Proper running biomechanics is something many running coaches are hesitant to discuss. Years of observation, trials, and science leave excellent runners still debating how to plant feet, kick and use their arms.
How can performing a natural act elicit such varied methods and opinions? It’s our own fault. Humanity has turned running into an unnatural activity.
Recent studies of animals and humans prove this. When animals run, impulses come from far down their spinal cord. That means running is a natural, reflexive action.
Humans receive far higher levels of nerve impulses. People think about how they run.
Man is always thinking. Many years ago, competitive runners and coaches theorized that long strides would help runners go farther and faster with less effort.
How do runners maximize strides? By extending the knees and landing on their heels.
Landing on the heels hurts unless you have a running shoe with a well-cushioned heel. In other words, the heels-first runner needs an artificial, unnatural appendage.
That simple innovation altered the act of running forever.
Running Minds Think Alike?
Padded heels or not, runners still combat a slew of common injuries. Coaches, runners, and sports scientists constantly search for innovations in equipment and techniques to minimize the risks.
Most researchers suggest breaking down subjects into components and analyze each separately. Sometimes, the researcher needlessly feels he must recommend a change in each area of analysis.
Running is no different. Runners have seen numerous innovations about foot placement, stride length, back kick, and arm movement.
The plethora of opinions, suggestions, and “facts” has overwhelmed some coaches. Many have fallen back into the “If it feels natural to you and doesn’t hurt, stick to it” theory.
No scientist wants to go backwards after years of research, but sometimes going back to basics is the right answer. The question is to whose basics should runners go back?
Runners want to run faster and longer without injury. Research proves that most animals run and go faster and longer than man does.
What do they do differently than a typical human runner?
Heel-to-Toe Stops the Flow
For starters, no fast animals run on their heels. We know that running on barefoot heels hurts, but there are scientific reasons why runners with the latest shoes should stop this practice, too.
Landing on a heel, no matter how fluid the rolling-forward motion feels, provides a stopping mechanism to your stride. Regardless of the cushion, a jarring effect still affects your body.
Furthermore, starting foot placement at your heel extends ground time, providing drag. In effect, runners lose speed.
Ideally, a runner will land with his midfoot or forefoot (depending on speed) instead of the heel. This reduces both impact and braking action.
The runner should then allow it to follow its natural loading and propulsion cycle. Rushing the foot off the ground results in loss of propulsion and can lead to injury.
The foot will roll a bit towards center to absorb the load and prepare for propulsion. A forefoot runner will notice his heel touching the ground during the process.
It sounds like this is too much motion and almost backwards. However, it is the natural and most effective way to transfer weight and achieve proper propulsion.
To properly land on the mid or forefoot, the ankle and knee have to be in a neutral, (about 90-degrees) angle on impact. The foot will be almost directly below the knee on landing.
Driving the lower leg forward or pointing toes downward will slow the process down.
The neutral knee and ankle also assures that the Achilles tendon and calf receive maximum reaction time and minimum stress, reducing wear and injury.
From Foot Placement to Hip Extension
While the foot goes through its cycle, attention should move to the hips. Power and speed come from the full extension of hips. It does not come from pushing off with your toes or anywhere else.
Runners should concentrate on stride height and length (horizontal and vertical) movement resulting from the hip extension. Too long an extension will cost runners air time. If it is too vertical, it will result in too much air time.
The runner wants to find his perfect take off trajectory. Compare it to throwing a ball for a long distance; if it is thrown too low or too high, the ball falls short of the goal. Runners need to find the exact angle or degree to maximize effectiveness.
Once the hip extends completely, it will snap back to its forward position on its own. Along the way, it will take the lower leg with it. The lower leg will reflexively bend and lift off the ground.
Science tells us that any thought about the return of the lower leg is wasted. Altering the natural movement will slow progression to the next stride.
Kicking the back leg higher or forcing the leg forward are not helpful. How close the foot comes to the runner’s butt depends on his speed. Forcing it alters the natural stride and risks injury.
As the leg moves forward, the runner should plant the midfoot on the ground under the knee as the knee reaches its highest point to start the process again.
Pulling forward while the foot is cycling through its ground contact (or “pawing the ground”) does not add speed. In fact, it slows runners down and risks injuries.
Upper Body Provides Rhythm
Upper body coordination is also important. The runner’s posture should be natural, with a very slight frontward tilt, aligning with his lower body. There should be no bend at the waist.
The arms do more than move opposite the forward leg. They control the shoulders and keep the body straight. Crossing or extending the arms from the body alters alignment and slows the runner.
In addition, arm and leg timing has to match. When the arm starts to reverse direction, the leg should be ready to reverse direction. Both actions have braking effects. Synchronizing them minimizes that effect.
Stride or foot placement issues can be related to poor arm synchronization.
How to Change Mechanics
Should a runner play with his mechanics, he should alter one process at a time. Changing multiple facets is more difficult, but also makes it hard to determine if only one is beneficial (or detrimental).
These suggestions come from scientific research of running mechanics, techniques and results. Whether they work for every runner remains to be seen.
However, if someone wants to improve running skills and minimise injury, understanding and following the science of the activity is a good way to start.