James Gucciardi, D.C.
So you’ve been running awhile and hopefully you’ve been consistently making progress. If you’re savvy, you’ve realized how using strength training not only improves your times, but hopefully has made you more resistant to injury too. But there is one area for improvement that rarely gets any love even though it can make a huge impact on the quality of your life. What is it?
Learn to move efficiently and then make it a daily practice. While this will certainly help your running, the truth is moving more efficiently will also reduce your potential for injury and simply make you feel better in your own skin with everything you do. This article is not about the best running style. There really is no such thing. “But wait…I thought you’re supposed to land on your mid-foot. No, heel strike! Mid-foot! Heel strike!” Less Filling; Tastes Great! You get the idea. Although there is no best running style, elite runners all have one thing in common…they are efficient. Amateur runners who are often injured also have one thing in common…they’re not.
So how do we become more efficient?
While there are many variables involved in running efficiency, here are 3 easy things you can start working on right away to quickly improve your running economy. While the first two aren’t sexy, they are the foundation for proper movement. Ignore them at your peril (cue evil villain laugh now)!
The primary muscle of respiration is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a domed shaped muscle. When it contracts, it flattens out and travels down towards the pelvic floor. In doing so it not only draws air into your lungs, it creates more pressure in your abdomen which helps stabilize your low back. This is important because your hips and shoulders need a stable core to function optimally.
If you were to watch a baby breathe you would see their whole belly expand on the inhale and fall on the exhale. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. Let’s try to do a basic assessment on whether you breathe from your belly right now. Place your hands on the sides of your waist just above your pelvis; kind of where your love handles are. Your fingers should be on the front side pointing towards your belly button and your thumbs should be on the back side. If you’re a belly breather, you should feel your fingers and thumbs spread away from each other as you inhale and your abdomen expands; and then everything gently recoils as you exhale. Normally when you breathe out, it should take about one and a half times longer than when you breathe in. When you run, you should primarily breathe from your abdomen and lower rib cage; not your chest.
Only when you start really exerting yourself should the chest and upper ribs expand to allow you take in more oxygen. When the chest expands you’re using accessory muscles to help open up the rib cage further. I won’t name any of those accessory muscles but it’s good to know that some of those muscles are the muscles of your neck. Again, you use them when you really push yourself (think sprint). You would be wasting energy by using the accessory muscles during submaximal activity and you won’t be able to breathe as deeply. Breathing with good mechanics is also the main way to relax (all of you yoga people know this already). If you’re running at a relatively comfortable pace and notice you’re breathing from your chest, there’s a good chance you’re not relaxed and are over-using the muscles in your neck. You’ll notice this if you’re carrying your shoulders up towards your ears. In fact, you might even be over-using those neck muscles right now. Take a deep breath in and as you exhale let those neck muscles go and feel your shoulders drop. Now run that way too!
Often running coaches will tell their athletes to run tall. “Running tall” doesn’t mean to run completely upright though with your back perpendicular to the floor. It is simply a cue some coaches use to help their athletes focus on keeping good posture with the appropriate amount of forward lean for the pace you’re running at. The lean forward should happen at your ankles and not your waist.
Running with poor posture not only wastes energy and robs you of power; it may also make you more prone to injury. Simply running with good posture affects everything down the line; even how your foot lands.
What is good posture?
Well it’s not simply lifting your chest up and squeezing your shoulder blades together, since all this does is hyper-extend your spine, is unnatural, and requires lots of effort. What you want to do is lengthen your spine like you’re trying to create space in between each vertebra. While sitting or standing, visualize a string pulling your head towards the ceiling and your sacrum towards the floor. You can gently pull a small tuft of hair on top of your head upward to help cue yourself to feel your head being pulled towards the sky. Lengthening your spine should not feel like a lot of effort at all.
