On form – excessive rotation

Sprinting into the finish of Lordshill 10K, I was overtaking other runners and feeling strong. Yet my Garmin only recorded a Best Pace of 4:45/mile, which while useful, is slower than Kipchoge runs a whole marathon. Looking at the races photos of my sprint finish, I began to see why and started to think about some form changes. Sadly I never got a copy of the photo so I can’t reveal its horrors but this one from the 2010 New Forest Marathon begins to hint at my lack of form. Here, I was only running at eight minute mile pace, not even trying to sprint.  If I hadn’t mentioned it you might not see much wrong. But there’s issues, notice the heelstrike of the right foot.

At least I look as if I’m enjoying it!

Below is another picture I came across as I was reading through my backlog of Runner’s Worlds. It’s a happy photo, you can see the joy of the runners. I’m guessing they’re approaching the finish as they’re spaced out and smiling, not overwhelmed by already having run for two hours with many more miles left to do. But my eye wasn’t drawn to the runner’s joy, it’s another photo where heelstriking is visible. (This isn’t criticism of the ladies in the image, they’re simply demonstrating something which is common among runners, myself included, that can even be seen at the elite level).

But heel-striking isn’t the focus of this article. That’s because it isn’t caused by, or easily corrected by adjusting, how the foot lands. Heel-striking is simply a reaction to a chain of events. The foot is connected to the ankle, which connects to the shin, to the knee, to the thigh and on up to the hip and pelvis. This is where the problem is really occurring. The pelvis is rotating forward, thereby flinging the leg forward, so the only place the runners can land is on the heel.

It’s hard to see pelvic rotation because the hip and thigh muscles obscure it but there’s another way to identify it. Here’s a close up of the same picture with some lines added. You’ll see I’ve highlighted the shoulders because this is where the issue is obvious. Shoulders also rotate around the spine, which is the centre axis connecting the upper and lower bodies. Whatever happens in the lower half is mirrored in the top half, for example as you walk or run, your arms and legs swing in opposite time. Unless you consciously block it, or have your hands in your pockets, your arms always swing back and forth when moving.

Lower half travelling forwards, top half turning

When there’s excessive pelvic rotation you get excessive shoulder rotation. In the RW photo, the runners’ arms aren’t so much swinging as being turned. If you look back to my photo, you’ll see the opposite shoulder is coming around, emphasised by the arm moving towards the middle of the body. The disaster photo from 2017 of me sprinting, shows an even more pronounced rotation of the shoulders and hips. I would hazard to say my shoulders were 45 degrees to the square – but I’m trying to mask this by swinging my arms straight forward and back despite the turning! I really wish I had the photo to show you how bad it was.

A good way to see why this is a problem is to imagine yourself riding a bike along the road. If you begin to wobble the handlebars then the front wheel wobbles. You end up zigzagging in danger of falling off, continuously understeering and oversteering to try and keep stable. When you keep the handlebars steady your bike travels effortlessly straight. It’s the same issue for the runner. Keep over-rotating the pelvis and you’re constantly fighting to run in a straight line. No longer do the muscles which are most efficient do the work, but lots of auxiliary muscles have to compensate which is both energy costly and puts you at risk of injury.

Sprinters

If you compare this to any world-class sprinter you’ll see their shoulders and hips stay relatively square. Of course some rotation has to happen, we’re simply interested in avoiding excessive rotation. Here’s a video of a sprinter doing 26+ mph on a treadmill. Helpfully, the university researchers have put reflective dots on the sprinter’s body which allow us to see the rotation of the upper and lower bodies. Or rather the lack of it.

We can see there isn’t much rotation occurring in the hips. I’d estimate one hands width, so maybe 3-4 inches. The dot under the armpit is moving more but we never see the shoulder on the far side coming into view. The stability of the hips is reflected in minimal shoulder turn. And if you look at the footstrike while the leg comes out in front, as the foot strikes the treadmill it’s flat – no heelstrike in sight.

If you see sprinters head on, you’ll see their arms and legs are moving straight backwards and forwards. Coaches actually teach sprinters not to let their arms cross the centreline of the body which happens when the shoulders turn.

Improving your form

I don’t focus very much on running technique, certainly not like when I played other sports.  But I have been working on reducing my hip and shoulder rotation because it’s a cure-all for a bunch of problems. If you reduce rotation you raise cadence, reduce heelstrike, power your running with your glutes and reduce quad involvement which can lead to lower back pain.

