It seems like I’m always in some kind of biomechanics rabbit hole. It’s been that way forever. One of my favorite areas of study in human performance is gait mechanics. Today’s discussion focuses on a particular aspect of running gait, and it applies to locomotion in jogging, running, and sprinting.
I’ve spent nearly 40 years reading research articles, and being involved in gait analysis and the coaching of running mechanics. It’s fascinating stuff and I love it. The running gait cycle is amazing because on one level it is so simple and natural, yet it can be decidedly complex when we begin to consider performance or pain. Gait analysis is certainly an FAQ and popular topic at The Lifetime Athlete and it factors into my work with many clients. After offering a brief overview of the running gait cycle, I’m going to talk about just one aspect of what the body, and most specifically the lower extremity does (or should do) when running.
Before we get specific, let’s be general by just glossing over some terms. The gait cycle can be initially divided into two phases: swing and stance. The swing phase is when the leg is in the air and the stance phase is when the foot is on the ground. Then you can subdivide the phases into stages. While this can get intricate, for our purposes today, I’m going to arbitrarily limit that to two distinct stages of the two phases. There is an early (or initial) swing stage and a late (or terminal) one. The same thing applies to stance in that we can have early and late stance. Again, I recognize that sometimes we want to be more specific and fractionate further (such as differing degrees of mid-stance or mid-swing) but that is not necessary today.
Let’s describe early swing as the time period or range of motion when the toes leave the ground until that forward advancing leg reaches peak hip and knee flexion. Late swing occurs when the knee begins to extend as the foot casts forward and downward until initial ground contact. Early stance goes from initial contact through the loading response until the point when the foot is under the hip and the knees are parallel (when viewed from the side). This is technically “mid-stance” by definition but again, today we are saying that the first half of stance is “early” and the second half is “late” just to be concise.
Now we can get to the heart of today’s discussion. Arguably the most important part of the running gait cycle occurs as late swing transitions into early stance. This sets up footstrike, which essentially drives or dictates all the other mechanisms in the gait cycle. And, it’s at this point in the gait cycle that the title of this post comes into play. Just ask yourself this simple question. Does your foot float through your forward space, wandering aimlessly until the ground eventually finds it…or does it snap down decisively and strike the ground with authority? It’s within this distinction which lies the key to your success.
Late swing is also known as the cocking stage, in which your hamstrings eccentrically contract to decelerate the forward-advancing lower limb. Then they isometrically brace, along with a temporarily stiffened (supinated) foot and ankle to strike the ground like a claw, or hammer. This should be seen as a lateral midfoot (variable just not directly on the heel) or forefoot strike (if you are sprinting) and it should occur almost directly under the hip. Many folks are surprised to hear that this should happen at every running speed, from warmup jogging to all-out sprinting. Yes, the degree of vigor with which the foot attacks the ground will differ, but it’s all supposed to be a snap-down. This is very gentle and subtle when jogging and quite aggressive when sprinting, but the snap should always be there.
Failure to snap and strike is probably one of the biggest “flaws” in gait among many runners. Letting the leg drift and relax can lead to excessive heel striking and less potential for energy return from the ground (even if you are wearing a new “super-shoe”). Newton’s Third Law of Motion which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction indicates that you get back from the ground what you put into it. Sleepy, sloppy, slam-slap mechanics from the foot and leg are no bueno. The foot contact needs instead to be crisp…SNAPPY! Watch any elite runner, at any distance, and every single one will show a purposeful footstrike every time.
Just in case you are wondering, I’m not saying you should hammer the ground inappropriately in relation to your speed of locomotion. I’m merely suggesting that you may want to focus on your strike and make it a bit more of an active process than a passive one. The results can be amazing in your performance because any mechanical improvement is “free speed” that you don’t have to be more conditioned (aka “fit) to access. As Coach Steve Magness suggests…first run better…next run faster…and only then should you run longer.
One of the cues I give my athletes is “Snap and Pop.” I actually came up with this from the old slogan of Rice Crispies cereal which was “snap, crackle, and pop.” I just eliminated the crackle because you don’t want your foot to crackle or crumble after it hits the ground. The “pop” in this deal is twofold. First, when you snap your foot down, it makes a popping sound, like smacking the ground with a bat instead of a wet noodle. Second, the “snapping down” of the foot facilitates the “popping off” of that same foot from the ground. This reduces ground contact time (GCT – a well-studied measure in gait performance) and if you want to be faster overall, spend less time anchored to the ground. El Capitano Obvioso!
The really cool thing about just thinking “SNAP” is that it’s all you have to do. Because the strike sets up everything. If you snap down, you don’t have to worry about popping off…it just happens. Simple physics. And, the term sometimes called “switching” or leg cycling, is also triggered by the snap. The knees should pass each other quickly, not like barges in the night. Snapping gives you a huge win.
If you are interested in taking a slightly deeper dive into this concept, you can check out my 3-part video series on Gait Analysis on The Lifetime Athlete YouTube Channel. Or you can read this article to gain a deeper understanding. I hope you enjoyed this post and thank you for reading. If you have any questions feel free to reach out to me and I’ll certainly respond. Also, if you need help improving your own gait mechanics, sign up for some coaching. I’d be honored to assist you.