Thursday, February 10, 2011

“It’s All in the HIPS!”

The Problem; A Solution

A year ago, I wrote a two-part series on the importance of running mechanics – not only for running health, but for optimal performance.

In those posts, I pointed out that no one teaches us how to run; rather, we do so be "just doing it", with the premise that if you "do it enough", it will eventually become efficient.

Since that time, when working with runners – both as a clinician and coach – I frequently ask my patients/athletes the following question:


It's a simple question that, in generality, should have a simple answer. You can ask it over any other sport. For example:

How do you shoot a basketball? Cradle it in your dominant hand, fingertips on the ball, wrist extended; to shoot, extend your arm upward and flick your wrist forward towards the basket.

Coaches, biomechanists, and athletes may have slightly different answers – and different ways to improve upon that "answer". That, in essence, is sport!

Running is different:

  1. The injury rate among runners – versus every other sport – is astronomically high*. Thus, the importance of having an answer to the "how" question is doubly important. To do it well is to do it healthy.
  3. And if they DO have an answer, more often than not, it is not mechanically ideal.

*90% of runners will suffer at least one injury in a given year – about double the injury rate of any other recreational sport.

Here is my answer:

"Forcefully EXTEND and PULL your leg behind you, then as efficiently as possible SWING it through to get ready to PULL AGAIN."

That's it. One statement, two parts. Distilled further:

PULL. flick.

And here's why:

A Mechanical Rationale

Why PULL, you say?

Answer: the most efficient and least stressful way to propel oneself is FORWARD. But rather than PULL (and flick), most people BOUNCE – they simply take their body, slam it into the ground (at a slight forward angle), then it slams back (and slightly forward again). However, the main force vector is INTO THE GROUND.

To PULL is to PROPEL FORWARD. To take up and down energy and direct it forward. The end results is three-fold:

  1. Forward energy means FASTER RUNNING.
  2. Less up-down energy means LESS STRESS, thus LESS INJURY.
  3. "Angular momentum" of levers (PULL your leg back, flicking forward) results in less weird motions = LESS INJURY, FASTER RUNNING.

It's that simple.

A Physiological Rationale

Why PULL? Why not:

  • DRIVE the hip forward? (=hip flexors)
  • PUSH your leg behind you? (=knee extensors, plantar flexors)

Answer: to PULL with a straight leg is to engage the Gluteus Maximus as the primary propeller for running. And why is this ideal? Simple: the glut max is, by far, the largest and most powerful muscle in the body. It's nearly indestructible. Ever hear of someone pulling a glut max? Or finishing a run or race saying, "Wow, my glut trashed (or, "MAXED out")!"

Why NOT the forward drive:

  • The hip flexor is SMALL (about 1-2" in diameter, a rather thin cord)
  • A forward drive can easily turn into an UPWARD drive (more up-down motion)
  • A forward drive does not guarantee a backward extension/pull

Why NOT push your leg behind:

  • "Pushing" engages – and tends to OVERUSE – your quads and calf muscles (which are mostly shock absorbers and "accessory" movers at best)
  • Pushing increases vertical excursion = more up-down energy = less efficient

My clinical and coaching approach, therefore, is to begin with engagement of the glut max – or pulling with a relatively straight leg. Once that has been mastered, the rest of the "pawback mechanism" (front to back) is emphasized. Only AFTER that has been mastered do we address the forward-acting motions – hip drive, forward striding.

Interested in more? Tired of being injured (and slowed?) E-mail me, or contact us (687-7005).