Tag Archives: running form

Calm and strong along the runner’s trail

Effortlessly, air diffuses into the body, filling the belly with the purest form of fuel. Oxygen floods the bloodstream, penetrating every cell. The mitochondria, the cellular children, devour the oxygen like candy, returning a surge of ATP in gratitude for the treat.

Pacifying the mind yet empowering the muscles, this air expands the belly to transform the core into a powerhouse of stability. Tranquilized, the jaw becomes jello. The shoulders relax into a rhythmic swing that guides the gait cycle. The torso calcifies into a concrete cylinder, resilient and reinforced by a combustion of internal energy. Gently supported by the core, the hips float without strain above the terrain. The pelvis glides directly forward, immobile in all other planes. The earth below transforms into a still sea, unperturbed as the weightless feet barely graze its glistening surface.

Despite this calm, despite this buoyancy, the body is impenetrably strong. The torso comprises an iron rod, elongating and bracing the spine from tail to tip. Two other rods, parallel to the first, extend from each hip to the ground. The heel slides with ease up this rod to kiss the buttock before gracefully returning to brush the earth.

From this calm the body learns balance. From this strength the soul discovers life.

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Barefoot Running Workshop 2: Lower and Upper Biomechanics

In the first of our Barefoot Running Workshops, we explored facts and fiction of barefoot running, sensory awareness and mechanics of the foot. In our second workshop today, we introduced basic running kinematics before moving north from the foot to cover mechanics of the lower and upper body. Here’s a recap of the workshop highlights for those who missed it.

RUNNING KINEMATICS

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of leg, hip and torso function, it’s essential to understand how one gets from zero to running in the first place. Running has been described in a multitude of ways, from a controlled fall to alternating one-legged hops to a springy, aerial variant of walking. Given this confusing jumble of terminology, what then are the essential movements that convert a stationary body to a running body? The basic motion is far simpler than most runners would imagine. There’s no jumping, bouncing or flying required! In essence, running is nothing more than marching while moving forward.

March. Simply pick up the feet, the ankle gliding parallel to the shin up to the knee. Return the foot to its starting position and repeat with the other leg. That’s it. The 100-ups are a great exercise to reinforce this motor pattern.

Lean. Once you’ve mastered marching in place, it’s time to transform this into forward motion. This too is simpler than it sounds. To move forward, the body must lean forward. This lean should NOT come from bending at the waist; “sitting” or folding forward will cause a host of problems from the back to the hips to the knees. Instead, the lean should originate at the ankles, the entire body leaning angled together along the same plane. By simply adopting a slight lean from the ankles, you will fall forward and be propelled from stationary marching into forward travel. March, lean, and BAM … you’re magically running!

BIOMECHANICS II: LOWER BODY 

Lift the legs. A constant upward motion should be maintained throughout the gait cycle. This is especially important after striking, when the legs should immediately lift up. The feet should land directly under the hips, neither reaching forward nor crossing over the midline. Both overstriding and a cross-over gait can lead to various injuries. The Gait Guys offer an excellent series of videos on correcting a cross-over gait (part 1, 2 and 3).

Bend the knees. To facilitate a smooth ride, bend and relax the knees. The knees can serve as shock absorbers when allowed to flex, so the greater the bend, the less impact will be sustained upon landing. This is especially helpful when running downhill.

Stable hips. The shin bone’s connected to the thigh bone … the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone … Yes, it’s all connected, and these chains are particularly notable in the context of how the legs move in response to the hips. The hips are indeed the powerhouse and main driver of a strong running stride. Strong, stable hips are essential, and muscular imbalances or poor hip mechanics are the source of many leg and foot injuries. Don’t let the hips sink or drop, but keep them level on the horizontal plane. The hips serve as the body’s steering wheel, so be sure to keep them facing forward and aligned with the shoulders.

BIOMECHANICS III: UPPER BODY

Core rotation. Some rotation is key to balancing the body’s left-right movements, but excessive rotation, or from the wrong place, can be problematic. Most of the rotation should originate in the core. Imagine the pelvis as a chandelier, the torso as its suspension cable and your head as the ceiling. The pelvis should dangle, relaxed, and rotate freely from the waist, supported by the strength of the strong, elongated core. As the right legs swings back, the right pelvis rotates back. It’s not forced or pulled, but swings naturally, allowing greater leg extension without over-stressing the hips. (The chandelier example was adapted from this excellent article.)

