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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.