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Should I Control My Breath When I Run?

“How should I breathe while I’m running?” A google search of this question will yield many different opinions. Most of us view breathing patterns as a useful tool for gauging effort, but it’s not uncommon to have a patient ask about the how behind breathing. “Should I breathe through my nose?” “Should I try to slow it down and control it?”

Breathing is controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our ANS controls many of our daily functions, including breathing, digestion, and our heart beat. Many bodily functions happen automatically and without conscious effort. It would stink to consciously tell your heart to beat every time, right? Good thing these functions are not under our conscious control–otherwise we would die in our sleep.

Shockingly, breathing is more involved than simply inhaling and exhaling. Your body regulates the depth and speed of breathing based off internal signals from your lungs, blood and muscles. It’s essentially a supply and demand system.

The question is: if the system is autonomic (or automatic) should we mess with it?

Oxygen is a fuel source for your body, particularly at non-exhaustive exercise. The harder your muscles work, the more oxygen they need to run (so you can run). Your respiratory (breathing), muscular (muscles) and nervous (nerves) systems work together subconsciously ensuring all needs are met. Your body knows what it needs to sustain a given effort. Your breathing will vary with your pace and overall fitness level. As we become more fit, breathing becomes easier as the entire system becomes more efficient. External factors like altitude and temperature contribute as well.

Our subconscious has learned how to auto-regulate through millions of years of adaptation. Deep, faster breaths allow us to supply more oxygen to our muscles in an effort to meet the demand.

The natural urge during exercise is to breathe in and out through your mouth. Your body knows that a gaping mouth will bring oxygen into your lungs faster than two small nostrils. Mouth breathing is the most efficient way of getting oxygen to working muscles. Ideally you shouldn’t try to change this consciously. Remember, internal factors that have been refined over millions of years are far more efficient to determine oxygen supply and demand—just because you have control of your breath doesn’t mean you should exercise the right.

Our nostrils are equipped with a filtration system to catch debris—great for every day tasks, bad for sucking wind during harder tasks.

Of course, nothing is ever black and white. There are small, rare instances where taking control of your breath is required. For example, nervous, shallow breathing may be one instance where you may wish to override the “automatic” breathing system. Think of an individual hyperventilating due to nervousness or anxiety. Deep, slower breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth are beneficial to reset the breathing and restore oxygen levels.

Hyperventilation is never ideal. As a note, hyperventilation is NOT the short shallow breathes that accompanies a hard pace that you’re not capable of – but rather a nervous, anxious breath that accompanies a new distance or challenge. Taking several deep breaths may help reset your autonomic breathing, help avoid hyperventilation, and possibly even save your race.

For the most part, let evolution do its job. Avoid the old “in through your nose out through your mouth” stuff while you’re running. Your body is a fine tuned machine that has evolved over millions of years. Evolution will win out 99% of the time. Let your breathing be… it’s one less thing you have to worry about.

1. Cerny F, Burton H. Exercise Physiology for Health Care Professionals. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2001.

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3 Mistakes of Midfoot Running

At some point or another you have thought about or attempted, whether successfully or unsuccessfully, to change your run form. If you’re one of the few closed minded individuals who feel, “I run the way I run” then read no further. This isn’t for you.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of runners. I’ve observe movement daily, whether it’s scoping out a runner hustling down the road or while in the confines of my clinic. My experience as both a physical therapist and a runner have left their finger prints all over my methods.

I’ve seen thousands of people run in controlled environments. Through my work I’ve noticed recurring errors in the way we think about transitioning from a heel strike. Sure, run form is far more than the way your foot hits the ground, but it’s often the jumping off point for most runners. For those looking to tackle the challenge of foot placement, I’ve outlined the three most common errors.

#1 Not Flexing the Knee

You would think that running midfoot is all about your foot placement. Superficially you’re correct; however, you’re chasing dependent factors. The research highlights faster loading rates with a heel strike, but it should really read: running with a straight knee exposes us to faster loading rates. Faster loading rates are more abrupt. Ideally, we’d like to spread, or slow the force of landing out over a longer time.

Truth is, your foot position should remain fairly constant when you transition to a midfoot strike. Instead, focus on landing on a bent knee. A bent knee landing transforms your leg into a flexible shock absorber. Immediately at contact your ankle, knee, and hip will begin to flex. All great things as muscles and tendons absorb landing forces, ultimately transferring them back into the ground at push off.