Shoulders and arms. Keep the shoulders low and relaxed, but don’t slouch. Some shoulder motion is fine, but be careful not to dip them or overly rotate the chest. After the hips, the shoulders serve as a second steering wheel, so they should remain stable and facing forward. Keep the arms close to your sides, elbows at a 90 degree angle and swinging forward and backward rather than across the chest. The rhythm of your arms directly affects hip and leg motion; a rapid arm punp can encourage faster leg turnover, and fluid forward-backward swinging will minimize inefficient lateral movements.

Head and posture. Your head leads and guides its body below. Keep your head up and neck stretched tall and long. Unlike owls, humans are blessed with eyes that move independently from the head, so you can still look at the ground without titling the head down. The entire body – from the ankles up to the tip of the head – should form a strong, continuous line, without kinks from poor posture or bending at the waist. Imagine being lifted upwards, suspended by a bird or plane (or pick your favorite flying power-creature) directly above your head.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Now it’s time to integrate these elements into your perfect running form! This video from the Natural Running Center is a beautiful example of a strong, efficient stride. Revisit this video and try to mimic Mark’s fluid, light motion whenever you need a refresher.

The final key to optimizing your stride is forgetting everything you just read and just run. Yes, I am (mostly) serious. Sometimes less can be more in terms of tapping into your optimal gait. Running is one of the most natural movements for humans, and a strong, healthy body will readily fall into it’s own unique running stride. Obsessing about every component of your form will not only take the joy out of running, but can also backfire, inducing unnecessary tension or forced, inefficient motor patterns. If you find this occurring while tweaking your running mechanics, abandon the effort and simply allow your body move fluidly and aimlessly. You might find that your muscles were one step ahead of your mind, and knew the route to efficient running all along.

Join us for the final session of our Barefoot Running Workshop series Sunday, July 12 at 3 pm. As usual, we’ll meet at the Founder’s Statue at the northwest corner of Balboa and El Prado in Balboa Park. In this final session, we’ll wrap up with how best to run hills and do speed work, as well as safety and practical considerations of running barefoot. More details and RSVP here.

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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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Navigating the niggles

You’re midway through an otherwise phenomenal run. You’re feeling strong, just tackled that dreaded hill and have fully entered the zone. Suddenly, your heart sinks a bit as you feel a niggle coming on. Whether it’s an ache in your foot, a twinge in your knee, or tightness in your hip, these minor discomforts can be majorly disconcerting. Maybe it will dissipate in a minute … or maybe it will evolve into a serious injury. Sure, a smart runner will listen to their body. That’s easy enough when your body is screaming adamantly “Your foot is broken, dummy!” But how do you respond when your body mumbles incoherently “Yeah, I’m not feeling so hot. The ankle feels kinda blah … you might want to check it out … or not … I don’t care”. In these situations, neither intense trepidation nor denial of the warning signs are ideal approaches. But don’t fret, runner. There is in fact a middle ground on which you can cautiously and safely test the injury waters.

1. SLOW DOWN, SWITCH IT UP, SHAKE IT OUT

Sometimes a simple correction is all you need. If that niggle arose from pushing too hard, just slowing your pace could reset you back to normal.

We often think of over-use injuries as emerging after many days or weeks of too much running. But sometimes monotonous motion – even over the course of several minutes – can trigger over-use symptoms. If you’ve been running on the road, find some grass or trail. If the terrain’s been rough or uneven – for instance, a rocky path or canted road – switch to something more stable. The slight change in muscle engagement might be all you need.

If these quick fixes don’t fix, stop and shake it out for just a moment. Sadly, many of us have been taught that running breaks are a sign of weakness. Believe me, running yourself into a broken bone or torn tendon will leave you much weaker than had you taken a brief pause. Even a 30-second rest might allow an overworked muscle to recuperate, leaving you refreshed for the rest of your run.

2. FOCUS ON FORM

The onset of a niggle is the perfect time to check back in with your body. Often, a slight form correction can nip the problem in the bud. It’s not always obvious where the imbalance is coming from, so scanning the body – from tip to toe – will cover your bases.

