Running is a Skill Part 1: Biomechanics

When I was a young ski coach, we always talked about athletes being ‘stacked.’ I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it when I saw it on snow, there was an efficiency about the athlete, they looked strong, powerful, like they were accelerating turn to turn. Those who were not ‘stacked’ looked like they were fighting their body, like something was out of place, something just wasn’t right. While I could usually work with the athlete to get them into a ‘stacked’ position, I didn’t quite understand at the time that I was talking about biomechanics, being properly aligned.

Fast forward many years (I was a wee one when I started coaching), and I have learned a lot about being ‘stacked,’ that is the study of biomechanics. What is biomechanics? It is the study of forces in our bodies, how our musculoskeletal system works. The more you are aligned, the more your body works for you. Poor alignment, in whatever skill you are performing, and it looks like your body is having a fight with itself, looks inefficient, and will probably in the end result in injury.

Where and how does biomechanics fit in with running? Ok, well let me get back to my favourite word with biomechanics, ‘stacked,’ and truthfully I think it’s a good word for athletes and coaches to use when working on their running form. Doesn’t it just sound so much cooler, ‘you looked stacked coming around that corner’ versus ‘you looked biomechanically sound coming around that corner.’ You need to find your moment where you can be most efficient on your feet, where you are ‘stacked.’

How on earth do you find your ‘stacked’ position?

There are some fundamentals we all need to have (Thanks K.Sheppy for that comment on my FB wall). “Yes each runner has a unique running style. However, the fundamentals force application, posture, foot strike can be coached so the athlete can learn how to make the most of what they got for their specific goal.” Getting these things right takes some time, but with a little practice you can work on posture, foot strike, so that you minimize the force application and maximize efficiency.

Here are my suggestions:

1. Start with a Good Foundation: It’s a good idea to start from ground zero again and create a strong foundation, and you may find you already have a strong foundation. You need to find your natural stance for running, it’s probably somewhere around where your feet shoulder-width apart. With your hands on your hips, your pelvis in a neutral position, feet flat on the floor bring one leg up into an A position and balance on your other leg (remember to pause with your knee at 90deg). Try and keep your legs in biomechnically sound, ‘stacked’ position. Do your knees, hips, feet move? roll in? roll out? Find a way to do this where your joints stay aligned.

Once you’ve found that sweet spot, do at least 5 of those per leg, and notice where your feet end up. That’s probably about where your feet should be striking underneath you

2. Slow Down: Another important coaching lesson I learned was to slow things down; you can really ‘cheat’ at high-speed. And those bad habits that you have at low-speed are intensified when you do things faster. As a runner you really can do a lot more damage at high-speed because of the increased forces on your body. Spend some time at lower speed working on you stride. Run on a track trying to keep that white line between your feet; don’t let your feet cross-over and land on, or even worse, on the other side of that line. You can do the same thing with a white or yellow line on a quiet road.

3. Cognitively Engage with your Running: I say that and I mean sometimes, not always, there is a time and place for everything. Step 2, slow down, that’s a time to cognitively engage with your body and assess what’s going on. You can do this a variety of ways, but I like to start at my toes and work my way up. When I’m doing my drills (a post for another day) I check in with what is happening from the bottom up; if my arms are doing something wonky it’s usually because of something my legs are doing (not the other way around), which is why I start at my feet.

4. Foot Strike and Cadence: This is the Goldilocks of running, your stride should be not too long, not too short but just right. Generally how you foot strike will dictate your cadence. Long stride with a heel strike, you probably have a lower cadence. Mid foot to toe strike and you probably have a higher cadence. Where should you be? Probably somewhere right in between, hence Goldilocks! Personally, I practice my foot strike barefoot, at a track, turf, treadmill (i.e., somewhere safe for my feet). I only need about 5 or 10 minutes every so often to check in with where my feet are falling. Your body really will try to protect itself and you will end up in a ‘stacked’ position if you have steps 1-3 nailed down!

Other ways to work on your foot strike? On a run with some video, make note of where your feet are falling. Try to be aware of where you think your feet might be falling too. Do some running A’s (high knees); I find your feet naturally want to fall underneath you where they are meant to be.

Overall, I’m not a big fan of counting your steps, there is something really distracting about it. Some of the new watches do a pretty good job at tracking your cadence. But one of the reasons I am not a huge advocate of cadence is that it’s really individual. A good rule of thumb, the longer your legs likely the lower your optimal cadence. Oh, and don’t forget cadence also varies with the speed you’re running at!

I like coaching (and just generally looking at things) from a positive perspective. Having said that, I think there are is one major cue to be ‘aware’ of that can lead to poor biomechanics. Cross-over is the main culprit of poor running mechanics. While it can happen due to a variety of reasons, be aware of it. If you notice it start by taking some video of yourself running, then go to Step 1 above, and see if you can do some of your own corrections.

This whole post was about self-coaching your stride. Ideally you blend what you see with what someone else sees, i.e., because you’re working with a coach. This is also a relatively short post for something fairly complicated. Please take it with a grain of salt and not the be all and end of all your running stride, think of it as a place to start.