FOCUS ON: Landing on a bent knee—not on your toes. The shin should be perpendicular to the ground and initial contact.

#2 Running Too Tall

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I’m assuming some push back on this next piece, but I’m going with it. Too often runners run too tall. I’m not encouraging you to flex forward with bad posture, but to rather focus on pushing forward and not up. The “feel” for movement is running shorter or keeping your joints bent—not straight. A bent joint is one that can absorb shock, while a straight joint bangs away at the system.

Running too tall creates a lot of “bounce.” Generally these runners are expending a lot of energy launching themselves upwards and not forwards. Tall runners are typically so focused on running midfoot that they generally come down hard on the toes. Visually, this typical equates to leaning too far backwards with a torso that’s perfectly upright. Tall running lacks a forward, horizontal surge at pushoff.

FOCUS ON: You want to imagine running over the ground and not on it. Try to feel your legs remaining bent throughout the gait cycle. Imagine you are two or three inches shorter when you run. Fight rocketing yourself into orbit at push off.

#3 Not Incorporating Strength

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“After implementing the strength exercises, I realized my legs were not as strong as I thought and my hips/glutes were weak. I was a little sore after the first few strength sessions, but my legs adapted and my body is stronger than ever. I am faster now because my legs, hips, and core are stronger. It is a great feeling!”
–Christine Gray, Analyzed 2015

This is huge. Transitioning from a heel to midfoot strike diverts forces to new tissues, primarily muscle and tendons. You should prep your body for these forces to avoid injury. With time your muscles and tendons adapt, allowing for cleaning movement absent of compensation.

Forging more “runner-specific” strength enables you to run stronger and control for your motion. Without the strength to support good run form you’re a ticking time bomb. Improving your balance, strength, and flexibility all support your run form.

FOCUS ON: Train movements that match the running motion. Avoid non-weightbearing strength exercises. Start with your abdominals and work towards the feet.

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Life After the Midfoot Strike

It’s growingly apparent in the running community that run form has become synonymous with foot strike. It’s a shame, too. Foot strike is an only a small piece of the pie when it comes to the way you run. With the dreaded heel strike lingering on the surface, a host of iceberg-proportion issues lie unaccounted for and frankly invisible to most.

Your foot strike certainly matters. A mid foot strike has been shown to decrease the load to the knee (conversely adding it to the ankle), while also slowing the loading rate of ground collision forces. The foot strike movement has yielded millions for shoe companies, while forging a midfoot army. Millions have likely threaded a cadence meter into their laces, while others flirt with the insanity of running through a metronome app that hovers around 180 beats (or steps) per minute.

The tick-tock of the metronome has ultimately matched the pitter-patter of footsteps of all those who drank the cadence Kool-Aid. With an empty cup and a diagnosis of HCS (High Cadence Syndrome), most runners halt their campaign for improving run form and economy. What’s left to show? I ridiculously high turnover and a lot of speed left on the table.

Increasing Step Length

When we talk about your stride length, we’re really talking about step length, or the distance traveled from pushing off on one foot and landing on the other. It sounds like something you would like to maximize, right? Often, the opposite actually happens. Life after midfoot actually entails opening your stride. A quick, high cadence is often counter-productive to speed. Our running analysis identifies these errors in High-Cadence Syndrome (HCS) pretty regularly. Once addressed, the result is often an immediate boost in speed.

Below I highlight my latest analysis. I finally decided to use case studies, as this runner, like many before her, found tremendous success in a short period of time by owning and leveraging her movement.

Through the run analysis we discussed the submerged items on the iceberg: driving from the hips, maximizing step length, and selective stretching and strengthening. All these pieces (amongst others) are equally important to foot strike.

As a runner for over 10 years, she saw some immediate benefits,

“My most recent HM finish time decreased close to 3 minutes off of my finish time from last year’s finish time on the same course, reflects the benefits of this program.”

(Read her entire review here)

A run analysis by a clinician is an amazing way to learn better movement patterns. Simply changing movement (ie foot strike) yields an anatomical requirement. For example, opening your stride to gobble up more real estate with every step requires great hip mobility and strength. Good luck sustaining any form changes without the anatomical support.

