Run the Right Way by Lawrence van Lingen: Feature article in runbiketri.co.za magazineNov 06, 2023
Run The Right Way
Lawrence van Lingen is a structural integration bodywork specialist who works with the world’s best athletes. He tells us why posture, particularly hip extension, is key to enjoying running and reducing injury.
The way I work with runners has evolved dramatically over the past three decades. My
approach was always a little different, from very early on, as I was working with elite runners. Many were phenomenal running talents that had figured things out for themselves. These were guys who were running sub 2:10 marathons with no scientific or formal training, no formwork or drills, no hydration, and no nutrition… just talent, work, belief and feel.
These athletes were more concerned with function and feel than diagnosis, muscle names, injury diagnosis and/or treatment protocols. Nearly 30 years later I can recognise this learning as a gift, and the way I work with athletes now is unique in part thanks to that initial learning experience.
That brings me to the title of this article. I believe not only are we running the wrong way round, we are approaching running form or technique coaching from the wrong perspective. I want to explain how you can run the right way.
Keep it simple. I had the privilege of working with Josiah Thugwane, the gold medallist in the marathon at the 1996 Olympic Games. He was a phenomenal runner from relative obscurity who stunned the world with his performance. He had no formal training or scientific guidance; he just ran with his natural talent, passion and culture.
However, after his success, he was invited to a high-performance program where he was assessed and trained by experts who wanted to make him even better. This is a common perspective in the sports world: if an athlete is good without any structure or science, imagine how good they would be with scientific input. This can be true, but first, we need to seek to understand what makes this athlete so naturally good? What is their process and structure? What do they think and feel, and what do they trust? All of this must be enhanced and nurtured. It is very common for experts to impose their belief systems onto athletes. For example, if you believe in a forefoot running style with a high cadence and you see a heel-striking runner with a lower turnover, it is inevitable that you will try to convert them to your method or system of thinking.
This is a top-down or external way of thinking, where we imprint our beliefs on others. At this stage of my career, I think this is the wrong way around. First, we need to seek to understand, and only then help athletes solve these problems intrinsically, or from the inside out.
Unfortunately, this top-down approach backfired for Josiah. He injured his knee during his high performance assessment and training camp and was unable to train for and run a marathon competitively for two years. He had a string of DNFs over the marathon distance when I first met him. Luckily, I was able to get Josiah running again, although he always had some knee discomfort, and never really ran to his potential again.
Move from the hips! At Innerunner, we are primarily concerned with economy, and hip drive and hip extension as the key elements of running and finding synergies, and ultimately trusting your body and running enough to let go and just focus on the moment.
At first glance, most people will agree that hip drive should be the primary initiator of running. The glute max is the largest muscle in the body and is a hip extensor. It makes sense to use it as much as possible when running.
But in reality, most modern runners have no idea how to use their glutes or initiate movement from the hips. Many modern running practices do not align with this principle. In fact, they do the opposite. They inhibit the glute max and reduce hip extension by encouraging the agonist (opposite muscles), the hip flexors. In some cases it seems as though, because it is too hard to initiate proper hip movement, we have simply doubled down on dysfunctional hamstring and hip flexor dominance.
There is a duality to everything, and strong hip flexors are vital to healthy gait and posture, so this is a broad discussion of a very complicated series of events. Most of the beautifully complicated series of gait and running movements happen at a reflex level. Running occurs by and large on autopilot. Indeed it is impossible to consciously walk or run by thinking of each component and making it happen, our awareness of movement is at any given stage more like a spotlight in the dark, only illuminating one small aspect of running. All the best runners usually express a very simple and clear definition of what they think about when they run, and often they think very little but rather focus more on a feeling or state of mind.
With all of that in mind, there is a narrative that goes like this… Short muscles tend to be more reactive or will fire first. Antagonistic muscles are muscles that generally fire in opposition to another group, or contract as their opposite muscle group relaxes. Somewhat controversially, movement should flow from the centre out. This is obvious to see when you watch new golfers with all their attention in their hands and controlling the club face trying to hit the ball. The movement starts in the hands and they move first, then the hips last, almost as an afterthought. In contrast, Byron Nelson, known as the greatest pure golf ball striker of all time, would have his hips facing the target line while his club head had not yet reached the ball.
The hip extension paradox. When we run, we can run in two modes: using posterior chain or anterior chain movement. The following description is made with broad strokes of the brush; so first seek to understand the concept before critically pulling it apart.
We have discussed moving from your centre out; in running, this denotes running with the hip extension first. The glute max straightens the leg or extends the hip; this is posterior chain running and can be easily visualised as the back of a horse, or if a chimpanzee were to run on all fours, the front legs would pull (anterior chain) while the back legs would kick (posterior chain).
The opposite, anterior chain running, is more flexion-based running rather than moving with the hip extension first. It develops for many reasons, including (but not limited to) sitting too much; riding bikes; hurting the sacrum or coccyx; excessive emotional or physical trauma; skipping developmental stages in infancy; or being taught to, or teaching oneself to, run on your anterior chain.
