Welcome to the 3rd and final part of our “series within a series.” I’m of course referring to our focus on the components of video gait analysis within our summer Running Performance Series.
In Part 1 we reviewed how to take good footage so that you can capture a reasonable representation of your running mechanics.
In Part 2 we touched on some things to look for in your running gait. These are basic characteristics around the stance and swing phases and how the body locomotes as a whole.
Now, in Part 3, we are going to dive into some interventions and corrective strategies to improve your running mechanics. These aren’t the only things an athlete can do, and this is in no way a completely comprehensive list. However, the exercises and concepts I’ll provide are good, solid basics that can help anyone to run better, faster, and farther (usually one or all 3 is the goal for most runners).
I hope you have been enjoying watching the Summer Olympics. I absolutely love watching all the sports, and studying the excellence in human movement provided by the athletes. When you view the running events, you can make a key observation. Each event tends to exhibit a fairly specific set of technique characteristics. While there is room for a small amount of variation due to subtle differences in body types or style, the similarities are much more profound than are the differences. There is a general consensus on what good form looks like. Obviously, Olympic athletes have genetic gifts, high work ethic, and vast experience (in most cases). But they also look great when they run because they do the things we are going to talk about today. Elite runners do the supplemental conditioning exercises, the drills, and the focused technique practice that are necessary in addition to just running in order to achieve top performance. And so should we.
Be sure to use your own good judgement with any of the suggestions provided. If you currently have pain or injury, or any of the items mentioned below are problematic for you…you may need some professional help. I offer physical therapy-based therapeutic coaching and if you feel a few sessions could help you to solve your movement and pain problems, you may want to sign up for some coaching services.
I’m going to highlight 10 interventions. There are 3 exercises, 3 drills, 3 cues, and 1 practice session. All of this is supported in video if you’d like to see things in action.
First off I’ll suggest a couple of my favorite moves. They are easy to perform just about anywhere and can be conducted without specialized gym equipment. I’ll explain each movement, what it offers the runner, and recommend some volume, intensity, and frequency considerations.
I like to combine strengthening and stretching and to look at movement as motor program enhancement. There are also specialized movements we use in therapeutic coaching to assess and normalize foot, ankle, knee, hip, pelvis, spine, and rib interconnectedness. Examples include front or rear foot elevation to differing degrees, heel lifts, foot wedges, the location on the body where the load is placed, and how breathing is coordinated. The split squat trains the body in a running specific position, thus having high transfer and being very “functional.” I like to use a moderate load (sandbag, barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.) and perform 2-4 sets of 6-10 reps per leg, 2-3 times per week.
Single Leg RDL
The Romanian Deadlift, performed on a single leg, is great for balance, posterior chain activation, and improving flexibility. It’s basically a “top-down” hinge pattern and you can use any loading method as in the split squat. I also recommend the same sets, reps and frequency. If you struggle with balance at first, use a single hand hold with a kettlebell or dumbbell (experiment with same side versus opposite side arm in reference to stance leg) so you can use your other hand to hold onto something for balance (or put your elbow against the wall).
Being able to manage force quickly and comfortably with your ground contacts is key to good running. Using a very light load, such as light DB’s or a medicine ball, hop up and down elastically for 3 reps on one foot, then 3 reps on the other, and repeat for 30-90 seconds. Do 2 rounds of this with a rest as needed in between. You are looking for a staccato rhythm.
Drills sometimes get a bad rap, with some folks saying they aren’t specific enough to actual running form. While this may be true for some elite athletes whose motor skills need very little augmentation, most of us Lifetime Athletes can always use a little upregulation in our ability to move artistically. Think of using these drills to get “prancy-dancy” and to help you to get light on your feet with less “wog-slog.” I generally recommend performing 2-4 reps of each drill for 20-30 yards with walking breaks between each rep. Drills are intended to activate your CNS and improve elastic movement abilities so don’t feel like you have to rush. Take your time and focus on quality execution. You can get your conditioning elsewhere in the workout.
It’s amazing how many people, adults and kids alike, have lost this playground basic. Skipping helps you to limber up your coordination and tune into good foot contacts with the ground. There are many styles of skips that you can employ. I’ll often progress from relaxed skipping to skipping for height or distance, and then into the popular “A” or “B” patterns (see video). I’ll also occasionally have athletes blend skips with galloping or bounding or bleed them into short acceleration runs.
This drill opens up frontal plane movement (in which the body moves sideways) and helps to free up restrictions that ironically can hold you back from moving forward. You’ll probably find it easier to move to one side than the other and it’s good to work on evening this out to some degree.