The main point here is to realize there’s life beyond a midfoot strike. Most sports are uber-obsessed with form: weight lifting, golf, swimming, etc. Yet, millions of runners pull the wool over their eyes to changing their run form. I’m not looking to convert any of the pessimists preaching “I run the way I run,” but to simply let those who choose to run with more efficiency to look beyond the midfoot strike and understand great run form is supported by great anatomy.

For those looking to find their midfoot and beyond, get started with our video guide to run form: RunSmart Mechanix.

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Top Down Running

If you wanted to throw a ball faster you wouldn’t strengthen your wrist, right? It’s obvious that a powerful throw comes from the shoulder, transferring force down through the elbow, into the wrist, and finally into the ball. Well that’s not even entirely true. It actually comes from the hips and trunk. Lower body rotation and drive from the back leg put the body in motion, transferring force generation into the shoulder and eventually down the arm. None the less, in said scenario, your wrist is the end of the kinetic chain, essentially used as a whip to thrust the ball forward. This is a perfect example of a bottom up activity. You’re initiating force through the lower half of your body and transferring it to the upper half (bottom up).

What does this have to do with running? Well, like your wrist, the foot is the end of the kinetic chain for the lower body; yet, so many runners chase the foot and ankle for more power and speed. Calf raises, toe crunches, and whatever other crazy non-functional exercises you can conjure are a highlight of most strength programs. It’s not limited to your strength training, either. The way most run is simply an engine powered by the smallest, and frankly weakest, muscles of the kinetic chain.

Running Top Down

The secret to running faster and with less injury lives between your rib cage and your hips, not below the knee. Muscle force is generated from the top down when running (bottom up for throwing). To get the train (you) to leave the station, you’ll lean forward, lift a knee, and swing an arm. These three pieces, particularly the latter two, turn on your trunk to generate force that will be transmitted down your leg and into the ground—getting you moving. Unfortunately for most, that’s where it stops. Too often runners fail to bring their big muscles (trunk and hips) to the party.

Characterized with low swinging heels and hips that barely dissociate, most run without engaging their hips. The pitter patter of their foot strike isn’t jolly old Saint Nick, it’s simply a runner who runs from the knee down. Now for some, it’s a movement issues, as you’re simply unaware of how to run from the top down. For those runners, see phase II and IV of RunSmart Mechanix. For other runners, they’re simple unable to run from the top down due to anatomical restrictions.

A tight thoracic spine and pair of hip flexors are running kryptonite. Selective tightness through your trunk (spine and pelvis) and your hips, simply keep your upper body and hips out of the mix. Eager to run, your neuromuscular system transitions to a bottom up running style, one powered on calf and quadriceps dominance.

How to Become a Top Down Runner

Well first things first, you need the anatomy. Without an ideal mix of strength and stability in your spine, pelvis, and hips you’re going to be unable to avoid running from the knee down. The first priority is identify your anatomical needs. For most, this means improving hip extension and the rotation and extension in the mid back (thoracic spine). Improved flexibility paired with a stronger back pocket (your glutes) can free up much need motion to transfer force down the chain and into the ground.

Adding motion and strength isn’t the end, though. One would assume that improved motion would translate to better movement; however, pre-existing habit loops can keep your movement consistent. First, you’ll want to become more aware of how you move, followed by how to fix it. I’ll cover this more in some future articles. In the meantime, get rolling on RunSmart Mechanix: A Guide to Improving Run Form. I’ll take you through four phases of guided drills and exercises to maximize your top down running.

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Why Do I Toe Out When I Run?

One of the most common run flaws amongst sub-elite runners is the tendency to toe out when they run. It’s often accompanied with other activities, too (standing and walking). For most, toed out gait is completely subconscious. Your friends may joke about your duck feet, but can you help it? The answer lies in the much hated answer: it depends. The result of toeing can be a required anatomical compensation, one acquired through adaptive compensation, or one of simply sloppy movement. Duckers can do it unilaterally, on one side, or bilaterally, both sides.

A toed out gait isn’t ideal. Although it might be required for some (due to their anatomical hip position), a large percentage of the duck foot population, who will be termed duckers for the remainder of this article, can fix their sloppy movement and even reduce their risk for injury while improving their speed.

