If you read the first of my running blogs that I recently posted, I spoke about using “Free Speed” downhill. Don’t we wish that all our runs were downhill? That would be nice. If we can go faster downhill and utilize gravity to our advantage, why mimic running downhill even when we are on level ground? This is exactly what we want to do. In order to accomplish this we must be very attuned to little changes in our running form/posture. We need to engrain into our heads what it “feels” like to run efficient and fast.
Before anything else, let’s think about what happens when are running downhill and using the “Free Speed” from gravity. First, gravity along with the forward shift of our body weight pulls us forward in the direction we want to go. Second, we translate our hips and trunk forward in order to keep our center of mass over our feet. Lastly, we lift our heel towards our butt and let gravity place it back down. With each step we fall forward and just before it seems our leg won’t make it in time, we place our foot down for the next step.
How do we create the above form when we are running on flat surfaces? The answer is, its all about the little things. First, we need to learn how to “make ourselves tall.” Next, we need to become the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Lastly, we need to let “gravity and the glutes do the work.”
1. Make Yourself Tall: The first parts of becoming tall are self explanatory, “Stand up straight.” Like I said earlier though it’s all about the little things. Extending our hips and knees, straightening our back, and bringing our chest up are necessary but that’s not all. The key is to do a subtle chin tuck. The best way to think about this is to imagine that you are a marionette like Pinocchio (minus the long nose). Imagine being pulled up from the ceiling by the top/back of your head. This means that each vertebrae in your spine separates and elongates. This elongation feeling should travel down to at least your mid thoracic spine. After you have slightly tucked your chin and elongated your spine towards the heavens, you must engage your core. This may be one of the toughest parts to grasp but think about what I am abut to say, imagine how it feels and then practice it in your runs. You will eventually grasp it and your runs will begin to become easier.
When I say engage your core, I am not talking about flexing your six pack like Hulk Hogan, I am talking about the little things. The primary core muscles that we want to engage our your transverse abdominis, oblique muscles and smaller pelvic floor muscles. Basically, you want to pull your belly button towards your spine (transverse abdominis) and then engage your upper obliques which should feel like your lower rib cages are coming together. Last comes the fun part, activating your pelvic floor muscles. The females will probably understand and grasp this much better than us men from all of those Kegel exercises. Basically, all you need to do is do what you do when you want to stop urinating. Do that and you are most likely doing it right. By activating your pelvic floor muscles, you amplify the intensity of your core contraction. Another way to explain the above movements is to perform a posterior pelvic tilt and hold it. For those of your with tight hip flexors this may be difficult. Make sure to include hip flexor stretches in your pre run routine. Working on holding a posterior pelvic tilt in other daily activities will help activation during running easier.
Before we go on to the next step let’s quickly review the cues you can tell yourself for becoming as tall as you can be. In order, here they are: “Chin tuck,” “Elongate my spine,” “Pull my belly button in,” “Imagine my lower ribs coming together,” “stop the flow of urination.” Got to love the last one :)
2. Become the Leaning Tower of Pisa: Once you have become straight and tall like a tower, you need to learn how to lean. Many people lean forward when they run but they lean forward like my geriatric patients walk, flexed at the knees and hips. Not only does this type of form force you to use more energy, it also leads to anterior pelvic tilt and counters all that we want to accomplish from the first step. Instead, we want to remain like a tall tower and lean forward like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Do you see how this resembles what we do when we run downhill? By leaning in this manner we are essentially “falling forward,” just like what want to do when running downhill.
3. Let Gravity and the Glutes Do the Work: Now that we have covered the form, let’s talk about propelling ourselves forward. From the point our foot strikes the ground underneath us we want the most powerful muscle, the glutes, to be the primary muscles thrusting our hip into extension. We then use our calves (soleus is heavily used in distance running) to give us that extra boost right before we bring our heel straight towards our butt. The action of lifting your heel towards your butt requires the hamstrings to fire but is also a result of the cyclical pattern of gait that is programed into our neuromuscular makeup. As you fall forward progressing do the next step there is no need to actively bring your leg forward, just let gravity to the work. If you have become as tall as you can and leaned forward like the Leaning Tower of Pisa then when you let your foot fall to the ground it will land directly underneath you. Someone once told me that the best runner is the one with the most dirt on their back. This is so true because those with the most dirt on their back are the ones that are bringing their heel towards their butt and keeping their hips over their feet.
In summary, as in all endurance sports becoming the most efficient is crucial. Running form and putting yourself in the optimal position to create power are important in maximizing efficiency. But never forget the little things that put the entire package together. Think about how it feels to run tall and let gravity do the work and sooner or later it will just come natural to run in this way.