Kaitlyn Smith, PT, DPT, LAT
Yes, spring is here!! Yes, we survived another Wisconsin winter! Winter is over...right? We’re all itching to get outside and soak in some Vitamin D, well I know I am at least. What better way to enjoy the outdoors than to go for a jog or run? Yes, I said it, you can enjoy the sun, birds, trees, and flowers while running. BUT before you begin, it is very important to understand the basics of running, in order to prevent injury and set you up for success.
To simplify the mechanics of running, think of a bouncing ball. As the body lands on your foot it enables us to store elastic energy and utilize it in the following step, this is a means of conserving energy rather than utilizing a great amount of muscular force to advance the next step. With that said, there are times such as jumping, accelerating, and running uphill which require significant muscular force generation beyond what our body can store from the previous step. Our job is to put the body in the most optimal position to utilize the maximum potential of our spring-like energy (no pun intended).
When we are walking or jogging on flat ground, the body transmits forces and momentum to the tendons, which return most of that energy to the body in a cycle and repetitive motion. Win/Win if you ask me! The trick is maintaining optimal positioning even when we get tired. Proper running form is fundamental and will aid in preventing injury.
From a number of biomechanical studies, ideal running form requires:
1. Relaxed yet compact arms
2. Balanced forward and upright posture
3. Feet landing directly under your center of mass
4. Stride symmetry
5. Good cadence and low ground contact time
You may be wondering why or how the aforementioned requirements correlate to proper form, increased efficiency, and preventing injury. Let’s delve into more insight on how to understand the meaning behind these.
Relaxed Yet Compact Arms: Sound counter-intuitive? It is possible to relax your shoulders and upper arm musculature while maintaining your elbows in a bent position. Your relaxed shoulders will contribute to rotational flow at the shoulders which also transcends to the hips as well, leading to the “spring-like” energy to propel you forward and make running more efficient. The arms should be compact, meaning a nice bend at the elbow. This bend should position your elbow at an approximate 45 degree angle. If you were to put a penny on the inside of your elbow, it should not fall out as you move your arm back and forth. The more movement of your forearm up and down throughout running, the more your bicep and tricep muscles have to work and use precious energy.
Balanced Forward and Upright Posture: This is what keeps your momentum going forward. I like to begin incorporating this by standing and slightly leaning your entire body forward as if you are on a ski jump (ok maybe not as far forward as the Olympians). You will feel your body want to propel forward and this is how you should feel while running. Additionally, leaning forward will help to facilitate foot-strike directly under your center of mass.
Foot Landing Directly Under Center of Mass: For all you physics fans, I like to use the analogy of a force vector to explain the meaning behind this recommendation. If the foot lands in front of the body, the force travels up through the leg and to the body. The body must then overcome this force, acting against the body, to move forward. Overcoming the force against the body takes extra energy and muscle power to propel. Instead, if the foot lands directly under the body, the force through the leg is transmitted straight up and forward to the body rather than at an angle acting against the body.
Stride Symmetry: Symmetry is incredibly important to decrease risk of injury. Inadequate load distribution between the right and left leg often leads to tendinitis along with other overuse injuries such as IT band syndrome. Despite, often-times runners have asymmetries and are unaware since symmetry is difficult to measure yourself. A trusted professional can measure and analyze your stride length, hip rotation, foot landing, specific muscular strength, and range of motion. Physical Therapists are qualified professionals who can analyze and design a treatment plan to address individual asymmetries. This may include video or visual analyzation, positional and functional muscular strength testing, and specific movement assessments.
Good Cadence and Low Ground Reaction Force: Cadence is the amount of times your feet contact the ground within 1 minute. Each person should find their individual cadence recommendation, which is based on a variety of factors. As a general rule of thumb, efficient running coincides with a high cadence. In order to have a high cadence, the time spent on each foot must be low, thus leading to a low ground reaction force and utilizing our “spring-like” energy. Additionally, ALL of the above recommendations help to achieve a high cadence. Therefore, if you begin implementing one of these recommendations, the others may fall into place as well.
Mind you, establishing and maintaining proper running form does not happen overnight, it will take persistence to develop and maintain good running habits. Quantifying your effectiveness of the above recommendations will bring enormous improvement to your running performance. Whether your goal is running for 15 minutes every day or qualifying for the Boston Marathon, having a reliable support system is strongly recommended.
Roberts TJ, Azizi E. Flexible mechanisms: the diverse roles of biological springs in vertebrate movement. J Exp Biol. 2011 Feb 1;214(Pt 3):353-61.
Lyght M, Nockerts M, Kernozek TW, Ragan R. Effects of foot strike and step frequency on Achilles tendon stress during running. J Appl Biomech. 2016; 32:365-72.
Cavagna GA, Saibene FP, Margaria RJ. Mechanical work in running. Appl. Physiol. 1964; 19:249-56.
Cover Photo by Composita of Pixabay