Injury from Being a Ducker

Our body is designed around simple structural support system that works to distribute force around joints and not through them. Sure, our body spins around ours joints, mainly to absorb shock, but duckers compromise their structural support. A toed out gait allows your foot to drive through your midfoot and not over the ankle. Ultimately, the result is excessive pronation and increased strain to the foot and knee. Duckers will be more susceptible to medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS or shin splint), plantar fasciitis, or medial knee pain, as these areas receive increased tensile force through the front half of gait.

Running Slower as a Ducker

Adding insult to injury (sometimes literally), duckers will likely set themselves up for a loss of power at push off. Toeing out at the point of impact will drive you into excessive pronation, which, depending on strength, will affect your ability to find the ‘sweet spot’ at push off. Ideally, you’re foot re-supinates in preparation for push off. Supination is synonymous to rigidity. A rigid lever at push off allows the muscular force to transmit through the foot and into the ground. If you can’t achieve supination at push off your force will leak through movement at your rear, mid, and forefoot. Think of pushing off in loose sand. At a time when you’re looking for stability to drive into the ground, movement and slipage in the sand will minimize the amount of force transmitted into the ground–same idea.

The entire system becomes rigid at push off (or should). The hip extends into a closed pack, locked position. The ligaments of your hip turn your hip into a rigid lever and allow it transmit forced down the chain. The knee straightens and locks into extension. Again, transmitting force down the chain. A toed out gait? Holy energy leakage. A fair amount of force will be lost through a flexible foot.

How to Fix Being a Ducker

Hip Retroversion

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As previously stated, some runners become duckers with running, walking, and standing due to anatomical compensation. Some runners are born with retroverted hips. Simply put, either the femur (thigh bone) or acetabula (pelvis) are rotated backwards. This rotation causes malalignment at the pelvis. To maximize surface area at the hip joint a ducker will outwardly rotate their hip and in turn, the entire leg. The outward rotation of the leg, and thus the toed out gait, occurs for an anatomical reason. For these runners it’s about supporting the foot and maximizing strength. Simply turning the foot inwards is not advised.

Tibial Torsion (Rotation)

This next problem arises from either tightness or fetal development. The tibia, or shin bone, can excessively rotate inward or, in the case, outward and pull the foot with it. Dertermining if tibia torsion (rotation) is the cause of your toeing out should be conducted by a physical therapist or orthopedic doc. A PT can determine if your shin is simply overly rotated or if the bone is actually twisted. One of which (twisting of the bone) cannot be corrected through exercise. To test for tibia torsion: Sit tall at the edge of your bed, feet dangling. Without allowing your hips to roll outward, relax your lower leg. The midline of your foot should face straight ahead or with a slight outward rotation. Below we see individual with right tibial torsion.
why, do, i, toe, out, when, i, run

Hip Tightness

Our bodies always follow the path of least resistance and open the door for compensation. As our hips extend, the supporting ligaments draw taut and our hip flexor elongates. Doing so stabilizes the femoral head in your hip socket and loads the hip flexor respectively. Unfortunately, if our ligaments and hip flexors are on a short leash they will become taut early and attempt to release tension. How does you hip achieve this? Through external or outward rotation. The foot will most notably toe out at push off, through swing phase, and maintain outward rotation into initial contact. The same concept can be said for your external rotators. Tightness in the back of the hip can cause the thigh bone (and entire leg) to toe out as you swing through to initial contact.

Sloppy Movement

You would think your body would provide proper movement for an activity, but it doesn’t. Our body is concerned about task completion–not efficiency. You need to train efficiency. We see this all the time as patients adopt compensations for getting in and out of chairs, using their momentum or arms to get up while plopping from gravity on the descent. New runners or those who lack overall strength are more likely to deviate from ‘ideal’ foot placement for varying reasons. The sloppy movement usually results in flailing limbs and toeing out at impact. Improving overall strength, particularly between the rib cage and the hips, and focusing on proper foot placement will rewire the nervous system for proper foot placement.

It’s important to determine if you’re a ducker from both a speed and injury standpoint. A physical therapist can quickly determine if your hips are retroverted and if not, how to fix associated tightness or muscle weakness that’s making you a ducker. This is usually more than just simply turning your foot to face straight ahead. Always learn the why before blindly changing your movement… your movement is usually dictated by the tools in the toolbox!

