The Biomechanics of a Runner

The popularity of running has grown over the years and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down any time soon.  According to the Annual Running Report conducted by Running USA, the number of marathon finishers has grown tremendously over past two decades.  In 2010 there were over a half a million reported marathon finishers.  One of the reasons running has become so popular is because of its accessibility.  All you need is a pair of running shoes and you’re out the door.  No coaching needed, right?  Or is there more to it?  Can poor running form and mechanics put someone at a greater risk for injury?  There are two main causes of overuse injuries related to running; over-training and faulty biomechanics.

When talking about running mechanics I believe there is a gray area that you just don’t mess with.  Why?  Because runners come in different shapes and sizes and not everyone will run exactly the same.  However, what should we consider as a solid foundation?  Consider these three things that can make-or-break a runner.  They are upright body position, strong but mobile through the hips, and proper foot placement.

Upright body position is as simple as it sounds.  A lot of this can be “cued” while you run.  A cue is simply something to focus on during a run.  In this case, telling yourself to stand tall, like a rope is attached to the top of your head pulling you straight up.  Muscle tightness, stiffness in the thoracic spine, and weakness of the scapular stabilizers can contribute in some cases.  Arm swing will play a role in this as well.  Driving our arms back rather than forward allowing them to cross our body will help keep us upright, especially when we fatigue.  I am well aware of techniques out there that teach people to keep a forward lean from the ankles, which can be argued, but something I often come across is either the lean is excessive for how fast someone is running or more often, the lean is coming at the waist.  Leaning forward at the waist does two things.  It activates our low back muscles which compromises the drive from glutes, and it doesn’t allow us to take full advantage of the stretch reflex of our hip flexors.

Having an upright body position will allow us to take advantage of our hips.  Our hips are the main drivers of forward propulsion and for that reason they should both strong yet mobile.  When our foot is on the ground, hip extension is occurring (leg moving backwards).  This is where the majority of forward propulsion comes from. Strong hip extenders (mostly glutes with some hamstring) can increase the efficiency and power of that movement.  The front part of the hip is often tight or restricted which will limit stride length and ultimately take away from your main source of propulsion.  In my experience, limitations at the hip are extremely common and often lead to other sources of overcompensation, which could result in injury.

The last thing to consider is foot placement.  In this case, I am not referring to heel strike versus mid- or forefoot strike.  That’s a whole article by itself.  Instead, I’m referring to foot placement as it relates to the rest of your body.  When your foot is bearing full weight during the stance phase, it should be under center (or close to it). One of the biggest problems I see when the foot hits the ground is that it’s too far in front of the body.  This results in a breaking force thus limiting performance and increasing impact forces on the joints of the knee, hip, and low back.  This is usually a sign of over-striding and can be corrected when we learn to actually shorten our stride and increase turnover.  This, like learning to run upright, can be cued while running, but will take a longer time to develop.

Think of the basics of good running mechanics as having good upright posture with your foot landing close to your center and your body’s propulsion being mostly powered by the hips.  This could ultimately lower your risk of overuse injuries and improve performance.

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