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.
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!