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The Dynamic Warm Up: Increase Neural Activation

Ok, you’ve heard “don’t stretch before a run” for multiple reasons, but if you’re not supposed to stretch, what should you do? The answer lies in exciting the nervous system. Unless you’re a weirdo and hop out of bed into a trance, you’ll likely fall into a larger group of individuals who wake up groggy and borderline incoherent. Personally, I make it a point to ask my wife what day it is before deciding if I can smash my hand into my phone to snooze for three minutes. Running early? Forget about it. Any pace feels labored. It can take a few hours for my nervous system to fire on all cylinders. If you have trouble waking up for early runs you know exactly what I’m talking about. A 7am start at the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2013 left me struggling until mile 7 when I finally settled in and felt comfortable. The same can be said for runners who take the first mile to ease into their run–time to warm up. Static stretching is the equivalent of flipping the ‘groggy’ switch. It’s believed to decrease your neural activity into the muscle and put it to sleep.

It’s pointless to discuss to the muscular system without pairing it with your nervous system. You should always refer to it together: your neuromuscular system. Feeling soft or sluggish for early runs is likely due to a nervous system that is not fully awake. So back to the question: “If we shouldn’t stretch before we run, what should we do?” — The answer lies in waking your nervous system.

The truth behind stretching

I’m not going to beat the dead horse here. Static stretching has been proven throughout multiple research studies to decrease strength and power production with a detrimental effect on muscle performance during both explosive and endurance activities. Static stretching is what you typically think of when you hear about slow, held stretches lasting 10 to 30 seconds. There’s no doubt that static stretching can improve tissue length, but do we really want to shut muscles off prior to an event? Heck, no. Multiple researchers have cited decreased neural activation as a cause for residual weakness following static stretching. Your goal shouldn’t be to make your muscles groggy before competition. You’ll want to blow the war horn and call everyone to battle. You’ll be looking to rev the engine per say as you’re waiting for the gun fire.

Calling the Alarm

Think of a warm up as wakening your nervous system, calling on your ‘flight or fight’ response. The stimulation of your nervous system will wake you up and prepare your body for competition. Blood flow will increase and you’ll become hyperalert. In theory, a warm up program that enhances neural activity will prepare your body for the forces associated with running. It may be theoretical, but Olsen et al found that athletes performing a dynamic warm up were significantly less likely to suffer knee and ankle injuries (1). Unlike a static stretching program, a dynamic warm up doesn’t compromise strength but is believed to increase readiness for activity through neural activation and body awareness.

A warm up is just that: warming up. I suggest spending as little as a few minutes working through some dynamic lunging and balance activities. Master runners know this better than anyone else. They’ll often spend the better part of a mile ‘waking up’ and settling in before hitting the accelerator. Be on the look out for our upcoming videos on a customized warm up routine when we launch our online store in the next few months!

1. Odd-Egil Olsen, Grethe Myklebust, Lars Engebretsen, Ingar Holme, Roald Bahr. BMJ. 2005 February 26; 330(7489): 449.

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3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Use the Butt Kick Drill

Let me get right to the point. Butt kicks drills for runners are pointless. The drill has been utilized by most runners at one time or another. Whether you learned from a coach, magazine, or fellow runner, most runners have warmed up to their heels smacking their backside.

Butt kicks are meant to improve heel rise during the swing phase of gait; however, the action of actually pulling your heels up has very little contribution to the overall gait cycle and running faster. Most people are aware that their hamstrings bend their knee but fail to recognize a secondary action: hip extension. The action of hip extension is far more important while running. When we emphasize heel rise alone on the back side of our stride we forego a major opportunity to run faster. Here are a few reasons why you need to substitute this drill:

Reason #1 – Creating a Rest Cycle

The hamstrings consist of three separate muscles. This powerful set of muscles generates a large amount of force while the foot is on the ground. Since the hamstrings work so hard for you while you interact with the ground, wouldn’t it be nice if the muscle had a rest cycle during swing? Emphasizing a butt kick negates any rest for your hammies. The muscles will not only be used to advance you down the road, but you’ll be asking them to work overtime to lift your heel during swing, literally asking them to fire 360 degrees of the run cycle.