Anterior chain or hamstring flexion based movement would look like someone on a scooter standing on one leg while the other leg pulls the ground back with their hamstring, causing the hamstring to flex before the glute extends.
The posterior chain or glute extension would be more straightening the leg, driving to an imaginary point behind the hips and donkey-kicking the ground away.
From my perspective, running should be hip extension dominant or slightly posterior chain. The anterior chain is for accelerating from the start, running up hills on the forefoot or sprinting. The posterior chain is for easy, long or steady-paced runs.
Anterior chain running usually sees a couple of characteristics that are often trained into the athlete by drills, cues, or advice.
• Forefoot running or premature heel lifting off the ground. In extreme cases, the knee never extends behind the hip, and the heel never contacts the ground or lifts off the ground before the knee is under or behind the hip.
• The hamstring is used as a contractor (like a bicep, the athlete knowingly or unknowingly shortens the bicep).
• High knee or strong hip flexion.
• The ankles are often stiff, locked and dorsiflexed during the recovery phase of running.
• Legs look like they are doing circles rather than straightening at any stage.
• Relatively short stride length.
• Forward lean.
The additional aspects which feed into this flexion-based running are increased cadence and decreased ground contact time.
Most runners will try to increase cadence by:
• flexing their feet off the ground
• keeping the head still or in the midline
• keeping hips still, engaging the core and an anterior head posture.
Many of these characteristics are encouraged, cued, and trained by running drills or imitating forms. Unfortunately, it has become the norm.
Posterior chain running or extension-based running tends to have the following characteristics:
• More upright stance.
• Head on top of shoulders.
• Usually, a heel strike or whole foot running pattern.
• The foot lands close to underneath the hip.
• The back leg straightens at the end of the toe-off, or the hamstring is fully lengthened before it recoils rather than contracts.
• The runner's stance leg is straightening as the knee extends behind the hip, with the ankle behind the knee and the heel still on the ground.
• There is a sense of delayed heel lift off the ground as the runner travels forward over a connected leg.
• The runner rolls off the forefoot, and that forefoot toe-off happens late in the stance phase.
Many argue that anterior chain running is the way to go, or that there is no difference between sprinting and running biomechanics. Many people do not know how to use their glutes and, therefore, cannot run on their posterior chain.
From my perspective, running on the anterior chain exclusively is not sustainable or healthy. The tension that accumulates in the plantar fascia, calves and Achilles, hamstrings, abductors and hip flexors ends up in tension and compression of the spine and breathing. It is often the root cause of injuries to these structures, and there seems to be a powerful action on the nervous system.
Runners who can access and use their posterior chain after an anterior chain or flexion-based running approach often see dramatic improvements in their health, well-being and emotional outlook. They breathe better, sleep better, recover faster, and feel more secure and confident in their movement. Scores, such as heart rave variability, sleep and breath tests improve too. We often see rapid and dramatic improvements in their athletic performances. In triathletes, this extends to swimming and biking as well.
A runner's entire blood lactate profile can shift in a matter of days. Several pro triathletes have decreased their 10km run times by around 2min in weeks and sometimes days. In older athletes, shifting to a more extension based running style not only extends the longevity of their career, but often leads them to performance breakthroughs. Treating posterior tibial pain, Achilles injuries, high hamstring injuries, and lower back and sacrum issues revolves around helping the athlete find extension-based running.
The paradox is that strong flexion based running or anterior chain running shuts the door on extension-based running. However, an athlete that can run with a posterior chain can usually
quickly shift onto the anterior chain of more forefoot or even be so balanced that it is hard to differentiate. World record holder, Kenyan Faith Kipyegon effortlessly transitions from forefoot on bends and during accelerations to heel contact first on the straights or when maintaining speeds, even at a world record pace. Her upper body is upright, with her head almost behind her shoulders, which suggests posterior chain mobility.
Many runners’ inability to use their glutes in running is because there is so much tension in the flexors (hamstrings, psoas, hip and spine flexors), and just as a short and held bicep will prevent your triceps from straightening your arm, so too can short hip flexors inhibit extension. Strong hip extensors, however, do not hinder your flexion ability.
The cadence paradox. Is cadence the easiest way to improve running efficiency and decrease injury risk, or the reason you are not progressing?
Cadence is the number of steps you take per minute when running. It is often considered as an indicator of running efficiency and performance. Many studies have suggested that a higher cadence (around 180 steps per minute or more) can improve your running economy and reduce your injury risk. However, cadence is not a one-size-fits-all measure. It depends on various factors, such as your height, limb length, foot size, flexibility and running style. Therefore, the optimal cadence for each runner may differ.
Science tells us that increased cadence results in lower ground contact time, increased running efficiency or economy, and lower peak impact force. Josiah had a turnover of 190 or more steps per minute when he was running, so getting an athlete to increase their turnover could seem like a good idea.
