The shoulder-hip rotation equation

Stabiliity. Mobility. Activation. Relaxation. Each of these features has its place in a strong, efficient running stride. Yet, an excess or lack of one at the wrong place in the gait cycle can seriously throw off a runner’s biomechanics. Through some recent trials and experimentation of my own, I’ve learned how profoundly true this is for a proper kinematic balance throughout the core, extending from the pelvis up through the abs, back and shoulders.

Those who’ve been following my blog will be aware of my history of hamstring and foot injuries. I’ve struggled with disproportionate left hip/hamstring tension and tendinopathy for years, and have sustained beyond my fair share of right foot fractures and tendinoses. While these issues are more or less under control due to gradually improving biomechanics, more mindful training and frequent self-care (massage, ART and physical therapy), they continue to linger as minor annoyances on most runs. A couple weeks ago, my physical therapist performed a gait analysis to get to the source of these longstanding imbalances.

She noted three main issues:

1) Excessive left shoulder rotation. I tend to pull my left shoulder back too much right before left foot-strike. The arms should swing in the sagittal plane, but there should be minimal rotation at the shoulders.

Left shoulder rotates excessively

Left shoulder rotates excessively

2) Insufficient right leg drive. Compared to my left leg, my right leg does not come up as high during the swing phase. I can feel this while running, as if the leg is dragging behind me instead of driving back powerfully. In fact, I have a tendency to occasionally stub my right big toe due to my inability to lift.

Right leg lifts lower than left

Right leg lifts lower than left

3) Externally rotated right foot. When the foot strikes, it tends to land with the toes pointed outward. I am also keenly aware of this error, as it feels like the entire right leg is uncontrollably turned out.

Right foot rotates outward

Right foot rotates outward

Mental trick FAIL

For the past week, I’ve attempted to consciously correct each of these biomechanical errors in turn … without success. Efforts to stabilize my shoulders left me with excess tension from the neck down, through the shoulder and back. Empowering my right leg drive felt unnatural and exhausting, and turning my right foot inward was even more awkward and resulted in lateral ankle pain. Form correction FAIL.

My physical therapist prescribed some drills to ingrain proper shoulder and foot motor-memory; yet these changes will take time and I wanted a quick fix. I knew something major was off with my gait, so I launched my own investigation. I came across an article discussing the balance between shoulder and pelvic rotation (which I can no longer track down) that struck a chord. Excessive amounts of shoulder rotation, they explained, may signal insufficient hip rotation. If the hips are too rigid, the upper body compensates. Prior to my long run this week, I practiced this simple exercise to reinforce what proper pelvic rotation should feel like … and to no surprise, this was a novel sensation for my typically rigid running hips.

Mental trick SUCCESS!

Throughout my long run, I repeatedly checked in with my form, this time drawing on some new tools in my belt. Rather than forcefully immobilizing my upper body, I focused on relaxing the shoulders, keeping the neck extended, and leading with the chest. I increased my forward full-body lean and was cautious not to overstride. Most critically, I experimented – for the first time – with exaggerating my pelvic rotation. As my left leg began to swing back, I let the hip pull back with it … this was a remarkably new sensation, but felt fluid and right. I was suddenly able to attain much greater leg extension that usual, without force or effort. Further exploring the movement, I discovered that emphasizing rotation on the left compared to the right seemed to balance and better align my hips. The pattern of tension that typically evolves over my long runs – extending from my lower back down through the left glutes and hamstring – was oddly absent. Not only was my left leg moving with new-found fluidity, but my right leg had inadvertently gained strength and alignment as well. By increasing my left pelvic rotation, my right leg and foot were now freed to glide naturally through their stride. Without effort, the right foot was now striking straight and both legs were driving back with equal strength.

So how does a runner know how to balance stability with mobility? When during the gait cycle to relax and when to engage? It’s truly a delicate balance, and one that doesn’t always come naturally. Injuries that cause compensatory movement, or years of running with even slight dysfunction can further exacerbate and ingrain poor motor patterns. Critically, as each runner is unique in terms of structure and function, there is no one-size-fits-all biomechanical prescription. Even running experts agree there’s no “perfect” form, and it can be risky to change your form unnecessarily. My advice to you, runner, is to experiment with your gait if there’s a preexisting problem. Then, play with various adjustments and assess your body’s response until you hone in on changes that benefit you.

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