Reason 2: – More Hands Make Lighter Work

Muscles that fire together generate more force. Think of standing at the free throw line and taking a few shots. Imagine keeping your entire body rigid and getting the ball to the basket with a flick of the wrist. It’s likely the ball will fall short, well at least shorter than it would if you would have bent your knees and engaged the shoulder. The action of using your legs, elbow, shoulder, core, etc. during the free throw allows you to push the ball further. More hands make for lighter work. When you (used to) perform butt kicks you’re asking only your hamstrings to contribute to heel rise. By incorporating the drill at the end of this article you’ll get your hamstrings and your hips to contribute. Again, more hands make for lighter work.

Reason 3: – No contribution to forward movement

Butt kicks might help you lift your heel higher, but a higher heel doesn’t necessarily equate to faster running. Substituting your butt kick drill will help form better habits–habits that will unlock some new found speed. The engineering and design of how we move and function is amazing. Our movement patterns can be leveraged for stronger muscle contractions. Pulling your heel to your butt has zero influence on forward movement; however, a properly executed knee drive can not only accomplish the goal of a butt kick (higher heel), but also provide a strong push on the opposite side, instantly improving your running speed.

Take a look at this video:

Substitute Butt Kicks with these…

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How to Improve Run Form: Part 5 – Marathon Shuffle

Running was once thought to be a sport that involved putting one foot in front of the other. “You run the way you run” touted articles and experts, implying that changes would likely decrease efficiency and yield slower times. Luckily, the close-mindedness of said individuals is evolving. Imagine if golfers bought into this stubbornness. “I swing the club the club the most efficient way for my body.” For any of us who picked up a club we can admit that our swing is far from perfect. It takes fine tuning, practice, and usually the helpful eye of someone who understands the sport. The same is said for a swim stroke. Triathletes can attest to how much drill work they do (or should be doing), yet when the lace up the shoes it’s just more miles, more speed work, more of everything.

The marathon shuffle is a relatable term for most runners. Low swinging heels, scuffing of shoes, and race photos that project an “am I walking?” internal dialogue paint the picture of the run form of the majority. Unfortunately, what most runners relate to the end stages of a marathon are likely occurring from the first step. Runners continually bias themselves to firing their quads (front of the thighs), completely negating contribution for their hips.

Run with Your Hips

A brief look into the anatomy and muscle function reveals some helpful insight. Although our quads and calfs are strong, powerful pushers, they also produce a lot of vertical motion. I don’t know about you, but when I run I’d like to minimize my up and maximize my forward. Our glutes are linear muscles. When firing during running they create little vertical force. Think of a skateboarder screaming down the street. With one leg cemented to board the other will catch and pull on the ground. He or she will produce very little force from their quad or calf, while they maximize their posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes). They can’t produce upward force, right? Otherwise they would be lifting themselves up and off their skateboard. As runners we should be looking to do the same thing, looking to break out of our quad dominant marathon shuffle.

Breaking Out of the Shuffle

Breaking out of your marathon shuffle is actually easier than you think. Unfortunately, most runners fall back on an old drill to do so: butt kicks. Butt kicks are a hamstrings dominant drill that coaches and athletes have practiced since before I was born. The movement produces little to ZERO forward movement. Sure, it limits your scuffing on swing phase, but if it’s not helping us run faster is it really worth it? (Tell yourself no) Our hamstrings are a strong, dominant hip extensor to boot. When your foot is on the ground they help extend the hip, advancing your body over your foot. Asking them to fire to lift your heel during swing is ridiculous. Ideally we would like to allow for them to rest at some point rather than activating them throughout the run cycle.

Your hip flexors play a supporting role during running. Typically our hip flexors, comprised of your iliopsoas muscle, assist in hip stabilization while our foot is on the ground and act as a mover during swing phase. Unfortunately, marathon shufflers minimize contribution during swing, actually allowing one of your quad muscles to swing your leg though. You got that right. Your big, bulky quad muscle that is a prime mover and force generator for movement is also working during swing phase. Think of the gait cycle as a toggle switch. Ideally, we would toggle between two phases of the gait cycle, each phase firing specific muscles. Phase one consists of when your foot is on the ground and is associated with group of muscles ‘A’ firing. Phase two, when your foot is off the ground, consists of muscle groups ‘B’ firing. Marathon shuffling and butt kicks create an overlap between the muscles groups that fire in each phase (quad and hamstrings respectively). It yields zero ‘off cycles’ and zero rest for the muscle group.

