You are in school and the teacher has just assigned the dreaded group project. You quickly realize that no one else on the team has any interest in doing well on the project. You become the only one working, staying up late to finish said project and in the end, it doesn’t turn out as good as other groups who had the whole team contributing. Now you are left with a bad grade and a headache from lack of sleep. What if I told you this same process is at work in millions of runner’s bodies around the world: some body parts doing “all the work”, commonly getting injured in the process, while other body parts rest in Mexico sipping an umbrella cocktail.
I define power generation as the engine that is moving you down the road or trail. In the body, it is the movements or muscle groups that are doing the majority of the work to make this happen. Inefficient power generation is a common cause of why runners get injured every year (research shows up to 80% of runners experience at least one injury every year…yikes!), why running even at slow speeds feels “hard” and why some people never get faster.
Dysfunctional power generation sources include:
“Waist twisting and bending”:
Excessive spinal movement through over rotation of the back, coupled usually with either flexing or extending the back. Think: that runner with their chest up, rotating through their waist, while their legs are simply shuffling along. Some spinal movement is undoubtedly necessary for efficient running, but it should never be the primary driver of power.
Bringing feet off the ground by drawing them up high behind you and then having to take the time to fling the foot out forward for the next foot strike
Propelling forward using excessive work of calf muscles with your butt on the aforementioned tropical vacation and not participating in the workload.
How it makes us get hurt:
- “Waist twisting and bending”: over rotation of the spine, especially when coupled with flexion or extension stresses the discs between our vertebrate, as well as the nerves that come out between them. This can lead to back and pelvic pain. Additionally, research has shown that when back pain is present, “core” musculature starts to not work as efficiently, leading to the whole body having an unstable foundation.
- “Butt kicking”: leads to overuse of muscles that flex the knees (like hamstrings) and extend the knees (like quads). This also sets you up to have your foot land further in front of your body which sets off injuries described in my previous blog…think plantar fasciitis, calf strains, patellar tendonitis and pelvic floor issues…nothing good here folks!
- “Twinkle toe-ing”: leads to overuse injuries including the foot, arch, achilles and calf.
How it makes us slower:
- “Waist twisting”: There is only so much forward momentum that can be created by twisting your spine or lifting your chest. This also can lead to having core muscles be put into positions they can’t work as well in, so they are not there to add support as well.
- “Butt kicking”: It is simply a waste of energy to bring your foot up high behind you, not only because it also requires you to use extra muscular effort to bring that foot back DOWN to the ground. It also usually sets you up to have your foot strike too far in front of your body. When your foot lands in front of you, instead of underneath you, it is the equivalent of “hitting the brakes”.
- “Twinkle toe-ing”: Calf muscles are much smaller than glutes. Using your calves to be the primary driver of forward movement is like crossing the ocean with a row boat instead of a cruise ship
The key power source being missed:
- Waist twisting, butt kicking and twinkle toe-ing: hip flexors and hip extensors working in conjunction with a strong, stable trunk
How we can fix it:
- Our goal for all of the conditions described above is to work on increasing the amount you are flexing one hip joint while extending the other with the spine kept relatively neutral.
- Train your brain and body with the Standing March:
- Stand with feet hips width apart.
- Bring your spine into neutral by thinking of a ring at the bottom of your rib cage and a ring at the top of your pelvis and line these rings up (many runners have a tendency to tilt their chests up to the sky which brings the spine into excessive extension).
- Grow tall not by lifting your chest, but by slightly tucking your chin and thinking of someone pulling your ponytail up and forward.
- March one knee up until your thigh is almost parallel to the ground, your ankle is directly under your knee and your toes are up (your hip, knee and ankle joints should all be at 90 degree angles).
- You should picture the leg you are balancing on pushing the crown of your head to the sky until you can feel your butt on that side starting to work.
- Hold for 1-2 seconds and then switch legs. Come to the exact leg/foot position described each time.
- Running integration:
- Maintain the neutral spine position described above by the ponytail visualization and by keeping your gaze on the ground 10-20 feet in front of you
- Lean slightly forward FROM YOUR ANKLES
- Try to pick your knee and your toe up in front of you in the manner described above JUST A LITTLE as you run.
- Notice how flexing a little more through the hip will cause you to naturally use your butt to help you push off on the OPPOSITE side naturally.
Here’s to getting faster, stronger and being able to run forever!
Sara Tanza PT, DPT, CFMT is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and the Assistant Race Director for She.Is.Beautiful 5k and 10k.