Science of Running Better & Stronger

By Kate Caetano & Christian Baldia

When life is chaos, deadlines pile up and my sleep … well let’s just say, the to ‘do list’ needs a hibernation button … getting that run-induced sweat serenity keeps me sane.

However, from experience I know how easy it is for niggles or little injuries to put me out for much longer than they ever need to! Why? Because I let my muscles and joints take the burden without putting in the upkeep.

If you are anything like I use to be, my warm up (if I did it) was 2-3mins and, well what cool down? What strength training? What cross training? What do you mean I should work on my technique? I’ve never had problems before and I know how to run …. one foot goes in front of the other!
Now I know better.

There are so many conflicting articles and research that goes through everything from minimalism footwear, foot position, cadence, heartrate, lean angle and arm swing but what does the science of biomechanics say? What are fashion fades and what are science?

The boring but crucial basics – Running muscles

To understand how to run faster and safer, we need to understand how the body works when you run. Running muscles can be separated into power muscles and support muscles and involves around 85% of all the muscles in your body at each phase.

During running, your most muscles have primary function and secondary function. During include the gluteal muscles (the buttocks) which help extend the hip, stabilize the trunk and keep you from falling forward or sideways with the core muscles. The major muscles that make up the core include: the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, internal and external obliques (waist muscles); rectus abdominis (abs); longissimus thoracis, erector spinae and multifidus (spinal muscles); and the diaphragm. Minor core muscles include: the latissimus dorsi (side trunk muscles), and trapezius (shoulders).

Strong glutes contribute to good running form and alignment as they straighten your leg beneath you to create a spring effect with the hamstrings (back of your thigh muscles) which straighten your hip and begin to bend your knee and lift your knee behind you. Also having the counter support and engagement of the quadricep muscles (front of your thigh muscles) to bend your hip and straighten your knee, stabilizing the knee and help absorb the shock of impact as you land. Thus, allowing your (inner calf) and gastrocnemius (outer calf) to extend and flex each foot as you land and push off. These muscles also help absorb impact and give your stride direction and spring.

In addition to these key running muscles, there are various other muscle groups that also aid running form and momentum projection such as the hip flexors (Psoas major, Iliacus muscle, Sartorius, Tensor fasciae latae, Pectineus, Adductor longus, Adductor brevis and Gracilis; which work with the quads and hamstrings to move the legs forward and back. The hip rotator muscles (externus and internus obturators, the piriformis, the superior and inferior gemelli, and the quadratus femoris) stabilize the hip joint and contribute to good running form. Not to mention the ankle and knee stabilizers…and then there’s the neck and shoulder muscles during arm swing…my point is small imbalances in a few muscles can imped stability, power, engagement or increase injury-risk of a runner.

Joint motion

Joint mobility and alignment are just as important as the muscles they influence. Each work together and influence each other in an ever-adjusting cycle. Muscles stabilize joints and joints allow muscles to function and move the body forward. The leg action in running is one that takes place in a sagittal plane about a frontal axis and involves the hip, knee, ankle and shoulder joints.

The bones of the shoulder and hip form ball and socket joints which can go in any direction and is multiplane. The bones of the knee form a hinge joint which can flex and extend, with very slight rotation. The bones of the ankle form a modified hinge joint, which can flex and extend, with angled rotation.

Each of these joints produces two actions, one when the leg is in contact with the ground phase and one when the leg is in swing phase. When there is not sufficient range in the motion, the flow to the next action is disrupted and compensations come into play. The disruption to the kinetic chain of motion means other areas must move further, differently or take on more force. Compensations such as spinal, hip or knee rotation, front foot pivoting, high arc force and increased joint angle forces on unstable alignment.

Strength vs engagement…both! Brain pathways

It is common knowledge that exercise enhances our mental capacity regarding co-ordination, memory, positive thinking and reduces Dysautonomia symptoms (e.g. chronic fatigue and POTS).

However, this works as a two-way street; everything our body does is a control command from the brain. Everything. Our brains are highly active during exercise as the neurons are “revved up” and become sensitized to the neural pathways from the brain to activate.

The more aware the “brain” is about a movement the more delicate the acute adjustments can be. If the body is neglecting a muscle’s primary function – then making the mind aware of using that muscle during a particular phase (using muscle memory and drills) allows the body to engage its primary function again. Thinking a muscle into action is the first step in creating movement habits that become second nature.

Interventions

The role of an intervention (footwear, orthotics, gait retraining) is to support the system in its preferred pathway. If that is achieved, then muscle activity is reduced and supports a more economical way of running. However, if the runner is reliant on the support given, the intervention is excessive, or the intervention opposes the preferred pathway, then not only is the resulting compensations increasing strain on non-target muscles, but the target muscle experience more fatigue and less economical running.

Strength

Running muscles can be separated into power muscles and support muscles and involve around 85% of all the muscles in your body. By strengthening each group, you will improve your running form and balance.

Running builds endurance, but it doesn’t help with muscular strength or stability and so requires multi-training to improve overall. Muscle specific training with strength, co-ordination, engagement and balance are needed to keep you, injury free.

Strength and engagement workouts can improve running skills, enable the body to use oxygen more efficiently and reduce fatigue rates. Which, will enable you to run faster and have more power up hills.

Being able to activate more and stronger muscle groups allow you to safely lengthen your stride and increase propulsion, which can allow you to cover more distance faster, with less shock.

Strengthening muscles improves your running form by reinforcing alignment actions and posture, as well as, provide stability to joints reducing wear and tear on ligaments and tendons.