Good running form, courtesy of the Mark Cucuzzella and the Natural Running Center.

Good running form, courtesy of the Mark Cucuzzella and the Natural Running Center.

Head. Starting with your head, assess your posture. Imagine a string pulling your head up from your shoulders, elongating your neck and spine into a tall, straight line. Keep the shoulders relaxed but don’t forget to keep the arms bent and active. The rhythm of your arm swing can have a powerful impact on your running cadence – which we all know is a critical element to strong, healthy running.

Core. Moving down, evaluate your hips and core. Stability in these regions are perhaps the most essential component of good running form, and – as the term implies – comprise the core of a runner’s stride. Imagine your hips on an even horizontal plane, the right and left hip bones perfectly aligned, neither dipping nor rotating with your stride. Keep a slight lean in the upper body, visualizing a straight planE from head to toe angled forward, being mindful not to bend at the hips.

Legs. Next come the legs. Bend the knees, and keep the gluts and hamstrings active. Check where your feet are landing. They should contact the ground directly under the hip, not in front (this is ovestriding – an all-too-common source of many problems!), nor at the midline (this is a cross-over gait, which can be the source of many lateral injuries). Sometimes mentally exaggerating these features can help achieve them – for instance, aim to make foot contact behind and to the outside (laterally) of your hips. You’ll likely end up striking right under the hips.

Feet. Lastly, check in with your feet. Keep them relaxed – your foot muscles are not “power muscles” as are your quads, gluts and abs, and thus should not be relied on to propel you through your stride. Especially if you are running barefoot or minimalist, there can be a tendency to unnecessarily over-engage the feet. Imagine landing as lightly as possible, lifting the foot at the moment it touches the ground, rather than pounding or slapping. And of course, keep your cadence high. Aim for a balanced foot strike that’s neither excessively fore-foot nor rear-foot. I find that focusing on a “pancake-flat” foot-strike (forefoot and heel striking simultaneously) works best for me, but play with this to find your comfort zone.

3. UNEARTH THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

Modifying your speed, terrain or form are great quick fixes for mid-run niggles. But the critical question for preventing a recurrent, or long-term injury, is what caused the problem in the first place? This is some great food for thought for the remainder of your run … reflect on what you were doing leading up to the onset of the problem. Revisit not only the moments before, but also the days and weeks before. Did you just summit a monster hill? Maybe you’ve incorporated more speed work than normal this week, or have been pushing your mileage recently. Subtle changes, even those unrelated to your training, can impact your running health. Sleep deprivation, poor diet or stress can all work against a runner, impeding recovery, promoting inflammation or increasing fatigue. Chances are, you might be battling several of these aggravators, making it challenging to pinpoint one root cause. So go ahead, take an extra rest day, treat yourself to a deep-tissue massage and indulge in an extra hour of sleep.

And remember, a niggle’s nothing more, unless you let it be. Embrace these moments as learning tools and you’ll only grow stronger and healthier!

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When barefoot novelty becomes a bare necessity

When I began running barefoot over a year ago, each barefoot run was a thrill. My feet experienced a world of exciting new sensations, I was running smoother and lighter than ever before, and running was simply fun! Over the ensuing several months, some of novelty, but none of the pleasure, wore off. My strength increased and I was able to run about half of my mileage barefoot. After following this system for some time, a distinct trend appeared. I deeply looked forward to those barefoot runs and approached them fearlessly, confident – no, certain – I would feel great. Coincidentally, a subtle dread for my shod runs began to grow. When I laced up my shoes, I could sometimes squeak out a good run, but just as often would slog through, tired, sloppy and achy. I hesitated to give up my shoes for fear of reducing my mileage, but began to resent those miserable junk miles. Finally, I became fed up with the frustration and – just over two months ago – took off my shoes for good. I had reached a turning point where I was no longer running barefoot just for fun, but because I found myself unable to run shod without significant discomfort. Bare feet had become a bare necessity.

The switch did not come without its sacrifices, however. Given that I was still adjusting to the unique demands of barefoot running, I had to cut my weekly mileage in half. This is no easy feat for a running junkie. Yet the patience required to start from scratch, in essence relearning to run, has proven beyond worth the challenge. I’ve learned more about proper biomechanics, my body’s strengths and weaknesses, and the delicate relationship between form and function, over the past ten weeks than over my entire 17 years of running.

