Thursday, April 17, 2014

Running Form (again?)

There is no end to magazine, pop-literature, and blogosphere discussion of running form, with much of it centered on foot strike and leg turnover.  We've certainly hashed that topic out over and over here at RP.  I personally have turned an entire 360 degrees from a slowish/longish stride with a noticeable heel-strike to a shorter reach and faster stride with a mid- to fore-foot strike and, after knee pain that turned out to be an easily correctible cartilage tear, back to "what had worked for 40 years."

No criticism of others' efforts and intuitions, but I'm coming to the painful realization my own entire thought process has been flawed.  I'm like the law student who reads a Supreme Court opinion and concludes "good writing is using lots of words or phrases like 'query' and 'meet for the case'," missing the crux reality that once one is a good writer a phrase like 'meet for the case' may be the only one that fits.  The funny thing is that I am not naive to the problem but I haven't taken the dramatic steps required to resolve it.

Causes of my Problems

I have badly foreshortened hip flexors.  Most runners do.  I would guess most people do, because sitting shortens them and in the absence of a deliberate effort they will not re-lengthen.  Biking, with a posture that is like sitting with your elbows on your knees, is especially bad.  Biking all day is even worse, and recovering from biking all day by spending the next day in the fetal position, well, it is a surprise I can walk.

I also have weak hips.  That one surprised me to learn -- I work hard to strengthen my hips -- but it is true.  The hip/glute muscles do not do their job of pushing the hips forward when standing -- and certainly not when running.  It is easy to cheat strength training, taking the stress on your lower back.

I said "I knew what the problem was."  And I did.  Coach Mike has been after me about my hip tilt since, well, ever.  I even once used the password "runhipsfirst" (changed after the Heartbleed scare) to keep the issue in my frontal lobe.  But I never made any real changes because things seemed to be going just fine the way I was running.

D__ recently shared with me this thoughtful Runners World article addressing this issue.


This one-two punch of weak hips and tight hip flexors has manifested itself in several ways in my various athletic efforts.  One that would not immediately jump to mind:  when I telemark ski, a sport that involves a lunge-like motion for the turn, I overweight the lead ski and under-weight the trailing ski, because in a lunge position my weight is naturally forward.

Me telemarking.  Too much weight on that front ski.
When I climb rock (or used to climb rock) I over-rely on my arms as my hips sag away from the wall, failing to keep my weight over my feet.

When I run I tilt forward at the hips relative to my torso.

Triathlon gear shows the tilt well.  Consider the angle of the short waist-line to the torso above it.
In the above picture (mile 10 of the run leg at IM St. George) I was not thinking about it. In the below video I was thinking about it and the problem remained!

In addition to a hip tilt, both the picture and the video show a short follow-through on the stride.  Contrast that to this picture of Moses Mosop, the world's second-fastest-ever marathoner.

See both follow-through and waist-line to torso.
I don't choose Mosop because he is necessarily famous for a perfect stride, although from the picture he maybe should be.  I picked Mosop because it was easy to find a side-shot of his running.  Note that his waist-line is not level to the ground, but it is ~90 degrees to his torso.  Thus, he has flat hips relative to his overall stance, but a forward lean that originates at the ankles.  Mosop runs as if, if he did not get the stride in in time, he would fall on his nose.

One further symptom the hip tilt does not show well:  running with the glutes only marginally engaged permits lots of side-to-side/up-and-down motion in the hips as well.  The below video shows what happens when the hip of the striding leg is not bearing my weight sufficiently well.

(Weak right glute means big left hip drop.  Note that the right hip drops less, suggesting that the left glute is stronger or at least better engaged.)

Hip Angle-Foot Strike

I think it is no accident that I have tended to be a heel striker, although recently I have been able with serious effort to change that.  When I consider the Mosop picture I don't see how he could strike the ground heel-first.  But too, he does not need to do so, because his loose hip-flexors permit that long - and beautiful -- follow-through at the end of the stride.

