Spectated Ironman Arizona this past weekend. Big congrats to all participants. The day packed quite a weird weather pattern punch.
I caught only part of the bike course, but enough to see that the percentage of proper bike fits seemed way higher than I remember from the year before. Longer spines, shoulders and elbows at 90 degrees, less overall movement on the bike was apparent. Whether due in part to the growing popularity of the precision measuring tool of Retul, the more comprehensive bike fitting systems like Specialized's BG FIT System, or the picturesque form of Ironman Kona Bike Course crushers Chris Lieto (below left) and Chrissie Wellington (below right) setting a precedent, its working.
Also a great one of 2 x Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack:
If athletes' abs/glutes were put 2 work as hard as their hearts/souls on #IMAZ run course, I'd predict more smiles, less pain + more power.
I started this blog post to explain what I meant by that - and was motivated further by an email I got from a friend:
"Do tell what you MEAN by this."
Well then - here goes:
ABDOMINALS and RUNNING:
Simply stated, strong abdominals serve to stabilize the pelvis and the spine in a neutral, healthy position allowing one to maintain a strong stable base of support from the hips to the head. Without this, the ability to control the movement of the arms and legs is minimized, and so is one's ability to produce power in movements. Running with abdominals that are not only strong, but able to stay engaged throughout the entire running motion every stride, over the entire race distance is paramount to pain-free powerful running. Yet amazingly it is still a distant thought, if its thought of at all, as a component of endurance performance. It is rarely noted, let alone maximized, in most endurance performance training programs.
GLUTE MUSCLES AND RUNNING:
The glutes are our strongest movers due to their proximity to our core (short lever arm.) They are built to be the driving force behind purposeful, powerful human movement like that which a proper running stride requires. They are designed to engage and co-contract with other muscles such as the abdominals and hamstrings in coordiated movements. In running, it is imperative that the glutes fully engage when in full weight bearing underneath the body, and then co-contract with the hamstring as the leg extends backward in order to propel the body forward powerfully. Powerful foot placement on the ground followed by powerful hip, knee and ankle extension, is what seems to be sorely, no pun intended, missing from running form amongst the masses these days and especially from the end of the race. Heel striking, shuffling and minimal hip flexion and extension are still the norm.
Here are a couple great examples of a powerful stride, not coincidentally two of the fastest runners at the Ironman distance:
Not surprisingly, Craig and Chrissie don't only look like this at the beginning of the marathon, but at the end as well. They are tall; their forward leg is in a great position that will allow for their midfoot to be directly under their body at full weight bearing. From that strong weight bearing position, they then are able to fully extend their back leg as is evident in the photos above. To do this, the abs must be working (and able) to keep their pelvis stable in a neutral position creating a stable/strong base that allows the glutes, hamstring and calf to extend the leg powerfully through the hip/knee/ankle in order to generate maximum power. Coordinating this movement serves to then launch the leg into the swing phase, setting it up for another powerful landing position.
The new question that should be asked is not about proper running form, but how to replicate it and do so for a long period of time. And...why are most people unable to do this, certainly by the end of the run?
My question to runners of any distance or speed would be: when have you trained your leg to extend fully? Powerfully? Often their answer is - they haven't.
There are many options to incorporate this into training in order that it may be accomplished on the run. None of these options are new - but few are understood as to their relevance to healthy movement, running in particular.
But not independent of movement. Meaning, not only "ab/core" work but within coordinated movements, like a glute bridge, squat patterns, lunges, and deadlift patterns in which you must train the abs to keep the hips in neutral as you flex and extend the hips/knees/ankles in a strong, coordinated pattern, just like you need them to work within your running stride. Connect the dots.
As mentioned earlier - Glutes are our most powerful movers. They are the drivers of the extension of the hip, but they have other functions, one of which is to control the rotation of the femur at the hip. The ability to eliminate that rotation, and keep the hip/knee/ankle in alignment like a piston, instead of flopping around all over the place (often seen at the end of ironman - most noticeably - jiggle legs) is paramount to injury resistance and powerful strides in running. Activate, strengthen, stabilize with and use...your GLUTES. Examples of movements are, lucky for us (and not coincidentally,) the same as listed above - glute bridge, single and double leg squats, lunges, deadlifts - where the focus is always proper form. Few reps done right.
It's one thing to do drills its another to do them with focus, precision and purpose. If you've ever done running drills while chit chatting or not understanding the exact reason you're doing them as it will relate to your run performance - you probably haven't been doing them as purposefully or efficiently as possible. Do them, and do them right.
DYNAMIC MOVEMENTS + ELASTICITY
Once you've got abdominal and glute strength - it's important to use them to coordinate your movements: parts of the whole which make up great running form. Incorporating movements like jumps, hops and bounds serve to enhance the elastic qualities of your muscles, help maximize neuromuscular control and coordinate the action of hip/knee/ankle flexion and extension. Especially with the goal of maximizing the extension in the leg drive portion of the running stride as mentioned above. There are any number of options and progressions in elastic movements - and once again the focus should be on form and few reps done right.
Lucky for us, it's not rocket science. What it comes down to is getting back to our roots. As Christopher McDougall entertainingly and unquestionably unearths in Born to Run, our body was born to run. Matt Metzgar says it simply in this short, sweet relevant take on adults and running. A few excerpts below. The whole blog post is here.
"A few times this summer, I watched some kids as they ran around the local park. The running form that many of these kids have is just amazing - huge strides, tons of flexiblity, and lots of power...If you compare a child running effortlessly to an adult jogger shuffling around the track, it's night and day. It shouldn't even be considered the same activity. This running form...seems to be no effort at all for kids! It's tough to reconnect with this natural stride after decades of shoe wear and the less active nature of adult life. But there is always hope!"
Hope and hard work. Connecting the dots is key. Realizing that running is a power sport and that its possible to do it pain-free is a great first step in accomplishing it. Surrounding yourself with others working toward the same is the next...
Go train smart!!