Here are some ideas and things to try that I’ve found helpful over the years.

Exercise

Try running with one hand on your hip and feel how it affects you. The hand on hip forces the shoulders to stop rotating and the other arm then has to swing. Do it for thirty seconds then change over. This exercise isn’t intended to be used to rework your form i.e. don’t go run for an hour with one hand on a hip (for one thing you’ll look silly); it’s to give you an understanding of what the proper form feels like and which muscles should be working.

Strengthening

The problem of excessive rotation is often down to not stabilising the core and not using the glute muscles to power the running. I get runners doing exercises at my sessions in Poole Park when time allows. I recommend Planks and especially Side Planks for core stability. For glutes, try Glute Bridges progressing to the Single Leg version. Also Single Leg Deadlifts. You can find examples of these exercises on the web and Youtube if you can’t make my session.

Glute Activation

Once strengthened you need to ensure the glutes are being activated when you run. Here are simple exercises to do before running, perhaps while waiting for your GPS watch to lock in or a friend to arrive:

  • Stand with one foot out in front, the other underneath you. Then push up on to the toes of the rear foot to rock forward onto the front foot. Relax back down before doing it again four times then switch legs.
  • Imagine pushing a shopping trolley in front of you which doesn’t allow your legs to swing forward while walking. Forward motion has to be powered by pushing away behind. Walk twenty yards then break into a jog and try to keep the same feeling.
  • Standing against a wall, walk away from it by pushing against it with the back of your leg and heel. Do five push offs with each leg..
  • Walking up the stairs at the office or home, push up off the lower foot to fully straighten the leg. Barely lift the other leg onto the next step. Practice every time you use stairs.

In all these exercises the leg that is behind the body does the work, the one in front remains ‘quiet’. Your aim is avoid using the quads to power the exercise. Again, I incorporate this activation work into coached sessions during warm-ups.

Integrating the two – my journey

Last Easter I started an exercise program to rebuild the strength and power I’d lost while focused on building endurance. One of the exercises I did was “Bounding”. Very long loping strides where you hang in the air (like a triple jumper) aiming to cover distance rather than go quickly. Pushing off with each bound, it became obvious if there’s over-rotation going on because you start to zigzag down the road. I started to find myself pushing with the glutes and maintaining hip stability.

In the summer, I started a new core stability programme and the work I did on side planks helped with minimising rotation. I’d always been strong in the core but when combined with improved running form the two things began to work together. I came home from one of my Sunday long runs and found the oblique muscles either side of my core were aching because they’d been stabilising me for the first time ever. You can run for years with bad form and never know it!

But still I wasn’t sorted. As I’ve moved in to 800m training with its emphasis on shorter 200m efforts, I began to notice my right hip was rotating forwards.  I had to work on keeping my hips squared and getting the glutes to fire.

I know I’ve still work to do on this.  It’s slowly coming together. Form change is difficult and tends to be a series of plateaus then improvements as you find something that helps you move to the next level. I started trying to improve my cadence back in 2013 and I’m still working on it. The recent form changes for getting glutes to fire have been a stepping stone for that. No doubt I will be looking again at photos in five years’ time and still finding fault.

A Final Thought

You often see people carrying drinks bottles. I believe it’s something that causes runners to engage in shoulder rotation. After all, if you carry a cup of tea or glass of wine through to the living room, you try to keep it as level as possible, you don’t want to spill any. A correct armswing will cause the bottle to shake up and down and the liquid in it to slosh around putting strain on the arm and shoulder muscles. I don’t know what the answer is for those who want to carry a drinks bottle, personally I’ve never found a need for them even on the longest of runs. My encouragement would be to learn to trust your body can handle running without needing to take a drink. Obviously in hotter, more humid condition this may be unavoidable.

Streaking into 2021

With 2020 now done and dusted, it’s an understatement to say it was a difficult year for everybody. From a running perspective, the lack of races, parkruns and even club sessions left many runners questioning why they run. Personally I run because I enjoy it, the races and parkruns are side attractions where I like to test my mettle. While my year started with a rebuild of my fitness, it ended with me having run every day, failing to get faster over 5K and heading in a new direction with 800m training.

