As runners our goals are often based on speed and distance. However if we slow down our movements and simplify them much can be gained in terms of efficiency which supports our running. I’ve spent four days this month with Joanne Elphinston http://www.jemsmovement.com studying her movement programme and I want to share some of my takeaways.
We’ve all been told what good posture should look like – ‘shoulders locked back and down’, ‘staple the chin to the chest’ and ‘suck your tummy in’. However all these actions lock our bodies into one position and actually inhibit movement instead of enabling it.
Particularly damaging to runners is the point where posture becomes so vertical (or tall) that our hips are constantly extended – you may suffer from tired hip flexors if this is the case. Here you are working against gravity, limiting your power, blocking necessary rotational forces as well as inhibiting your glutes from firing. In other words it’s like running with the handbrake on.
More helpful neutral postural cues which promote movement and enhance your running are;
Imagine a helium balloon attached to the middle of our head gently floating us upwards and forwards. Even imagine the colour of the balloon in order to ensure you focus stays on it for longer.
Think of your body being the same length at the front and the back. We are longer at the back if we extend our hips too far. Or shorter at the front if we have rolled over shoulders (common in office workers).
Functional core strength
As runner’s we know that running alone won’t make us the best runner we can be, we also need to work on core strength. However often the exercises we are given fix us in one place, for example holding the plank. Whilst this is beneficial to key muscle groups (for plank – abdominals and back) functional strength can be lost as muscles are not trained to fire in a dynamic sequence as they are required to do during running itself.
An exercise like the greyhound which promotes functional core strength is perfect for runners.
Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat with hands by your sides. Release your abdominals and observe your breathing. Allow your spine to soften and relax into the floor. With one hand on your lower abdomen raise the other hand to the ceiling. Float it back over your head towards the floor, focusing on allowing your spine and ribs to soften and lengthen. Just like a greyhound, your abdominals have sunk towards the spine. With the least effort possible, lift your arm back up to the ceiling and back to by your side. Once you can do this and remain long, you can progress by moving both arms over the head simultaneously and then by adding in alternate legs.
Walking and running relies on elasticity in our bodies to help to propel us forwards. Across our bodies are myofascial (connections between muscles, tendons and ligaments) slings that enable rotation from leg and hip to opposite shoulder. However to utlise these slings properly we must ensure that we are incorporating the hip, not just isolating the upper body and swinging from the shoulder. Try running with your arms locked by your sides to feel how important the elastic connection between opposite arm and leg is. You will look like a penguin, tipping from side to side and dissipating energy.
Loss of elastic rotation increases the load on propulsive leg muscles ( achillees due to overpushing and hamstring from overpulling) and reduces shock absorption in the joints.
As well as the classic runners march and skip drills which aide elastic rotation, here are a few more which can be done at any time of day.
Simple whole body standing rotation – stand feel parallel and rotate from your feet upwards to look behind you without straining. Beware of not only turning your upper body and engage the hip too.
Thigh sliders – sit on a ball or chair with your feet flat on the ground, hands on thighs, keeping your head still. Turn your shoulders by sliding your hands from one side to the other along your thighs whilst keeping your head facing forward.
Like me, you may have landed on running as your sport as you don’t feel that you had the natural co-ordination for ball sports or dance based movements. As a runner you will have got pretty good at one foot in front of the other – or in sports language, moving forward in the sagittal plane. But if we challenge ourselves to do sideways and rotational movements it will certainly improve our running. For example, without control in the transverse plane you may have excessive side to side movement at the hips, which mean that when your foot hits the ground you lose control. The outcome could be knee coming inwards, pronation at the foot, shoulders tipping and a lengthened contact time (which makes each stride cost more energy).
You may already be doing classic sagittal plane exercises like lunges – add another dimension though and make these multidirectional compass lunges.
Stand with your feet together and imagine that you are in the centre of a compass. Your head and shoulders should always face forward or North, only your pelvis and lower body turn. North is front/ a forward step, South is a backwards step, East on the right leg would be a side step and West on the left leg would be a side step into the left, so you are almost in a squat position. NW, NE, SE, SW all involve the foot pivoting and stepping diagonally.
If we over stabilise in one area of the body then loss of control will appear elsewhere, this is classic compensation and our bodies have become very good at it. For example in many cases, by wearing overly stabilising trainers then we pass the issue further up the chain to the hip or knee. As runners we need to be in connection with our feet and a simple way of reconnecting is as follows;
In a seated position in a chair, knees bent and feet flat on the floor think about your feet as being broad and responsive (as opposed to tight and compressed) one by one then slowly practice opening the arch of the foot and closing it again. This movement is also great for engaging the glutes, so put one hand under the sitting bone of the foot that is moving in order to feel your glute – it may be a new experience for some of you! This exercise can improve your squat too (which we know is great for glute firing and strength) as if you commonly land on the outside of your foot your knee is likely to move inwards to compensate.
Our focus on breathing should be on the movement of air in and out of our bodies. Habitually many people fall into breathing patterns which are only using the top part of their lungs and not down into their diaphragm. The danger of this as a runner is that you are not allowing as much oxygen (fuel) to the lungs as possible but also that you are not able to engage the transverse abdominals – which is necessary for support when running.
By thinking about the chest as a barrel (whole ribcage expansion in all directions) that should be expanded and retracted we can start to breathe into our full lungs.
Balance is often overlooked, but it underpins many other elements of movement efficacy. With eyes open we can fix a point, and this can make balance exercises easier, but bear in mind your body centre will develop further if you learn to close eyes as well. Before starting make sure you have done some foot mobility work so that you give yourself the best base.
Standing leg swing – stand on one leg and swing the other back and forth allowing both arms to pendulum. Your trunk should stay vertical and your pelvis should be in a constant position. Once you feel stable try it with your eyes closed.
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