Running Technique: four phases

If the best athletes in the world are moving in a particular way and that movement pattern has consistent elements, why wouldn’t you use that as a template for explaining and teaching people the skill of running? Describing running technique is no easy task and one that I found difficult during the drafting process of my eBook.  The more I looked and grappled with what makes up good running technique the more I focused in on how the best athletes in the world were moving.  I never had and still don’t have any intention to claim I have some magical scheme of running – who can say they invented running?  The issue is how to describe what running is and how it can be done correctly.

Some might argue that using the best runners in the world as a model is a flawed approach – they are the best after all and how can an average person hope to move as they do?  My response to that is you are not trying to make the average runner move as fast as an elite athlete, but you do want an average person to use and share the basic movement and muscular activation pattern. How is this possible?  During my research I happened upon a study that showed clearly that when an elite athlete is jogging relatively slowly e.g. 5 minute km pace they use the same pattern of movement and muscles as they do when running at close to 3 minute km pace.  The fundamental pattern doesn’t change, but the forces, range of motion and speed involved increase significantly.  The foundations are the same and any person can look to adopt these to improve their running technique. The bottom line for me is that I believe there is one way to run – if you like call this human running technique because that’s what it is.  The great thing for runners like you and me is that we have a fantastic working model to observe and learn from – yes we are not perfect and we don’t look like Olympians, but it does mean we can try and improve in small steps to more closely match our movement patterns to these better technicians.

When I describe running technique I use four distinct phases to help explain what’s happening in each stride.

Preparation

The preparation phase begins when the forward swinging leg reaches its maximum level of hip flexion (thigh and knee driving ahead of the body).  At this point the athlete is in flight the leg has stopped moving ahead of the  body and begins to move back towards the runner and ultimately into contact with the ground.  The key part of this phase is the initiation of some movement back towards the body before the foot strikes the ground.  Elite runners do this a lot, good runners do it a little and bad runners don’t do it at all.  The preparation phase ends when the athlete’s foot makes contact with the ground.

Running technique - four phases

Contact

This is one of the more controversial aspects of running technique and one that most commentators have very black and white opinions about.  At the risk of adding to the controversy I maintain for the average runner that the precise order of foot touchdown (e.g. heel toe, forefoot and mid-foot) is less important than generating early hip extension in preparation and movement of the leg back towards the body.  This is because discussion about heel-toe, forefoot, and mid-foot ignores whether the leg and foot is adding thrust to the direction of travel when it contacts the ground and the vital consequences of this for stability and generating power.  For the record I advocate a neutral foot strike, which in terms over the above description is most closely matched to the mid-foot strike.  In simple terms the foot should contact the ground slightly ahead of the body mass, under (not ahead of) the knee, with a neutral posture (horizontal to the ground) that allows for the heel to contact the ground and the foot, Achilles, lower leg and calf muscles to load up.  The foot should then stiffen into plantaflexion allowing full release of stored energy and transference of force generated by the hamstrings and glutes.  Another frequently ignored aspect of ground contact is where the foot and leg tracks in relation to the hips.  Ideally the feet should support the body close to being under each hip – not track under the mid-line of the body.

Back-swing

So once the foot leaves the ground the leg is swinging behind the body.  Back[swing includes each moment from when ground contact is lost until the leg reaches maximum extension behind the body and then begins to swing forwards again.  Key aspects of this phase involve avoiding over-extension of the hip joint and making the transition from back-swing to forward-swing as rapid as possible.  Happily if you get the first two phases right, the back swing phase will take care of itself without much conscious thought or effort.  Most of the muscle activity in this phase is related to pre-stretch of the hip flexors in preparation for forward swing.

Forward swing

Again if you get the preparation and contact phases right, then forward swing of the leg mostly takes care of itself.  The hip flexors are giving back the energy you loaded them with as they propel the thigh forwards into the next stride.  The forward swing phase ends when the thigh ceases to move ahead of the body and the preparation phase begins again.  We have now completed a brief discussion of basic running movement.

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2 Responses to Running Technique: four phases

  1. Sharla July 7, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Hi Brian,

    I’m new to this but it seems to me that when my foot is slightly plantaflexed my gluts and hamstrings seem to engage a little automatically.

    I know I can engage my gluts and hamstrings without plataflexing my foot but it seems to require a lot more concentration. I think it’s easier to engage the entire posterior chain from gluts down than just the hamstrings and gluts alone.

    So is it bad to have a slightly plantaflexed foot in the preparation phases? Is there a risk of not letting the heel drop at all if I do that?

    Any tips?

    • Brian July 8, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      Hi Sharla, slight relaxed plantaflexion can be ok. I also find this helps the posterior extension chain. Key is to not stiffen up the foot too much as you initially contact.