking at arm movement we commonly see a more economical runner using less arm motion.3-6 Although there is research supporting this idea, it doesn’t take too much research to see that having a small amount of muscle activation in the arms is associated with better running economy. Taking exercise physiology into account, we know that when runners are pumping their arms too hard, the body begins to send more blood to those muscles in an effort to get oxygen to our upper body, thus leaving less blood to go to the legs. Excessive elbow flexion and extension during running leads to this inefficient blood flow. In addition to limiting the amount of flexion and extension, the athlete needs the arms to cycle through quickly. I work on having athletes keep their elbow joint angle between 45 and 90 degrees, to help the elbows cycle through in a compact manor. This compactness in the arm allows for faster rotation around the shoulder joint. When talking to athletes about this, I typically use the “iceskate dancer” example: While spinning and having the arms extended, the skater spins slower, but once they pull the arms in closer to the body, the compactness leads to a much faster rotation. The elbow joint range (45-90 degrees) is a bit ancedotal, but in watching hundreds and thousands of races both in person and online, that range in degrees seems to mimic elite running; keeping in mind that in running and in all sports, there are outliers and most coaches will work with an outlier or two throughout their career. Regardless, compactness and reduced arm motion should lead to better running technique. The specific feedback I’ve found works well is telling runners to drop the elbows lower and keep the hands a touch higher, in a position where they could scratch an itch on their ribs while driving the elbow back. This advice is relative, so the amount of elbow extension present as the arm swings posteriorly should come into play when trying to provide a good reference for an athlete. There may be runners (and I’ve seen a couple) that are almost entirely extended at the elbow throughout an entire stride. Giving this athlete the advice of “scatching the ribs” would probably be too drastic of a change. The main function of the upper body and motion in the arms is to counterbalance what lower mechanics are doing while promoting efficient movement.7


As we seek a certain level of compactness in the arms we also want to achieve a certain level of compactness in the legs, specifically at the knee joint. Elite runners have maximum knee flexion angles of 38 to 50 degrees in the swing leg.8,9 If you were to watch any of the distance races from a previous olympic game, chances are you would not witness anyone in the race having much less than 50 degrees of knee flexion and if you did, they would probably be at the tale end of the field (or getting lapped depending on the race length). A “shuffle” type stride, with small amounts of knee flexion, is inefficient and easy enough to fix. Most coaches feel the shuffle-stride happens as a result of not getting the knees up high enough, but it has been my experience that the emphasis should be focused on getting the heels up close to the glutei, increasing compactness which can then lead to an appropriate maximum knee flexion. Having compactness at the knee joint also makes it easier for the leg to drive forward, quickly, which aids in hip flexion. The feedback to give these athletes can be as simple as “get your heels up” which is the same advice to promote more vertical alignment. One key ingredient to this advice is that you want the heel to be getting up towards the glutei vs just going straight up while the leg lags behind. The athlete’s in the image above display differing compactness with the athlete on the left using kinematics that allow for a faster, typically more efficient, turn over (more compactness).

While we seek appropriate compactness in the leg during swing phase, there is a lot of literature showing elite runners also have more extension during the stance phase.10-12 In comparing elite (world championship level) and national-standard 1500-m runners, the maximum knee flexion during stance phase was less in the elite runners running at the same speed.11 Perhaps the same speed resulted in different techniques due to the abilities of each group, but there is more research out there that suggests less knee flexion can yield better use of stored elastic energy.12 I feel, and research has lead me to believe, that the utilization of stored elastic energy during running is enhanced through having less knee flexion during the stance phase. A couple pieces of advice mentioned earlier should aid in decreasing knee flexion, such as “getting the foot down, quicker” and “dangle from the string”. Sometimes telling an athlete to work on landing with less bend, also clicks in their mind, other times you might tell them to try and “get up nice and tall” specifically, being tall upon first impact and sustaining the heigh throughout the stance phase.

Knowing what proper technique looks like and different ways to communicate that with athletes is only one piece of the puzzle in teaching the skill. Although running is not commonly thought to be a skill like shooting a basketball or throwing a football, it is a very powerful form of human movement and is certainly a skill just like in any other sport that can be learned. There is a notion among running coaches (and their athletes) that runners have the mechanics they have and they develop the most efficient mechanics for their body type, but this ideal and approach would not be accepted in any other sport. Of course the charcteristics of the individual athlete influence their technique, but running technique is certainly a skill that can be learned and improved upon. I believe this should be done sooner rather than later, and in coming blogs I will discuss when to teach each skill, the progression of these skills and at what points to have athletes work on certain skills as well as the effectiveness in my own personal use of verbal and visual feedback on elite collegiate athletes.


  1. Tucker, R. (28 Sep 2007). Running technique. The Science of Sport (Part IV). Retrieved from
  2. (page 7, slide 4 specifically)
  3. Saunders, P. U., Pyne, D. B., Telford, R. D., & Hawley, J A. (2004). Factors affecting running economy in trained distance runners. Sports Medicine, 34(7), 465-485.
  4. Williams, K. R., Cavanagh, P. R. (1987). Relationship between distance running mechanics, running economy, and performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 63(3), 1236-1245.
  5. Anderson, T., & Tseh, W. (1994). Running economy, anthropometric dimensions and kinematic variables. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 26(5), S170.
  6. Anderson, T. (1996). Biomechanics and running economy. Sports Medicine, 22(2), 76-89.
  7. Biomechanics of running: From faulty movement patterns come injuries.
  8. Cavanagh, P. R., Pollock, M. J., & Landa, J. (1977). A biomechanical comparison of elite and good distance runners. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 301, 328-345
  9. Bates, B. T., James, S. L., & Ostering, L. R. (1978). Foot function during the support phase of running. Running, 3, 24-31.
  10. Williams, K. R., Cavanagh, P. R. (1987). Relationship between distance running mechanics, running economy, and performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 63(3), 1236-1245.
  11. Leskinen, A., Hakkinen, K., Virmavirta, M., Isolehto, J., & Kyrolainen, H. (2009). Comparison of running kinematics between elite and national-standard 1500-m runners. Sports Biomechanics, 8(1), 1-9.
  12. Hudson, J. L. & Owen, M. G. (1982). Kinematic correlates of utilization of stored elastic energy. Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, 14(2), 152-160.

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