Shod running forces one to perceive their form as if through a frosted window. In contrast, barefoot running allows you to perceive it in high resolution, as if through a microscope. Any structural imbalance or mechanical error is immediately apparent, as your feet afford the most exquisite and accurate sensory feedback. This feature builds the framework for a foolproof system to rapidly correct and optimize one’s running form. A few examples from my own training adaptations illustrate these benefits.

Overstriding > ankle pain

Slight overstriding on my right leg contributed to ankle pain. (Gait analysis courtesy Jennifer Reiner, DC)

Slight overstriding on my right leg contributed to ankle pain. (Gait analysis courtesy Jennifer Reiner, DC)

A major impetus for going bare was perpetual instability and strain in my ankles. I felt chronic fatigue in my posterior tibialis, Achilles and peroneal tendon, before and during the first few weeks of my switch. Playing with my form, I noted that the strain was alleviated when I landed with my feet under – not in front of – my center of mass. I had been … (gasp!) overstriding. It’s quite likely I’ve been doing so for many years, probably contributing to prior injuries, but it only became apparent barefoot. It’s not only visibly obvious, but also audibly detectable, as I hear a distinct slapping sound when my form gets sloppy and I return to my overstriding tendencies.

Heel-striking > shin stress

As my ankle issues resolved, the stress moved up my lateral shins and I acquired mild symptoms of anterior compartment syndrome. A bit of research suggested that shin pain can result from heel-striking, which can easily be resolved by adopting a forefoot strike. Within just a few days of consciously landing forward on the ball of my foot, my shin pain had cleared up. Intriguingly, though I was running barefoot and (mostly) avoiding overstriding, which are often associated with forefoot striking, I had still retained a subtle rearfoot strike.

Forefoot striking > forefoot ache

No gait change comes without some cost. With my forefoot shift, I experienced some moderate tightness and bruised sensations under the ball of the foot. Cautious not to overstress my feet with these new changes, I’ve been focusing on modifying my form according to my body’s current needs. If I feel excessive tension in my shins, I’ll emphasize a forefoot strike; when the forefoot acts up, I relax back into a rearfoot strike. When barefoot, these rapid shifts – and their immediate benefits – are easy and effective.

Foot immobility > abrasions

Immobility in my left big toe joint caused ankle rotation and shearing.

Immobility in my left big toe joint caused ankle rotation and shearing.

While I haven’t suffered a blister or cut in many, many months, my left ball of foot (under the base of the big toe) tends to get disproportionately tender compared to the left. With my increasing mileage, this had become increasingly problematic, and recently became coupled with a growing callous under the neighboring second metatarsal. This was a clear sign, that would otherwise have been masked by shoes, that there are still some lingering mechanical issues. My insightful physical therapist, who noted immobility in my big toe, prescribed some exercises to increase flexibility and mobility in the big toe joint. After only a few days, I’ve already noticed much less abrasive shearing. Yet again, another simple fix.

Personally, this recent barefoot journey has been immensely successful, enabling me to retrain myself to run well and consequently resolve chronic injuries, all the while restoring hope that most running problems can be overcome by simple training modifications. Yet despite the fact that I had to take off my shoes to discover this, I’m not convinced that it’s purely an issue of footwear. Rather, successful running fundamentally comes from proper form. Some can achieve this regardless of footwear. Others, such as myself, will need more help from tools that encourage mechanical corrections. For me, one of simplest, not to mention liberating, ways to do so has been to break down the barriers between body and environment and let my feet directly sense and respond to its rich surroundings.

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So you think you can run?

Of course you know how to run. It’s as natural and instinctive a behavior as walking, breathing or eating. Through years of diligent training you’ve developed into a serious runner with exceptional running form of which you are proud. Yet, not matter how close we are to the “ideal” form, there is always room for improvement. Even the most minor imbalance will become alarmingly apparent when we push our training beyond our norm, whether by increasing mileage, speed or experimenting with new terrain or footwear.

