Some great visuals for explaining proper running form using "hip proprioception" aka awareness of the hips! Thanks to my PT, Brad Ott of Rebound Sports for passing it along!
It's All in the Hips
Foot strike, the darling of minimalism, is overrated. Good form starts with the pelvis and the glutes.
Watch a video of Kenenisa Bekele winning a 5,000m or 10,000m, and it is quickly apparent that he and the rest of the world-class pack with him are doing something different from what most of us do every day. They float around the track, hardly seeming to touch it. They accelerate smoothly and effortlessly. Their legs seem to spin beneath weightless bodies.
We want to run like them, but too often we feel like we're muscling our bodies along, pounding the ground and working for each forward push. What element of their stride creates the difference? Where should we look?
For the past several years, we've been told to focus on their feet. Elite runners are different, form experts have said, because they land on their midfoot or forefoot, and we should do the same to run more smoothly, faster and with less injury. Where your foot makes contact with the ground became a litmus test of running prowess. Among some runners, the label "heel-striker" attained the stigma of "learning impaired."
And yet, many of those who adopted a forefoot strike and the minimalist shoes that accompanied the movement didn't see an improvement in times and continued to get injured. So much so that the movement has all but disappeared.
A wide range of experts--from kinesiologists to physical therapists, orthopedists to coaches--agree that the extreme emphasis the running world has put on foot strike is misplaced. Daniel Lieberman, the Harvard scientist who gave scientific credence to minimalism with his seminal 2010 article in Nature, says, "Frankly, when we published that paper, I never expected everyone to obsess about it as much as they did. Had I realized that, I would have added a sentence to the effect that while foot strike is important, there are many other important aspects of form as well. I have learned over the years that the worst thing to tell anyone is to forefoot strike."
Grant Robison, an elite runner and coach whose Good Form Running program was adopted by New Balance to educate runners on how to move into the company's Minimus line, says that while teaching runners to land on the midfoot was an emphasis a few years ago, he now considers it the least important of the four points he teaches: Posture, Mid-Foot, Cadence and Lean. "I draw people's attention to it, showing that if you can use more of your foot, things don't get stressed as much, but then I kind of let that be," Robison says.
But the minimalist movement wasn't wrong in suggesting that most of us need to improve our form if we are to run like Bekele. Trying to change how we land, however, didn't address the big goals of shifting our balance forward and moving our stride more behind than in front of us--essential elements of those effortless elite movement patterns we desire.
The emphasis on foot strike missed the mark by putting the attention on the end of the chain, rather than the beginning. We need to shift our focus upward to our hips and glutes, where the stride begins.
"More often than not, I see foot strike as simply being the end result of so many other things that are happening farther up the kinetic chain," says David McHenry, physical therapist and strength coach for Alberto Salazar's Nike Oregon Project. "The foot is really just the end of a big kinetic whip--the leg. Core and hips are where every runner should be starting if they are really concerned with optimizing their form, maximizing their speed and minimizing injury potential."
Jay Dicharry, physical therapist and director of the REP Biomechanics Lab in Oregon, agrees that foot strike is an effect, not a cause. He's measured heel-strikers who touch down with zero force and forefoot strikers who pound the ground. "There are many ways to move correctly," Dicharry says. But he sees similarities in all who move efficiently and powerfully. "If you can keep your posture in check and keep your hip drive up, you're going to run really, really well."
In sum, the experts say, mind your hips and your feet will take care of themselves.
We don't overstride, however, simply because we wear overbuilt shoes and have learned poor running habits. We do it because our lifestyles outside of running create inflexibilities, weaknesses and poor balance. These are reinforced while running, such that now many of us are physically incapable of striding out naturally, with our legs behind our center of gravity. "We are not living the lives our bodies were designed for," says Irene Davis, a professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spaulding National Running Center. Bobby McGee, a Boulder, Colo.-based running coach who led Josia Thugwane to gold in the 1996 Olympic marathon, says the goal is to get back to how we moved as 9- or 10-year-olds, before environmental circumstances changed our patterns.
Heading to the gym to attack these weaknesses often doesn't correct them, however. Strengthening exercises will do little good without changing how we move and recruit our muscles. "Research has shown that strengthening alone--without retraining movement patterns--does not alter mechanics," Davis says. "The individual must own the new pattern, or it will not be durable."
Before we can own it, we need to feel it.
It all starts with proper posture, the experts say. Proper posture is what makes some athletes look graceful and light on their feet, balanced and agile. McGee calls it "getting connected." GP Pearlberg, an author and online coach, calls it "running tall."
Whatever we call it, learning it takes more than trying not to slouch or sucking in our guts. Good posture is not the stilted, rigid position we adopted when our mothers yelled, "Sit up straight!" We cannot imagine maintaining this pose for long while sitting or standing, let alone running, so too often we dismiss calls for better posture.
To get away from old ideas of posture, it might help to think of it as "hip proprioception," a fancy term that Trent Nessler, a physical therapist and the CEO of Accelerated Conditioning and Learning, uses to mean our awareness of what is going on with our hips, both the position of the bones and the muscles that are firing around them. Dicharry's book Anatomy for Runners centers around this concept. "It comes down to awareness and feel," Dicharry says, noting that people who have habitually poor posture "don't respond to cues like 'run tall' and 'keep your spine in neutral.' They pretty much have no idea they have a spine, or a hip, or any muscles that control them at all."
How do runners learn pelvic proprioception? The first test is vertical compression. Try the test below now.
HIP POSITION TESTS
While standing, have someone behind you put their hands on your shoulders and push straight down. If your body buckles at the back and hips, you know your hips and balance are off.
You can correct this buckling by changing your balance and posture. To find this new balance, one method is to reach up as high as you can as if trying to get something off a high shelf, then lower your arms without changing hip and back position. Another method is to place one hand on your belly button and one on your sternum, then, without moving the belly-button hand, bring your sternum forward until your weight is balanced over your hips and equally distributed between your forefoot and heel. Now have someone push down on your shoulders again: You should be able to withstand considerable force comfortably.
In adjusting your posture to achieve a balanced state, you likely noted your pelvis position rotated. A second test can help you feel this rotation better.
Stand in front of a doorway with your back against the right side of a doorjamb and your left leg in the doorway opening. Kneel with your left knee on the floor inside of the doorjamb and your right knee above your right foot in front of you. Your left thigh should be vertical beside the doorjamb, with your back resting against the front of the doorjamb. In this position, you'll naturally have a bit of space between your lower back and the wall. Tilt your pelvis backward so the hollow between your lower back and the doorjamb disappears. Your pelvis should rotate up in front and down in back.