How Much Do Biomechanics Really Have to Do With Running Well?

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Maybe your foot strike isn’t perfect, your stride a little long and your hip extension weaker than you’d prefer—but how much does that really affect your running? You’re just not a gifted runner or not built for the high-endurance sport, right? You’ll never be that great at it, it’s just how you’re built. Well, according to experts, there’s more to good running than just form and genes. You may need to work on your biomechanics if you want to improve and hone your craft.

Many runners work to achieve better running form, but these days, biomechanics coaches are looking to get athletes out of a perfectionist mindset. “There is no perfect way to run, but there is a way to develop more efficient running skills, and the optimal goal running form will be different for every runner,” said biomechanics coach Elizabeth Maiuolo.

James Dunne, a sports rehabilitation therapist and running coach with Kinetic Revolution, says biomechanics is “a skill that should always be in development.” Biomechanics, however, can seem complex at first mention. In running, it is often described as two main phases that make up a gait cycle.

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The Gait Cycle

When it comes to the gait cycle, the stance phase is when your feet are in contact with the ground. The swing phase is when the foot is off the ground and moving to get into position for the next stance phase, and within those two is what researchers call sub-phases.

In the stance phase, braking is when one foot makes contact with the ground and your knee and ankle flex to absorb impact. Mid stance is when your leg is directly under your hips and your weight passes over. Next, heel off occurs when your heel is just about to lift off the ground, the knee is stretched out and prepares to flex, and the hip is hyperextended.

Finally, propulsion is the absorbed energy propelling you forward, also knowns as the toe-off, which leads into the swing phase. At this point, your heel starts to lift, your hips extend and your knee passes under your hips until the leg falls for contact again and restarts the cycle.

“No matter how you slice and dice it, the overall goal is to get the foot on the ground in such as way that the whole kinetic chain (of your foot and leg) can successfully absorb impact and adapt to any uneven terrain and then transition successfully to a position where it can stabilize and propel you forward,” said Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist and running coach behind RunningStrong.com.

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The Perfect Form

Among runners, there are the oft-heard basics to good form: run tall, keep your stride short and relax your shoulders. Coaches say those are good goals for runners because they reduce the risk of injury, but the most efficient gait pattern might not look like the same as the runner bouncing next to you at the starting line.

Instead of critically analyzing every flex, extension and landing, biomechanics coaches suggest looking at how to optimize your specific motion.

“Just because one runner at the front of the pack has a gait pattern where his initial contact point happens to be on the midfoot…it doesn’t mean all runners should strive for that same gait pattern,” Hamilton said. “That technique worked well for that one runner, with their unique skeletal alignment and strength characteristics, running at that fast pace,” she added. “It may not work well for all.”

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Improving Your Running Efficiency

If you’re looking to improve your biomechanics, Hamilton says what each runner needs to target depends on the individual athlete. Yet, in most cases, she suggests working on building core, strengthening your hips and improving your range of motion.

“One method I use to improve specific strength in runners is to include hill running and trail running,” she said. “Trails by nature are uneven and often have undulations and twists and turns so they encourage an athlete to keep their eyes open, their footfalls light and their stride collected.”

Runners can also try running strides on tired legs, such as after a long run. “Really work on exaggerating good posture,” Dunne said. “Drive the elbow back and keep the chest open. [Strides] are really effective to reinforce good form under fatigue.”

For a detailed look at your running efficiency, there are a number of gadgets available to purchase along with smartphone apps that enable users to watch a slow-motion capture of their form. Check out Lumo Run ($98), a running sensor and free app (iOS only) to track, analyze, and improve your biomechanics. Or download Coaches Eye ($4.99) which can capture footage streamed wirelessly from your other devices (iPhone, iPad, GoPro, etc.) so you can get a 360-degree view of your running technique.

Most runners, however, won’t see changes until after weeks of training, Maiuolo said. “Every runner has to find or develop a particular, most-efficient system,” she stated. “The most efficient way to improve form is to make those new skills part of your natural movement.”

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