Did you know your running mechanics can be the difference between being a good runner and being a great runner? It’s something I have come to appreciate over the years and I have my team to thank for improving mine. Between my coach and my physical therapist, I have learned the small nuances that have improved my running economy and my race times. On and off the track, together Brian (my PT) and Dan (my coach) keep me running strong and fast.
I recently sat down with both of them to find out why running well is important and what one should look for to be a stronger, more efficient runner. But, the topic of running mechanics is a lengthy one, so I divided this post into two parts. Part two will cover my interview with my coach and his focus on the track for improving his athletes’ mechanics.
My Running Mechanics Improved with a Gait Analysis and Physical Therapy
I think I have one of the best physical therapists around. Brian has been part of my team for about five years. He has this amazing ability to analyze your running gait, and without you telling him your story or history, he can tell you exactly what is wrong with you and why. Then, when he does get the details of your injury history, his diagnosis and recommended therapy is spot on. From there he gets you stronger, teaches you about body awareness (what your body is doing while running), and how to be more efficient which translates into (hopefully) better race times.
Brian has been a physical therapist for 30 years. He worked in the private setting for a number of years and has been at his current position for about 6 years. He is the rehab coordinator for Morton Plant’s Outpatient PT and Sports Medicine Center and is also clinical faculty for USF/MPM Family Medicine Residency and Primary Care Sports Medicine Fellowship. Soon he will also be the clinical coordinator for the Human Performance Center (HPC) at Morton Plant where they will be performing metabolic testing as well as video analysis on patients and athletes. Brian has worked with athletes from the MLB, NBA, NFL and professional soccer as well as elite runners/triathletes. He has been doing high speed gait analysis on athletes for about 15 years and participated as faculty on this subject in the professional community.
You hear a lot of people talk about how good mechanics can make you a more efficient/faster runner. What are running mechanics?
Running mechanics include all the physical parameters one looks at to maximize running economy. The major component of running mechanics is extremity symmetry. Simply put, are the arms and legs moving the same with each stride with regards to arc of motion, ground encounter force, ground push off force and time spent on each leg when in contact with the running surface.
Why is it important to have good mechanics?
Mechanics are vitally important to improve running economy. This will eliminate aberrant movement that causes asymmetry leading to gait deviations that will require the athlete to consume more energy at race pace causing performance decrements and times to get slower. Clean economy equals PR’s, and poor economy leads to slower, frustrating time intervals. The biggest benefit to running more efficiently is injury prevention. Efficient symmetrical running prevents unilateral leg injuries such as stress fracture and various types of leg tendonitis. Performance levels also improve.
What do you look for when you analyze running mechanics?
Well, there are approximately 28 or so movement patterns we look at with a 6-speed gait analysis. The major components include horizontal and vertical displacement (is a runner bouncing up and down to much or swaying side to side too much), posture at the cervical, thoracic, lumbar spine plus pelvic symmetry right to left and vice a versa.
We also watch arm swing, stride length, hip turnover, femoral displacement at weight bearing, knee motion in stride, evidence of heel whip in swing phase and a number of foot and ankle observation at ground encounter, time spent in single limb as well as what occurs with the take-off phase. So as you can sense, there is a great deal of info gleamed from this process. Within each of the above mentioned areas there are drill parts of the analysis where specifics are assessed.
Brian explains gait analysis and how he works with athletes to clean up their mechanics.
Is there such thing as the right form or mechanics? How should runners be moving?
The answer is, it depends. No two runners are alike. Each running athlete has a different task. A sprinter will have different mechanics than a 10K runner or a steeple chase runner. And, no two runners are built the same. For example, during the 2008 Olympics 200 meter final Walter Dix (USA) finished third by a nose. It took him 47 strides to finish the race. It took gold medalist Usain Bolt 41 strides. Both are elite sprinters but they each have very different mechanics. To be successful competitively, runners need to be symmetrical with arm and leg motion and eliminate wasted energy with horizontal and vertical displacement; those are probably the most important fundamental components to pay attention to.
You have been a tremendous help in getting me to run more efficiently. What did I have to do to improve? How did the small tweaks help?
It is always important to know a running athlete’s injury history. This will give important clues as to what to look for and how to help an athlete improve. In your case, it really was a matter of improving eccentric strength (controlling your body at the hips while in single limb stance) at the posterior lateral core and hip as well as maintaining both neural sleeve and muscle flexibility.
This helped equalize your hip turnover and stride length at race pace on a more consistent level. Small tweaks such as little postural corrections and improving your awareness of occasional heel whipping and knee flexion angles have gone a long way to improving your running economy.
You have taught me how to be aware of my body and what it is doing while running. Why is that important?
This helps a runner self-correct during a race or training session. Being aware that arm swing is off or that your heel is whipping a touch clues you in to figuring out the little adjustments that need to be made to train successfully and most importantly avoid injury.
Should runners work on improving mechanics on their own? If so, how does one go about improving their running mechanics if they don’t have a PT or running coach to help them?
It is difficult for runners to do this on their own. There is value to getting a gait analysis at least once to be given deviations present and how to prevent those from altering their mechanics. That said, I would advise runners to incorporate a good strengthening program for core and hips with some yoga or flexibility training to maximize functional running capacity. From my view, it is vital that runners consistently work on the core and hip strength to be successful and avoid injury. If you’re tight you will be weak and that is a setup for injury.
I would focus on equal arm swing and stride length. A quick way to equalize arm movement is to refer to the phrase “pick your pocket, pick your nose” as a guide for the swinging motion. Also, try as best as you can to eliminate too much bounce in your stride and body sway side to side. That will be a good start.
So, as you can see there is a lot that goes into running mechanics. Probably more than you imagined. It’s taken a lot of work to get my mechanics clean, to the point where I feel like I am running stronger and competitive in my races. Running mechanics is something a runner always has to pay attention too and work on. I know for me it’s always a work progress.
Did you find this information helpful? Let me know in the comments.