Also known as braided gait, or grapevine, cariocas assist with hip/trunk/shoulder rotation and foot placement. You can mix it up by exaggerating the crossover step in front or changing up the timing between footstrikes. This drill tends to break up that mechanical, “herky-jerky” nature of some runners and gets them flowing like a liquid titanium terminator.
Cues are powerful coaching tools. As a coach, I’ll watch a runner and pick one cue that can help them the most. In fact, if you want to screw someone up, give them more than one thing to think about at a time. Even more true, we want to progress from concentrating on the cue to not thinking at all, making the desired action an automatic subconscious drive. I particularly like Nick Winkelman’s breakdown of intrinsic, extrinsic, and analogous cues and I highly recommend his resources for any coach. One of the arts of cueing is to say little. The cues below use only one word upon which to focus. I encourage you to concentrate on a cue for 5-10 seconds or so while running, and then to relax away from the thought, returning a half dozen times in a rep or workout.
The snap is all about using the forward foot (when it is in the air) to actively strike the ground instead of passively waiting for the ground to find the foot. You think of your leg as a hammer you “cock” or as a cat paw that strikes down and back to transfer force into the ground. This is done gently at slow speeds, moderately with most running paces, and quite powerfully during sprinting. This prevents the lower leg and foot from being sleepy and casting or wandering out in space unsure of its role.
You’ll appreciate the relationship of the pop to the snap. Some of you might remember the Rice Crispies “snap-crackle-pop” jingle and I liken this to how your foot snaps down (but doesn’t crumble or crackle) and then pops back up off the ground. Once your foot has transferred its force into the ground and you’ve received its returned energy, staying on the ground longer serves you no purpose except to make you slower. Actively pick your foot up as you are pushing off in a popping manner and this will reduce your ground contact time (GCT) which is a trait of all elite runners at every distance.
Consciously switching the legs in the air improves your mechanics and quickens your cadence. This is also known as stepping over (usually the knee) or cycling. The goal is not to pendulum swing or float the legs but to actually strive to have your knees pass each other in space under your hips. This drill is also somewhat speed dependent but most runners benefit from awareness of focused leg alternation.
1 PRACTICE SESSION
The rubber (of your running shoes) meets the road (or other surface) here. As part of a progressive warmup or prep phase, I’ll have runners perform some easy repeats where they work on feeling good technique. Sometimes we’ll add a cue or even a drill to target the objective, but mostly I just encourage them to “self-organize” and find their sweet spot for stride mechanics.
These are best performed on a grass field or track but a quiet stretch of road or path will work as well. There is a tradition in running to recommend 100-yd striders and these indeed have a place. However, unless you are an elite runner who can easily run under 15 seconds for a 100 and repeat that multiple times with minimal rest, it’s too far/fast/hard for most recreational runners to actually get a chance to concentrate on good form. This is due to such a workout being overly anaerobic. Instead, I like to keep things relatively alactic (in which you don’t produce much lactic acid in your muscles). I’ll usually have my athletes run 8-10 reps of 40 yards at what is a moderate effort for them. They end up running fast but “pretty” around the 80% effort mark instead of straining and running ugly in search of 90+% speed. Smooth is fast enough. We always want to teach and learn a good motor lesson. You’ll be amazed at how refreshed and synchronized this session will make you feel. Then you can carry that enhanced form into the rest of your workout. Some runners will fight this type of training. They just wanna get rolling and schlepp-jog as many miles as possible, banging out metabolic volume that is under their poetic movement potential. Don’t be that guy or gal.
And…lastly, I’ve got a final suggestion that can make all the difference in your running technique. Do it all barefoot on grass (or a beach if you have it) at least some of the time. This effectively naturalizes your mechanics and makes it easy to incorporate all the things we’ve discussed. Doing the exercises, drills, and gliders twice a week — while practicing the cues — will do amazing things for your running form. It will help you to run (as Steve Magness, author of The Science of Running likes to say) better, faster, and farther.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these 3 articles on gait analysis and you’ve become inspired to improve your running form. Sometimes only small changes in technique are indicated and it takes a little time to get the body and mind to adapt. However, this often pays huge dividends in your ability to tolerate workload by enhancing your running economy and efficiency. And in most or many cases, this transfers into better performance and less injury risk. Please use these resources as you see fit. Send me your questions if you have any. And if you are interested in 1-on-1 coaching to analyze and improve your running gait, consider booking your Lifetime Performance Coaching appointment today.