The Fix

Work on translating your knee forward after push off. Doing so will fix a few things:

1. The Marathon Shuffle:

Through an efficient knee drive your knee will fold on itself during swing, minimizing the need to pull from phase I muscles (your hamstrings) or to perform a butt kick. As the foot swings through more efficiently it will decrease the lever arm of the leg, making it easier to pull through.

2. Decreased Step Length:

Driving your knee forward will increase your distance traveled per step (step length) without sacrificing excessive upward movement. As the knee swings through you’ll notice a ‘float’ or ‘bounding’ sensation. Increased time off the ground (without increased vertical force) means more ground covered per step.

3. Glute Power at Push Off

Remember the earlier example of the skateboarder? Our glutes are capable of tremendous horizontal power. Through the use of an effective knee drive you can tap into your crossed extension reflex, a hard wired reflex from birth. As you fire your flexors on one side, you’ll get activation of extensors on the other side—very similar to stepping on something sharp that creates an upward pull on the stepping foot and downward push on the opposite side. (Neat, huh?).

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Keys to fixing properly:

The primary issue with fixing your knee drive is the tendency to drive up and not forward. Focusing on a horizontal or translational movement from your knee will prevent you from launching upwards. Remember to push your knee forward, do not drive it upwards. The fix will likely take some conscious effort and even be frustrating early on. As you learn the new movement you’ll find it more sustainable. Some athletes feel it’s “harder”. That’s ok. Think of it as rewiring your central nervous system or correcting a bad habit.

Don’t give up on this. It offers a big bang for your buck when you’re trying to run faster. As you fatigue you’ll look to fall on old habits. Keep a mental run form checklist that you can address during races or training runs. Good luck!

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Applied Movement Principles of Midfoot Running

Although the research and rehab community continues to grow our understanding of movement, some principles have stood the test of time. The relationships between muscle strength and joint position has been tried and tested. The same can be said with generating force from countermovement. Luckily, you don’t need to know all the specifics… you just need to know us.

Although the following principles haven’t been tested for running specifically, I refuse hesitation for their application to run form and performance. Various articles tout the benefits of midfoot over heel strike running. Sure, some poorly designed, six subject research articles have challenged a strong foundation, but the evidence continues to support a soft, midfoot strike.

To what I’m aware these two principles have yet to be analyzed or researched as a means to support the use of a mid foot strike. The principles are real, tested, and proven. They define how muscles function and I’m simply applying the theories to the running movement.

The Length-Tension Relationship

At a tissue level our muscles are constructed of filaments known as actin and myosin. These filaments are what generate force and power as they ratchet on each other. The muscle can contract to shorten or lengthen, much like raising and lowering a bucket in a well. You’re likely waiting for me to link this back to running. Wait for it. First, you need to know that as your bones flex and extend your ability to generate force charts a bell curve. This isn’t earth shattering research; we’ve known this for a long time. Research conducted by Haffajee, Moritz, and Svantes1 in 1972 found that the position of your knee directly affects how much force the knee extensors can generate. This article, along with some preceding research, laid the framework and ideology of the muscle length-tension relationship. Muscles that are too short or too long cannot generate force, while midrange is where the magic happens. Now, there are anatomical reasons for this, but far beyond the reach of this article. If you’re knee extensors (quadriceps) cannot generate force it’s safe to say they cannot store it either. Again, the previous statement is only applied, not proven (from what I can find).

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Two Graphs Illustarating The Length Tension Relationship1

Countermovement Force Generation

Although the research community is not settled on a ‘why’, we do know that our body can generate more force with countermovement. An everyday example is observed when you jump. The countermovement of lowering oneself prior to jumping stores energy within the muscle. A 1996 study conducted by Bobbert, Gerretsin, Litjens, et. al. found over 60% higher force production in study subjects when they utilized a countermovement prior to jumping. The loading movement resulted in an average of height 3.2cm higher jump than those in a comparison group.2 We can apply countermovement with every stride taken. As our body interacts from initial contact through midstance our center of mass lowers, storing force for push off. [see video below].

