How the body moves during running

If you’re on the pathway to learning more about running form and working on improving your running technique then some knowledge of anatomy and basic biomechanics is essential.  It might sound intimidating and perhaps even boring, but understanding a bit more about how your body moves when you run and which muscles are responsible is going to make running better so much easier.  We’ve all been perplexed by a physical therapist at some stage in our lives as we’ve struggled to understand and cure a running injury. 

There are five main concepts you need to understand to know how running works

It’s a bit like most things though, once you learn the nomenclature or language of the discipline things get easier fast.

In running you mostly have to concern yourself with what happens from the lower back and hips down – yes the top half is important too, but if we confine ourselves to the engine room of running it makes the conversation slightly easier to absorb.  There are five main concepts you need to understand to grasp how running works.  This is a simplification, but it covers the basics, these are:

  1. extension and flexion of the hip joint;
  2. extension and upright posture of the back;
  3. abduction and outward rotation of the hip joint;
  4. flexion and extension of the knee joint; and
  5. dorsiflexion and plantaflexion of the ankle and foot.

Before your eyes glaze over, I’ll explain each concept in-turn and if you find a visual introduction to this topic easier to understand feel free to skip straight to the video below.  Extension and flexion are just fancy ways of saying bending and straightening of a particular joint.  You just need to know which joint is being discussed and what is considered bent or straight for that body part.  Abduction makes literal sense too, it just means taking away from the mid-line of the body and rotation is relatively self explanatory, but like flexion and extension needs to be in context of the joint under discussion.

The hip joint

The hip joint is flexed when the thigh is ahead of the body and flexing as the thigh and leg swing forward.  The hip joint is extended when the thigh is straight under and/or behind the body and extending when the thigh is moving back towards the and behind the body.

The hip is abducting then the thigh is lifted away from the mid-line of the body.  If you were standing with your feet together and then separated them so your feet were under each hip you would have abducted both hip joints.  Flaring your knee outward involves externally rotating the hip.

 

The knee joint

The knee joint is flexed when the knee is bent and flexing as the foot comes closer to the buttocks.  The knee joint is extended when the knee is straight and extending as the leg straightens.

The ankle and foot

The ankle and foot are dorsiflexed when your foot and toes are pointing upwards.  The ankle and foot are plantaflexed when your foot and toes are pointing downwards.

The lower back

The back is flexed when you curve your spine forwards and extended when it’s upright and the lower (lumbar) spine has a slight inward or concave shape.

Why is this important?

Running is best explained using a consistent set of language to illustrate each concept.  When I explain running technique it will always use this consistent use of language so there is less room for misunderstanding.  This article gives you a quick insight into the basic movements of each joint involved in running mechanics.  The next piece in this series will look more closely into how these movements combine to form the four phases of the running gait.

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