Running technique and muscle activation patterns

If you break down running technique into logical phases it becomes easier to understand which muscles should be active at different points in the running gait cycle.  In the second part of this series about the basics of running I looked at breaking down the running gait into four distinct phases: preparation, contact, back-swing and forward-swing.  These categories can help us describe what is going on from an external observer’s perspective and allow for comparisons between athletes.  They can also help identify where things might be going wrong by opening a window on specific parts of the running cycle.  All this is only possible if you have a good appreciation of what is happening beneath the surface of the skin. 

The muscle activity that drives good running technique is all important and the most useful running technique tip if you are thinking about making improvements to your running form.

To the naturally gifted athlete having to think about activating particular muscles during running is likely to be a foreign concept.  These runners are lucky enough to possess a natural level of competence in their running technique – if only we all could be so fortunate!  If you’ve identified that your biomechanics are suspect and you’re constantly getting injured then it’s likely that some technical improvements might be warranted.  I’ll look into reasons why you might want to change your technique later.  If you’re headed down this path then you will have to think your way out of the problem.  This means seizing conscious control over your muscles and body to attempt to straighten out your running form. While this might sound intimidating, addressing one or two things in the preparation and contact phases of running might have the happy knock-on effect of going a long way towards solving the overall running technique puzzle.

Forward-swing

The muscle activity during the later stages of the leg swinging forwards into the next stride is mostly related to beginning to slow the rate of knee extension or straightening, something that the hamstrings are capable of doing on autopilot – you don’t need to think about it.  However, this only works effectively if your hamstrings are strong enough counter the unfurling of the leg powered by momentum and the quadriceps. If things are working well here you shouldn’t fully extend of straighten your knees with each stride during steady speed running.

Preparation

This period leading up to initial contact with the ground is the most critical to running well and the area where most of us have a few problems.  What you want is to consciously activate your hamstrings and glutes to at minimum have these muscles engaged before you strike the ground. A good sign that you’re making this happen is contacting the ground with flexed knees and being relatively stable through the hips when you are on full support during the contact phase of running.  You might also feel stronger and a little more spring from each step – this is good news.

Contact

The important work done in preparation comes home to roost in the contact phase of running.  If you didn’t get your hamstrings and glutes active before striking the ground the results are likely to be longer ground contact times, collapsing at the hips and a lot of wasted up and down motion as these muscles kick in late.  Each stride will feel like more of an effort than it needs to be.  If there is one area of muscle activity that is most critical it is the short burst of work done by the glutes to stabilize and generate forward momentum of the torso ahead of the hips.  There is of course plenty of activity in the muscles at the front of the thigh – quadriceps as they help to stabilize the knee joint.  Lower leg muscular activity is also at its peak during contact with the ground.

Back-swing

After the foot looses contact with the ground ideally there is a short phase or ‘rest’ where the energy loaded into the hamstrings and lower leg is released and helps push the thigh slightly behind the body.  This phase working well is contingent on getting the hamstrings and glute activity right in the preparation and contact phases.

This phase also critically loads up the major hip flexor (psoas) a big muscle that connects the lower spine to the upper thigh.  This loading phase allows this muscle, the rectus femoris (which crosses the hip and attaches to the knee) and TFL to help pull the thigh forwards without much effort into the next stride.

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