The rebuild of fitness began after I suffered a four day illness in late November 2019. It was probably a standard winter flu virus although it’s tempting to claim it was an early version of Covid-19 but realistically the timing is wrong even though some of the symptoms, like loss of taste, were the same. Anyway whatever it was, this all took place the week before the Christchurch 10K and with my aerobic fitness wiped out, I struggled round to receive the annual reward of a Christmas pudding! After that I focused on the rebuild which I knew would take about six weeks and got out running every day. I attended Christmas Day parkrun at Poole with its record attendance of over 1,300 then went to visit friends and ran Rushmoor and Frimley Lodge parkruns on New Year’s Day. By February, the legs were perking up; I was running ten miles on a Sunday at a good clip and ready to up my training.

It was my intention to run Bournemouth Bay 1/2M at the start of April and take a few days rest going into it. But with the onset of Covid-19, I delayed my entry and we ended up entering lockdown in the last week of March. As leaving the house was limited, I continued to run every day and it was a fantastic time to be out running. The roads were traffic free, almost deserted and I remember running at 10am one morning barely seeing anyone for the first mile. It was eerie and quiet like a scene from “28 Days Later”, the 2002 film where the protagonist awakes from a coma to find London deserted. But then, if you’ve seen “28 Days Later”, you’ll know 2020 wasn’t far off a real life version of it.

By the end of March I’d been running for 115 days straight and there was no sign of stopping. I decided that with lockdown in place, no races in sight and uncertainty about when the world would be back to normal, this would be my chance to create the longest run streak of my lifetime. And I mean lifetime. All being well, I’ve got a few decades ahead but I always take rest days before and often after races. If I’m still running in my 70s and 80s, I’ll still be entering races. I don’t usually go more than three months without a race.


Streakwise I’d already surpassed my previous best of 76 days so the question was how long could this one go?  I figured if I reached September I’d try to see out the whole of 2020. But that was still a long way off so I focused on now.

My standard running year is to build stamina in the winter then work on speed for 5K and 10K races in the summer. There weren’t going to be any of those coming up but I pressed on with the plan hoping, as we all did, that racing and parkrun would be back in a few months. I’d also noticed my vertical jump had dropped over the years. When I played basketball I was able to touch the ring and my jump was about 70cms, now it was 42cms at best and I felt little spring in my legs. This shouldn’t have been a surprise because I hadn’t done any dedicated running speedwork in over three years and it was over a decade since I’d been playing the sports that had built big thigh muscles for jumping. So while everybody else was following Joe Wicks’ classes on Youtube, I started my own fitness regime of hill sprints, skipping, side jumps, step-ups and depth jumps. I also started bounding, like a triple jumper, which was great fun and began to highlight some changes I needed to make to my running action.

I continued to run daily and began 5K training with a time trial at Poole Park benchmarking in at 22:05. I was twenty-five seconds slower than I’d been on New Year’s Day. My fastest kilometre had only been 4:14 and I found myself struggling to even hit 4:30 towards the end. But a benchmark is there to find out where you’re starting from and over the next six weeks I ran kilometre intervals twice per week and saw my speed pick up to reach a best time of 3:50. A second time trial at the beginning of July came in at 21:32. A 30+ second improvement isn’t to be sneezed at, but I’d also expected better from six weeks of training so there was something missing. What I didn’t immediately realise was that another rebuild was looming.


The day after the second time trial, it was obvious my body had switched over to speed mode rather than the endurance mode needed for distance running. I could feel it in my long runs where I felt like I was running fast, yet each week’s run came in within seconds of the previous weeks’. Nonetheless I thought I could train myself out of it with a more restrained approach to my interval work but I was wrong. By mid-August I had to admit defeat and think about another rebuild. There was another problem. I was struggling with many aches and pains in my ankles and feet, as well as my lower back. This is always a sign I’ve done too much fast running and need to do recovery work.

On top of all this I started a core stability programme in mid-August. I’d always thought my core was reasonably strong. Certainly whenever I planked against other people they’d struggle to hold it for as long as me and I could hold for 1-2 minutes. But I was wondering how on earth the guy who holds the record at over five hours for a plank could manage that. The longest I’d ever managed was three minutes which is a long way off. Researching I came across a statement that once you go over a minute there’s no benefit to planking for longer, and then I discovered the Big3 programme of Stuart McGill which he’d developed from working with spinal rehab patients.

I began doing the Big3 programme nightly but after a week it was too much, too soon so I backed off and let things settle down. A week later, after my Sunday long run, I bent down to untie my shoelace and felt an ache in my side that took two hours to subside. It wasn’t a bad pain just one that indicated I’d been working the core throughout my two hour run. I realised that while I may always have had a strong core, it had never been integrated into my running and was allowing me to twist and turn my shoulders and hips too much. I continued with the core stability and found an additional benefit was my golf swing became more connected.


