To become a master of movement you must understand how the body is designed for locomotion, how the laws of physics and bio-mechanical principles come into play, and how to properly train to develop the skills necessary to move ideally. In this series we will break down nearly every functional exercise and aim to improve your understanding of how your body works, how to get the most work out of it, and how to constantly improve. Running is an activity that nearly everyone can do and it's one of the first activities that most will try when attempting to lose weight or when in pursuit of a better level of fitness. In this article we will talk about the most efficient way to run so you can do it faster, for longer, and with minimal risk of injury.
Barring any physical or neurological disabilities limiting the use of our legs, the first step in our development as locomotive bipeds is learning to stand. Standing requires minimal skill. Mostly just balance and strength. Our bone structure can support our bodyweight long before our muscles and brain are able to get in sync with one another and stabilize it. After 7-10 months of life, a bit of practice and someone holding our hand, we are usually able to stand upright with no support from anyone or anything. This is a huge accomplishment in our early childhood development and one that most every parent, grand-parent, aunt, and uncle will celebrate.
Next in our locomotive development comes walking. No one really teaches us how to walk and almost no one, with the exception of those who have experienced a traumatic brain injury or who are learning to use a new prosthesis, seek higher level instruction to learn to do it better. We just learn to balance, control our head, put one foot in front of the other, and walk. It's simple. Most people don't put a lot of thought into it. Everyone is built differently so the gait (the way one walks) we exhibit varies to some degree. However, the same force acts on us all and in every walk we are opposing gravity and using it to our advantage simultaneously. When we run, we are doing this to an even greater extent.
So, how do we minimize the impact of the force trying to oppose us and maximize on the one that is helping us? In Part 2 of the Master of Movement Series (Running) article we will go into greater detail on the run stride but, in this article we will focus on the 3 big picture items.
1.) GET STRONG
Gravity only pulls us in one direction. Straight down. When we are standing, the muscles in the upper and lower leg work together to stabilize the knee joint and keep it in extension. The quadriceps are most responsible for extension so they deserve most of the credit. If the strength in these muscles wasn't great enough to oppose the force of gravity, our bony structure would crumble to the ground. Strong muscles give us better balance. While balance is classified as a neurological skill (one that can be improved through practice), the strength of our skeletal muscle plays a huge role in how balanced we are.
From a muscular standpoint, It's fair to say that the strength of our legs is the most challenged when running. The quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calf muscles, and anterior tibialis are constantly at work during a run. The stronger we are, the less taxing locomotion becomes. If a 200lb man has a back squat of 200lbs, can do isolated hamstring curls with 160 lbs, and calf raises with 300lbs, all other things being equal, it's hard to argue that if his numbers were 300, 250, and 400, respectively, that he wouldn't be able to run faster, for longer, and have better balance.
For an amateur runner, and someone who has never lifted a weight, gaining strength is simple. Find a gym with a squat rack, put a bar on your back, and squat. Squatting will improve strength in all muscles of the upper and lower leg. You don't even need to do isolated hamstring curls or calf raises. Your strength numbers in these training exercises will improve as your squat number goes up. Why? We said earlier that all the muscles in the upper and lower leg play a part in stabilizing and mobilizing the knee joint. The hip & knee joint angles change the greatest amount during a squat. When a 200lb man does an air squat, the muscles have to apply enough resources to move 200lbs. When this same 200lb man puts a barbell weighing 200lbs on his shoulders and begins to squat with it, the muscles have to recruit more fibers to get the same job done. With the greater intensity, the muscles are placed under a greater demand and must adapt. Our body will not let us go into a fight unprepared so the more we challenge it with heavier weight, the better prepared it becomes for the next bout of exercise. Squat. Squat. Squat. The dividends are huge!
2.) USE PROPER POSTURE
Your mom has probably told you before. "Stand up straight", "don't slouch", "keep your head up". All of these postural cues are excellent and to maintain efficiency, must be remembered when running. Our vertebrae are able to support the greatest amount of weight when they are stacked correctly in proper posture. This means that we maintain the kyphotic (upper back) or lordodic (low back) arches and the union between the spinal column and pelvis is braced with the abdominals and kept in proper alignment. For the latter, you'll want to go through a spinal bracing sequence to set the union. Here are the steps:
- With your feet directly under your hips, contract your glute muscles as hard as you can. Like you are trying to hold a pencil in between your butt cheeks.
- While maintaining that tension (don't let go of the pencil until I say), take a big breath of air in through your belly. This belly breath is done so that we do not place ourselves into a position of over extension by taking in air through expanding our chest. Push your belly straight out and your diaphragm will contract and your lungs will expand to bring in air.
- After a full inhale, slowly exhale until you get to a point of about 50% tension. Your abdominal muscles will be engaged enough to stabilize the spinal - pelvic union and you can release your pencil.
Now that this is done, the key is maintaining this tension throughout your run. Do not get lax otherwise, you will be sacrificing efficiency.
The other component to good posture is shoulder position. Your shoulders should be floating over the top of the rib cage. If they are too far forward and you are hunched over, you are going to make it harder for your diaphragm to expand and it will fatigue. If you have them pulled to far back, your upper back muscles will begin to fatigue trying to keep you in that position. You'll also likely be leaning backwards instead of using the force of gravity to help you propel with less energy expenditure. We'll go into this in greater detail in part 2. Overall, maintain your "super-hero" posture and focus on your abdominal tension and belly breaths. These 3 easy fixes will immediately improve your running performance.
3.) DRILL ON THE MECHANICS
I know many accomplished runners and tri-athletes. Many of them have never had their stride analyzed to see if they are running properly. Most rely on their natural ability and many of them make mechanical faults that cause them to fatigue earlier than they should, place more demand on areas that should be just "along for the ride", and place themselves at a greater risk of injury due to their posture and gait. With a little understanding of physics, kinesiology, and how to put gravity to work for them, many of these accomplished athletes could perform even better.
If you have never heard of the name Nicholas Romanov, now is the time to look him up. Dr. Romanov created the "pose method" of running. In my opinion, this is the most efficient and safest way to run. The pose method best utilizes the forces of nature and when done properly, can enable a person to run for much longer and much faster than they ever have. In part 2 we will go into more detail on the specific drills that will help you develop your "pose, fall, pull". Until then, get stronger, practice good posture in everything that you do, and RUN! "Perfect practice makes perfect execution" so keep refining your skills. If you want one on one help, contact us. We'll get you faster fast.
(...to be continued.)
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