Good posture while running is the same as good posture while sitting so don’t just try this on your next run. You should maintain good posture, aka the long spine, often and the only way to do that is practice. And while you’re practicing the long spine, don’t forget to place your hands on your waist like I described above and breathe from your belly.
3. Strengthen Your Hips
Extension of your hip is when the thigh goes backwards. In the running stride it’s when the trail leg is going behind you. The most powerful hip extensor in the body is gluteus maximus. Hip extension is where your power comes from in nearly every athletic movement. The problem is there’s been an epidemic raging for decades. Years of sitting hours on end has made people’s butts weak and feeble. Running doesn’t necessarily work your glutes much either, unless you run hills or are a sprinter. If you frequently notice back pain or hamstring pain during or after your run, chances are one thing that might be contributing is weak gluteal muscles.
You need a variety of glute exercises to work them effectively. Here are 3 simple ways to help start improving your hip strength and stability.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on floor (Fig. 1.1).
- Now lift your hips up towards the ceiling (Fig. 1.2). Make sure you can feel your butt doing the work. If your back starts to tighten up or your hamstrings feel like they’re going to cramp, your body is likely telling you that your lazy glutes are taking a break so your back and/or hamstrings have to pick up the slack.
- Don’t arch your low back (Fig. 1.3). Brace your spine just before you lift your hips up. To do this, pretend you’re about to be punched in the stomach and your tightening up your abs to absorb the blow. Don’t tense your abs too hard; just enough to prevent yourself from arching your low back while you raise your hips.
- You can do repetitions of this exercise and/or hold the bridge position for time.
- When this becomes easy, you can progress to single-leg versions or use bands or weight for resistance, as long as you’re able to keep perfect form.
Clamshell and Reverse Clamshell
- Lie on your side with both of your hips and knees bent about 45° and your legs stacked on each other.
- Keep your feet together and raise the top knee as high as you can. You may want to roll your pelvis and body backwards to help lift your knee but that’s cheating so keep your pelvis and spine still. You can brace your spine to help prevent rolling your body.
- Work your way up to 10-12 controlled repetitions (3 seconds on the way up, pause, 3 seconds on the way down).
- For the Reverse Clamshell do the opposite. Keep your knees together and lift your top foot as high as you can without rolling your body. Complete 10-12 more controlled reps. Make sure to work both hips. Perform three sets for each hip.
Lateral band walk
You’ll need a small length of exercise band or tubing to do this one. A mini band works best if you have one but isn’t necessary.
- Place the band around your ankles and stand with good posture and your feet about hip width apart. There should be some tension on the exercise band but it shouldn’t be taught.
- Soften your knees (bend them slightly so they aren’t locked straight).
- Keeping good posture and facing forward the whole time (keep shoulders and pelvis square), lead with your right leg by taking a small step to your right.
- Then with the weight on your right leg, let the left leg step to come back to the start position. Don’t let the left leg “snap” back to the start position; resist the pull of the band.
- Keep your shoulders and pelvis level; do not lean as you step (see Fig. 3.3).
- Start by walking around 10 yards to the right and then 10 yards to the left. If you do it right you’ll feel burning on the sides of your hips.
Don’t skip over the first two suggestions and go straight to working on strengthening your butt.
Look, I get it; working on breathing and posture doesn’t get most people excited unless you’re a chiropractor or the like. However, they are fundamental and as such are important pillars to building a strong body.
Finally, the best way to get better at running is to just run. While running should come naturally, one should pay attention to their running form. Elite athletes, regardless of their sport, do fundamental things correctly with regards to biomechanics. Work on one thing above at a time and when you feel comfortable with it start practicing another aspect. Run mindfully. Small changes could bring big rewards!
James Gucciardi, D.C. is a Certified Chiropractic Sports Practitioner and co-owner of Champion Performance Chiropractic Rehab in East Setauket, New York. He uses his background in exercise science and rehabilitation to teach people who are hurt how to train again and avoid injury. You can send him a message here with any questions.