Going into September the aches and pains in ankles and feet were becoming too much to bear. My streak was intact but I knew I wouldn’t get through four more months of daily running. I had to be honest with myself about this. It was tempting to think I could take it one day at a time but deep down I knew realistically it would be too many days. If this had been mid-November, with a month or so to go, it would have been different but not four months. I didn’t want to give up without trying to fix things before I took a rest day, so I made a deal with myself – I’d give it until October and if there was no respite from the pain by then, I’d end the streak.

Knowing the pains were a sign I was doing too much, I scaled back my daily one hour runs to forty minutes and shortened my Sunday long run to give less training to recover from. Over the first couple of weeks, the pain eased and I found myself sleeping up to nine hours each night. But despite running at over 9min/mile I returned from each run sweating. I knew from the sweat I was overcooked on the speed side. If I was to get out of this hole, I had to drop back and run even slower.

The week beginning September 21st, I dropped back to running at ten minutes per mile. The average pace of that week’s runs were 10:02/mile, 10:05, 9:48, 9:11, 9:27, 9:53, 9:25. It was a big step back when you consider my kilometre intervals had been easily faster than seven minute per mile. The following week wasn’t much faster but I was arriving home barely sweating and the aches and pains soon eased up. It was beginning to feel relaxing.

After three weeks I began to throw in a faster mid-week run at 8:30/mile and then a couple of strides into my Sunday long runs. By mid-November the midweek run was sub-8 pace and the aches and pains that had plagued me just a few months before were forgotten. Easing up the pace had allowed the muscles to recover, switch to building endurance and the pace to pick up. There was still a variance between the pace of all my runs – days of faster running needed to be followed by a day or two of slower but I was sleeping less and the general pace was improving. All the while I continued the core stability programme on Mondays and Thursdays and found my running form was transforming. Less rotation of the shoulders and hips, more glutes driving me forward.

Finally December of this difficult year rolled around. The streak was still on. I’d always had in mind to get to the 8th to achieve a year’s worth of running and that would then leave a few weeks to complete the whole calendar year. With the quiet of lockdown, I’d had time to think about my own running and why I’d struggled to run the sort of times that my training should have brought. Some years ago I half-joked that I would have been better suited to middle-distance running, or even the sprints, and now I decided to test this by trying my hand at 800-metre training.

To start off December I ran a 800m time trial in 2min58. Considering the world record is under 1min42, that’s a long way from being decent but considering I’d done no dedicated speedwork in years I figured this wasn’t terrible. The following week I began running two intervals sessions each week geared towards building speed over shorter distances. Now as we begin 2021, four weeks have been done and so far so good. My general runs are getting faster and I’m loving the interval work. I like the daily jogs but interval work has always been something I enjoyed much more than any distance run. Often what you enjoy doing is an indicator to what you’re best suited.


So that was the rollercoaster of my 2020 running. Three months spent rebuilding fitness. The following months working on strength and speed. Then back to rebuilding. The underlying positive has been one of a gradual improvement in running form through sprints, bounding and core stability work. I’ve wondered whether the need for the second rebuild was down to the revised form, the body discovering a need to rewrite all its motor programmes as lesser-used muscles began to take precedence over those that have turned out to be inefficient and overdeveloped. Could it be I’m like a beginner starting out and building up for the first time?

In the background there’s been the aim to complete a year of running every day. It never started off that way but became a goal as our circumstances change. The streak itself was never there to be a social media boast, it was a bucket list tick off so one day I’d be able to say I did it.  But I also wanted to experience it and pass on what I learnt. While the early days of my streak never felt difficult, as the year wore on I began to feel jaded. Even when I reset things in September and lowered both the pace and volume of my running I began to lose my enjoyment of running. Completing the streak began to hang over me like a dark mist. With December’s nights drawing in, shorter days, colder and wetter weather I began to struggle to feel enthusiasm to get out on my runs. The introduction of 800m training added an extra stimulus to recover from and most likely contributed to that mood.

Yet as soon as I had streaked the year, the mist lifted and I felt happier in the knowledge that I didn’t have to run if I didn’t want to. Where before I’d been thinking ahead, planning each day’s run with an eye on the run that followed, now I’m able to run in the moment. If I overdo things at any time, having a rest day is back on the table as an option. I realise run streaks are a good thing when they support your training but not when they stop you from listening to your body.

A year of running – 365 days with bonus Feb 29th for free