Some of us have been participants or spectators in a running event or at least have seen people running down the street. Have you noticed how some runners “make it look easy” and run so relaxed, while others make it look so taxing and difficult? Running efficiently involves more than just putting one foot in front of the other – there is actually a lot that can be done for most of us to increase our efficiency, meaning we spend less energy working at a particular speed, and put less stress on muscles, tendons and joints. Let’s spend some time now looking at what makes up the running stride and then go over a few key components of running mechanics that may help you get faster just by making a few changes to what your body is doing while you are running.
A complete running gait cycle includes both a stance phase and swing phase. In walking there is part of the gait cycle called the double stance phase, where both feet are on the ground, but running should not include this. For most of us who run we also have a double float period when both feet are off the ground – and this time period increases the faster we run.
The stance phase of running is that part of the gait cycle where the foot is touching the ground. It is the first phase of the run gait cycle. This is the time when your foot and leg is bearing your body weight – from foot contact to toe off. It accounts for approximately 40 percent of the run gait cycle, as compared to 60 percent in the walking gait cycle. The less time we have our foot on the ground, the more time we are moving forward, and the less time we have for poor body mechanics under weight bearing situations to happen and lead to overuse injuries. The first part of the stance phase is called initial contact, and this is when your foot lands on the ground. This is important because it is also the cushioning or shock absorbing phases, where your foot pronates at the subtalar joint, your knee is slightly bent and the lower leg goes through some internal rotation in order to reduce stress forces of impact. The second part is called midstance. Midstance is when your body weight is passing over the foot. The other leg is in swing phase at this point and all the body weight now passes over a single leg. At this point a normal foot should no longer be pronating – instead, the foot and lower leg should be strong and stable. The third part of the stance phase is called propulsion. This is from the time the heel lifts off the ground until the toes leave the ground. A common mistake that beginner runners make is leaning too far forward during this toe off. I do want you to have a slight forward lean, as we will discuss later on, but if you lean TOO far forward that isn’t good either. Stay tall, chest proud, with a slight forward lean from the ankles.
The swing phase of the running stride begins when the toe comes off the ground and ends just before your foot contacts the ground again. This accounts for approximately sixty percent of the running stride, as compared to forty percent of the walking gait cycle. There is no weight bearing through the joints and muscles at this point. Therefore it is less relevant for injury prevention, however it is very relevant when it comes to efficiency.
Now, let’s review some key components of the running stride that can help you become a more efficient – and therefore faster – runner:
- Whole body position – As mentioned previously, it is possible to lean too far forward during the propulsion phase, creating more work for the muscles in the back of the legs. You should be running with a slight forward lean from the ankles, similar to a nice relaxed posture that if you weren’t moving anywhere and you stood in that posture, you would start to “fall forward”. Be careful not to lean forward at the waist. Maintain a strong core and proud chest. Often I see people standing too straight, or even extended backwards somewhat. That means they have to spend much more energy “dragging” their body forward, and they then have to “reach” forward with the leg and end up heel striking with more impact.
- Cadence/stride rate – A run cadence of 90 strides per minute should be our goal, regardless of how fast you are going. It is harder to do this when you are going slow – and if you are REALLY do a very slow recovery run, if it’s a little below 90 strides per minute that is okay. But for zone 2 aerobic runs and above, get your cadence up to 90 or a little high. Just getting your stride rate up with set you up to achieve a good foot strike, less risk of injury (less time for your lower leg and foot to be going through a single stance phase means less time for over pronation, over rotations, and more). It will also give you an overall significant increase in efficiency.
- Foot strike – There is a lot of information out there about heel strike, midfoot stride, toe running, and you could find some information to debate any of them as being good or bad. Most runners do run with at least some heel strike even if they think they do not, especially as they fatigue. What you want to avoid is really reaching forward and hammering the heel down into the ground, which should be solved by running with the slight forward lean and the high running cadence because there is neither time nor range of motion to reach too far forward with those two things happening. “Midfoot” running should in theory end up with less impact force, however be careful that that doesn’t end up having you run on your toes, which is often ends up for many athletes trying to do this, which puts more pressure on the plantar fascia, calf muscles, and achilles tendon. For many of us, a true midfoot strike will feel like a flat foot strike.
4. Arm position – Arms should be held high so that your hands are resting just under or beside your chest. You might remember from high school physics that a shorter level takes less energy to move – which is what we are striving for here. What is also important here is that arms should be moving forward and backwards rather than across the midline. The elbows driving backward will help to drive the body forward. In fact, later on in a run or a race when you feel your body fatigue and are having trouble keeping the stride rate up, try focussing on speeding up the arm swing instead and the legs will follow.
5. Leg position on swing phase – This follows along with what I mentioned above regarding arm position. A shorter leaver takes less energy to move. That means, the more knee flexion you have as you swing your leg forward and drive forward with the hip, the less energy it will take in the hips to accomplish this. Generally, the lower leg should be parallel to the ground during swing phase. Many runners do not do this and have their leg much too and too close to the ground at this point.
6. Vertical motion – Be careful not to start bouncing up and down as you start to adopt some of the things you have learned in this blog post. This often happens at first when you start to increase your run cadence. Be aware of it so it doesn’t happen. Try thinking of yourself running under a low glass ceiling, so your head has to stay even so you do not break the glass!
7. General relaxation – Relax! Extra tension means extra energy expenditure. Think “make it look easy” during your runs, even they feel hard! Relax the muscles in your upper back, shoulders, neck and face. Relax your ankles and feet. Relax anything that isn’t helping you run stronger or faster!
Efficient running is more than just putting one foot in front of the other. Strides, specific running drills, as well as focussing on one element of your running stride at a time is worthwhile. Remember, great efficiency means faster running at the same effort – and also reduces your risk of injury! Happy running!