The basics of biomechanically efficient running form
In order to tackle abnormal mechanics and resulting injuries, you should review efficient running mechanics. Time to dust off your memories of basic high school physics to put them to use.
Biomechanically efficient running means using the least amount of effort to propel yourself forward in space (while balancing on one foot, then the next).
Running consists of absorbing and releasing energy, much like a Slinky toy, a spiral accordion-style spring, in the face of gravity and other forces. To be a biomechanically efficient runner, gravity needs to be your friend: you need to work with it, not against it. To best accomplish that task, keep your center of mass lined up over the hip, knee, and ankle/foot joints.
In reality, this means your weight should fall slightly ahead of your hip, behind your knee, and just in front of the ankle at the midfoot when viewed from the side. With efficient form, you’d be in a very slight forward lean bending from the ankles (not the waist).
The further you deviate from stacking your weight and limbs like this, the more muscle force you have to use to keep yourself in motion. Ideally, you should take advantage of your tendons and ligaments’ passive ability to reflexively store and release energy. Your muscles can “guide” this motion by maintaining proper skeletal alignment and minimizing inefficient movement-including excessive side to side and up/down motion as well as forward propulsion.
Leg movement should look like a bicycle wheel in motion.
Your relaxed midfoot contacts the ground right underneath the body, followed by the heel. Your hip, knee, and ankle flex as they absorb the force, followed by a quick pull up off the ground, with the assistance of the reaction force from the ground (your leg should look like the figure “4”). This movement releases energy that allows your leg to propel the body forward. Then the cycle is repeated.
Think of this phase of your efficient form like a pendulum in motion: Most of the muscle force you activate is generated higher up in the hip, trunk, and core, than down at the ground. Less force is needed from your knee and even less is needed from your ankle/foot if proper joint alignment and posture is maintained.
Spend as little time as possible on the ground; recent research has shown that 180 steps per minute is ideal, no matter your pace. At various speeds, the height of the heel lift off the ground varies as it moves into the next step (slower runners make smaller circles with their feet).
Your arm swing should be the opposite of the forward leg motion to best keep the trunk rotation controlled and the pelvis/hips facing forward.
Focus on your shoulders driving the elbows back (which keeps the neck and hands relaxed) with your forearms parallel to the ground.
To actually run like this, you’ll first need to master a few simple movements. Practice these movements to ingrain biomechanically efficient form into your runs.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet directly under your knees. Fold your arms across your chest or behind your head. Squeeze and lift your butt (“bridge”) up a few inches off the ground, then pull in your lower abdominals. Once you have this bridge position under control, try to straighten out one of your legs; keep it parallel to the opposite thigh and your legs 2 to 3 inches apart. Keep the pelvis level — not as easy as it sounds! Your ability to accomplish this form generally reflects your ability to stand on one leg with level hips, a significant factor in biomechanically efficient form.
- Stand on one leg in front of a mirror. Your standing leg should have a slightly bent, relaxed knee (much like when you strike the ground when running). Keep your other leg in a figure “4” position, with your hip and knee slightly bent, and your thigh slightly flexed. Can you keep your pelvis level without any side lean over the standing leg and your kneecaps facing forward (no “collapsing” knees inward)? Do not squeeze the toes to accomplish this. The form should originate from squeezing your butt and keeping your abdominals tucked in.
If you find your calves tiring, you are overusing them. To avoid this, try lightly pulling your toes up. Once you feel in control, try to move your non-weight-bearing leg forward and back (like running) and see if your pelvis, hips, and knees continue to face forward and stay level.
- To get a feel for proper posturing over the midfoot, try this: Stand with your knees slightly relaxed. Bend at your ankles to let yourself “lean forward.” You’ll feel your calves start to contract; then lean backwards from the ankles to feel the front of your shins working. Repeat this forward/back motion until you feel no action at all in the shins or calves. Voilá! You’ve found your ideal contact point!
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