So it's just a working hypothesis, but I propose that foot strike is the symptom of a root cause, which is hip angle.  Here is my test:  I stand as if on a start line.  I lean forward from the ankles, flexing the glutes to keep the hips pushed forward.  I take a stride at the last minute possible to keep myself from falling over.

Without thinking about it I am landing mid- to fore-foot.  Time and again.

(Yes, if you are wondering, I am filming myself using an iPhone while in my office.)

In contrast, if I go with my normal "pretty good posture" stance -- i.e., the way I stand when I am not thinking about it -- and I try the same thing, the natural landing position is further back on the foot.  It may not be a full-on heel strike, but (and you may not be able to discern this from the video) it does involve my heel striking the ground.

So with an N of 1 ("I am N, hear me roar"), I conclude that hip position defines foot strike.

Changing my Running

I took this idea to the streets yesterday.  I was warned by PT Kristin from Fast Track Therapy to run in short doses -- 3 minutes on, rest, 3' on, rest.  During the rest period Kristin suggested I do a drill or two designed to activate the glutes or to concentrate on the extended hip flexors.   And she was right -- it is hard to keep the head in the game while doing this.  As soon as my mind wandered I was back in my normal stride, which, frustratingly, is just effective enough that I have to tell myself "no! Do better!"

A variety of exercises can help with this.  Ultimately it is a core strength question, with "core" meaning "glutes and hips" more than it does "six-pack abs."  I found a video of Ironman great Craig Alexander showing off his core strengthening routine.  What I like is that as he moves, including going to one leg at a time, his hips stay rigid.  Mine decidedly do not.

No clue how long this will take.  The idea is that if I pull off the change I will run more cleanly, with less stress on the parts that don't age well, but also that I will engage the big glute muscles so run faster and longer.  That's a prize worth working for.


  1. Lean in. Don't bend at the waist Fall forward!! It works. I learned to lean before the Brooklyn Marathon and it made a huge difference. My wife commented after watching me that I seemed to running with my arms further back than most other folks (elbows by my side rather than coming across the front). I was also making sure that I kept my butt forward. I think I unlearned this for Rome, and then when my heel went bad, really unlearned it because it was hard to bend at the ankles . . . The form is coming back slowly as I build up my mileage again. Hang in there.

    1. Cheryl Sandberg on running(!)?

    2. Yes. That was the joke part of an otherwise medium serious post. :-)

  2. Super interesting! I've done some form training with the help of the awesome folks at the University of Delaware Running Clinic but it is hard to get it all to stick (at least it is in my opinion). But we carry so many bad habits through the years, especially if you ran through injuries as I always did.

    This RW article is also really interesting--one of their editors went through a long PT process trying to solve recurrent injuries:

    1. I like the article -- but I can't find the "Runsmart" clinic!

  3. Hah! It would have been funnier if max was a chick.

  4. Or a graduate.

    But in all seriousness, whatever Ted did in Brooklyn should be bottled and sold. I've never had a marathon I felt that singularly happy about. Others? Was there one "thing" that did it?

  5. Yeah, a lot of things came together that day. I've thought about it, a bunch, and I can identify a few. Some were on purpose, others were accidents. The big jump in speed was due to a switch from heel strike to midfoot/forefoot stride, leaning forward, butt tucked in, elbows close to the sides. I also switched to minimal shoes earlier in the year, and they make a difference on race day. I had a really good fall of training, including lots of cross-training. I knew the course like the back of my hand, as the whole marathon was on a loop that I've run hundreds if not thousands of times. The two biggest factors, though, I think, in retrospect were: first, that I rode a pair of centuries over the summer, so my body got used to 5.5 hours of exertion; and second, a really long taper. The second one was a complete accident, due to the cancellation of the NYC Marathon. I got my 3-4 twenty milers in three weeks before NYC. Then I tapered normally for that race, then quickly ramped up for a week, and then tapered again. By the time I hit the starting line, lots of things had healed, but I hadn't really lost my fitness level. Those two things led to the most distinctive thing about that race. I didn't bonk . . .

  6. Shalane is leaning in as she leads the 2014 Boston Marathon. Anyone watching?