We know that having poor alignment, weakness and imbalance put us at risk of injuries and pain. This can be seen when we have weak gluteal muscles which impedes frontal alignment through the knee during striding, excessive hip flexion or twisting that encourage repetitive stress injuries that plague runners.

Now into practice!

Making the whole body move together reduces disruptions in momentum, allows more muscles mass to be involved and decreases shock forces. It also allows more controlled power as they move in unison, banding together to move the body-unit further, faster and more fluidly.  Remember a strong muscle is useless if the body is not using it!

Here are some additional tips to keep in mind when you are strengthening such as:

  • Move through your entire range of motion and be conscious about your alignment as this will reinforce positive movement patterns we want to encourage.
  • Keep movements slow and controlled. Don’t bounce.
  • Breathe out as you perform the main exertion. Never hold your breath.
  • Little and often is better than explosive sessions. Stop before your joint is fully extended and use weights or resistance that you are comfortable with.
  • Use the foam roller to help with recovery and conditioning of the muscles.
  • Do some dynamic/static stretching before and after your workout.
  • If you run and do strength training on the same day, always complete your running before you move on to your strength workout.

Strength Training program for beginners:  5-20 repetitions each side

Movement preparation / warm up:

  1. Upper body segmental rolls – Lying flat on your back and rolling over to the floor using just your head, raised arm and trunk rotation. As much as possible not using any help from your lower limbs.Advancewellness - Strength Training
    Advancewellness - Strength Training
    Advancewellness - Strength Training
  2. Lower body segmental rolls – Lying flat on your belly, extend your hips as your lift your leg off from the floor reaching over to the other side while keeping your arms flat on the floor. This allows you to recognize your body’s ability to extend the hips which leads to engaging your gluteus and hamstring muscles which are very important when running.
    Advancewellness - Lower Body Training
    Advancewellness - Lower Body Training
    Advancewellness - Lower Body Training
  3. Dead bugs-  Lying on your back with a rolled-up hand towel under your lower back, lift your legs and arms up straight in the air (like a dead bug). Take 1 arm with its opposite leg, drop it slowly down to the ground and then lift it back again, while pressing your lower back into the towel. Repeat with alternate arm and leg. Repeat 10 times with each side. If you feel it in your back, you are not pressing your lower back into the towel enough. Doing it right allows your ribs and pelvis to stay in line with each other which is important for core stability and glute activation.Advancewellness - Deadbug
  4. Crawling – As simple as it sounds, a lot of us lose our ability to crawl while having opposite limbs working together. You don’t run with the same side of your limbs moving on same direction, right? Just imagine running with your right knee and right arm up at the same time, it looks and will feel awkward from all angles. Get down on the floor, hands under your shoulders, knees under hips, toes on the floor, and eyes looking straight ahead. As slow as you can, crawl forward between 6-30 steps forward and backwards. Opposite limbs should be moving together at the same time. Left arm – right leg; right arm – left leg. Easy enough? Then try doing this with your knees of the floor and maintaining a flat back.Advancewellness - Crawling

Strength routine: 4-5 sets for all the exercises below.

  1. Hardstyle plank (10-15secs) – Hip bridge (12 reps) supersetHardstyle plank – Get into your plank position, either forearms on the ground or the starting of a push up position also known as push up plank. Keep your eyes looking on the ground, think of pulling your shoulder blades towards your hips, pulling your elbows towards your ribs. Maintain this controlled tension / bracing for around 10-15 seconds then move on to the hip bridge.Advancewellness - Hardstyle PlankHip bridge – Bridging strengthens your buttocks and your leg muscles. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Gently tilt your pelvis, as if you are imprinting your lower back into the floor. Now, lift your hips up into the air, while still holding your pelvis level. Hold in the bridge position before you then lower, keeping your tummy drawn in and slowly lowering your spine back down onto the floor one vertebrae at a time. Keep your buttocks tight until your pelvis rests on the floor. To make this more difficult, lift back up into the bridge position, and hold this position and lift one leg up and then lower it back down and then raise your other leg hold briefly and then lower it back down.Advancewellness - Hardstyle Plank Hip Bridge
  2. Single-leg split squat: Stand with legs hip width apart with one leg back on a step and your hands on your hips. Watch that your front knee won’t go over your toes (not rotating inward or outward) as your hips dip/squat down. Repeat 12-15 times and then try it on the other side.Advancewellness - SingleLegSplitSquat
  3. Kettlebell Hip hinge – Get a kettlebell then hold it with both hands the back, toes and heels pressed against the ground. While keeping your feet and knees hip width apart ( or slightly wider than hip width apart), slowly push your hips/butt back but not bending your knees too much, shins are close to vertical.You should feel this stretch on your hamstrings and buttocks, while keeping the whole back straight. Repeat 12-15 times. This movement allows your body to learn on how to move using your hips instead of your back, next progression from this one is a Kettlebell deadlift then a kettlebell swing.Advancewellness - Kettlebell Hip Hinge
  4. TRX Row – Stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart. Grasp the handles in each hand. Hold your arms out straight in front of you, palms facing down, and lean backwards, pivoting off your heels. Keep your body in a straight line as you pull yourself back towards the upright position.When your hands reach your sides, with your thumbs on top, slowly return to the starting position and repeat for 12-15 times.Advancewellness - TRX ROW
  5. Suitcase marching- Hold a moderately challenging weight with one arm on the side, marching forward maintaining an upright posture and working on the opposite side of your core. This teaches you how to stabilize your body in motion while keeping your shoulders and hips square, a helpful skill needed when running. Do 30 steps on one arm then repeat on the other side.Advancewellness - Suitcase Marching

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