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.