Why Do I Care?

Well, first your body is amazing–that’s why! Understanding how we function can help us better understand movement and sport. Leveraging research creates a faster, stronger, and less injury prone athlete. Haffajee, Moritz, and Svantes1 found that our knee is weakest at or near full extension. An extended knee negates the lever arm created from the patella. That, paired with a short quadriceps muscle, is a double whammy (my words, not theirs). Both factors effectively render your quad muscles useless. Wouldn’t you like your quadriceps absorbing force at landing and not your bones? I sure would. Second, we can observe countermovement in every stride taken. Whether you heel strike or mid foot strike, you’re going to utilize countermovement. The difference? A midfoot strike allows you to load sooner with less braking. You’ll take the force of push off and toss it into your next step and instantly counterload at contact. Think of it as carrying your momentum from stride to stride. Overstriding, which most runners do, creates a braking force that will negate any initial countermovement. As gravity sends you back to earth you’ll be looking to store that force (through countermovement) directly into your elastic tissues (ie. tendons and muscles) not your unforgiving bones. A midfoot strike offers this.

Landing midfoot has been long touted the ‘ideal’ way to run. Talks of minimizing braking forces and improved shock absorption have been beaten to death, revived, and beaten again. Some of you know you need to improve but are likely stubborn. Confiding within yourself, “This is the way I run and it’s ok” is selfish to not only your body, but your times. In a sport where injury run rampant (pun intended) and athletes spend countless seasons running the same splits and with the same injuries, learning and committing to a midfoot (not forefoot) landing can pay dividends. You may actually run faster without having to run more.

Commit to running faster and with less injury by learning a midfoot (not forefoot) strike. Our online members should master the following drills:

1. Haffajee D, Moritz U, Svantes G, Isometric Knee Extension Strength as a Function of Joint Angle, Muscle Length, and Motor Unit Activity. Acta orthop. Scandinav. 43,138-147,1972.

2. Bobbert MF, Gerritsen KG, Litjens MC, Van Soest AJ. Why is countermovement jump height greater than squat jump height? Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Nov;28(11):1402-12.

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How Should My Foot Land When Running

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times. “You shouldn’t land on your heel when running.” How should you land when running? Well, of course, not on your heel, but making the transition might be harder than you think.

You’ve taken millions upon millions of steps one way. It’s a habitually hardwired activity. We’ve all had runs where we shut our brain off, literally running on autopilot. Rewiring circuits and altering your autopilot takes persistent effort.

Thinking to yourself, “well if I’m not supposed to hit my heel, I’ll just land on my forefoot” is a dangerous thought–shelf it. Too often runners over compensate, landing too far forward on their foot. Not only will an exaggerated forefoot strike place potentially damaging stress to the Achilles, it can also hamper any gains in efficiency.

What not to do

how, should, my, foot, land, when, running

You need to avoid over extending your leg and landing with your toes pointing downwards. Most runners find it difficult to find their midfoot, generally overshooting and landing on the ball of their foot. Landing too far forward will cause excessive bounce in your running, over utilizing the recoil in the calf at push off. You want to move forward, not upwards, right?

What it should look like

how, should, my, foot, land, when, running
Without formal coaching, it may be difficult to achieve success in landing midfoot. You’ll need to have fairly good body awareness. The key is to land with a bent knee and your foot parallel to the ground. The foot should neither point down, nor up, but parallel. As your shin pendulums on swing it will slow and come to meet the ground, avoiding over extension or the infamous ‘Air Jordan’ pose from Nike.

Where most runners go wrong

From experience, I can tell you that most of you run too tall. Remember this: a bent joint (knee, hip, elbow, whatever) is one that can generate force. A tall runner generally straightens their joints, significantly dampening their ability to generate force. Keep your joints bent and relaxed.

Focus on running relaxed. The new form shouldn’t feel forced. Most runners become rigid in their lower and upper body, limiting the ‘natural’ feel it offers. Plan on transitioning over a few weeks, adding a few minutes per mile to the new way. Landing with a perfect mid foot strike introduce new stresses to your body. Too fast of a transition can cause soreness or injury.

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