Over the past couple of weeks, a combination of increased mileage and footwear play (alright, when am I not exploring my barefoot and minimalist limits?) culminated in a cautionary threat of incipient tendonitis in my ankles. Although this may simply have been a classic case of too-much-too-soon, I’m convinced it was also a case of too-much-with-poor-form. Two patterns tipped me off to a likely biomechanical problem. First, the pain consistently appeared while running shod, during which I reliably get sloppy with my form, and subsided running barefoot. Second, the sites of tightness and weakness were asymmetrical, manifesting as left lateral and right medial ankle pain – an obvious warning of left-right imbalance.

Frustrated and terrified of a developing injury, I made an uncharacteristic and desperate move: I contacted a local running guru for a gait analysis and training session. I love my running community, but I have a bizarre aversion to running with others. And I hate taking running advice, adamant to tackle any obstacle through my own research and hard work. But in a rare flash of run-humility, I put my stubbornness aside and sought expert advice.

The session began with a video playback of myself running. I cringed as my mental image of my idyllic form was shattered. I bounced along, my legs reaching just in front of my body, feet landing somewhere between heel and midfoot. Oh the horror! I was over-striding and heel-striking! For over an hour I ran, marched, played with my posture, visualized butterflies and analyzed my footprints. I felt like a baby learning to walk and left both humbled and overwhelmed by the wealth of invaluable information.

In the hopes that I’ll retain these insights and that you, dear reader, might also reap their benefits, I’ve outlined below the five most valuable lessons from my training session. The featured video that follows illustrates a runner who beautifully integrates each of these elements into his impeccable form. I encourage you to watch along as you read.

1. High cadence. Although they are in fact unrelated, it’s easy to confuse cadence with speed. Cadence refers to your step frequency, which is independent of your speed. For example, you could run at the same speed with long, slow strides (low cadence) or fast, short strides (high cadence). Elite runners typically run with a cadence well over 180 steps per minute, which has become the standard  recommended minimum. Not only can a high cadence prevent over-striding, but emerging research suggests that it also reduces forces on muscles and joints, and hence minimizes injury risk.

2. No jumping! Try running in place. Now let me guess – are you hopping in place, jumping from one leg to the other? Running is essentially lifting your legs while moving forward (we’ll get to the forward motion part soon), so there’s actually no need to jump in order to run. Simply lift your knees up without jumping, and remember to keep that cadence high. As you march, note how your foot lands, the ball contacting the ground first, followed by the heel.

3. Ankle to shin. Now that you’re marching in place with a soft ball-to-heel landing, it’s time to think about the placement of your knees, ankles and feet. Focus on lifting your knees high, but be careful not to drive your foot out in front of you. Instead, as you lift and lower your right leg, imagine your right ankle sliding along the inside of your left shin, as a roller bearing glides along a rail. Your foot should remain directly under your hips throughout the cycle, not in front. This is key to preventing over striding, which we know makes us vulnerable to a range of injuries.

4. Up, up and away. So you’re marching away, knees high, fast cadence, feet beneath you. What do you hear? The sound of your feet smacking the ground? Aim for silence, your feet not striking, but rather, lifting off, the ground. Imagine your favorite bird, flying insect or aircraft (take your pick) hoisting you up from the top of your head. Your body elongates and elevates above the earth, your feet barely able to graze the ground. Each step makes you lighter and takes you higher.

5. Lean. You’re off and running with a light, quick, stride, legs cycling beneath you at 190 steps per minute … you’ve perfected your running form, except for one minor detail … you’re running at zero miles per hour. How do you move forward? Yes, your stride needs to lengthen, but you shouldn’t lengthen it. Let gravity do the work for you. As you march in place, lean forward ever so slightly. Don’t bend at the waist, but let yourself “fall” forward while maintaining an erect posture. As your center of mass shifts in front of you, gravity will propel you forward and suddenly, without trying, you’re running!


Video credit to Dr. Mark Cucuzzella of the Natural Running Center.

On your next run, I challenge you to focus on these tenets of mindful running. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come to you immediately, and definitely do not let it detract from the joy of your run. Stay relaxed and note any change that ensues as you make minor adjustments. Then report back. Is there one guideline that you find particularly beneficial? Do you have your own running form secrets to share? Please do! We may hate to admit it, but there’s always more to learn.

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