But here’s the catch: every athlete I have ever worked with when asked to increase turnover or cadence, does so by picking their feet off the ground faster. This inevitably ends up shortening their stride and prematurely ending the momentum and power of the glute max.
The glute max is a big muscle with a lot of range of motion, and it works best when it generates momentum and power if you let it. It also supports the hips if it is allowed to do its job properly. It is more important than the famous gluteus medius.
The same muscles used to lift the leg off the ground are the hip flexors and hamstrings. Hip flexors are the antagonists of the glute max, the opposite muscle. So, by increasing cadence without increasing stride length, many people start lacking hip drive in favour of hip flexion. This is the wrong way around.
Also, the increase in cadence tends to use the hamstrings more as a contractor and not as a spring. This can lead to a premature contraction of the hamstrings in the gait cycle, inhibiting your greatest ally: the glute max. You will also massively overuse your hamstrings. Tightening hip flexors and hamstrings ends up compressing your spine and restricting your breathing, reducing your flexibility and function.
Just be you. How can we run the right way and optimise our glute max and hip extension? The answer is simple: run with passion, run with power, run with purpose. Imitation is not you. Be you! If rich people drive Bentleys, buying a Bentley does not make you rich. It makes you worse off. Imitating others is bound to get you into trouble. We must look at the cause.
Most people's relatively lower cadence can be resolved down to one of three contributing factors:
• poor posture
• poor hip control (focus on pushing the ground away from you with your glute max, not pulling your feet off the ground with your hip flexors and hamstrings)
• poor function, and the breakdown in transverse movement somewhere in their body during running.
Improving those aspects of running results in an athlete that starts to move with more freedom, better economy, and better breathing – and usually the cadence drifts towards a more efficient rate.
From my perspective, it's easy to see which athletes have been working on cadence and turnover. They tend to rush and hurry through drills and movements when teaching. You have to tell them to pause and stop, and take a moment to explain that to them.
All movement disciplines in the world start with this premise. Learn slowly and let the speed and power come to you. Trying to get a runner to improve their running by increasing their cadence when they have movement deficiencies is as unproductive as trying to teach someone how to play the guitar better by increasing their speed of play when they cannot yet make the bar shapes. It is just more bad steps per minute and ends up in an anxious, hurried athlete. That results in hip flexed dominance rather than hip extension dominance.
One way to illustrate this point is to compare two very different runners: Josiah Thugwane and Jan Frodeno. Josiah is only 5ft tall and weighs 44kg. He has short legs and toes, which make it easier for him to run with a high cadence. He also has a high hip drive and hip extension, which means that he correctly uses his glute max to push his leg behind him and propel himself forward. His cadence was measured at around 190 steps per minute.
Compare this to Jan Frodeno, a multiple triathlon world champion. He is 6ft 4in and weighs 75kg. He has long legs and feet, which make it harder for him to run with a high cadence.
However, he still runs with optimal hip extension by using his glute max to push off the ground with force and extend his hip fully with each stride. He also has good posture and alignment that allows him to run efficiently and comfortably. His marathon cadence in training is 168 to 172.
Cadence is not a fixed number that applies to all runners. It is a relative measure that depends on your individual characteristics and preferences. Josiah also has relatively short toes, making it easier to run at a higher cadence, and Jan has relatively long feet and relatively longer toes. This can also dramatically affect your turnover. They also have different limb ratios, the ratios between their femur and their lower leg are different, and between their lower leg and their foot length, meaning they would have different ankle and Achilles length and flexibility. The two runners have very different body types and running styles, but they both run with optimal hip extension and glute max activation.
Trust your body. At Innerunner, we focus on hip extension as the primary driving force of running. The idea is to use your glute max to push the ground away from you with power and springiness. You need to land under your hips, not in front of them, and strike the ground lightly with the midfoot or forefoot, not heavily with the heel. You need to push off the ground with force and extend your hip fully with each stride. You also need to move from the centre outwards, not from the extremities inwards. This means that movement starts at the hip and then extends out to the lower leg and foot, not the other way around.
Primarily we focus on learning the shape, timing and structure of running slowly, safely and carefully. You need to master the basics of running technique and posture before trying to increase your cadence or intensity.
To find your Innerunner we suggest that you practise cues or concepts that you want to show up in your running while you walk. You can practise thinking about straightening your leg from the hips, pressing the ground away from you as you walk. Gently leave your heal a little longer on the ground as you walk (don’t practise this while you run).
You can also reverse engineer your running by walking backwards. As you walk backwards in a safe environment, you will learn to find the ground with soft toes and then your whole foot will hit the ground and you will learn to put your weight onto your back foot, which is exactly what you need to do to run forward. Walking backwards is also excellent rehabilitation for foot and Achilles injuries.
We want you to learn how to move well, free up your body – and learn to trust your body. This means listening to your body and finding your own natural rhythm and style that suits you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lawrence van Lingen is a structural integration bodywork specialist and founder of Innerunner, a platform helping runners improve their performance, develop skills and overcome injuries. Originally from South Africa, Lawrence works with the world’s best athletes, including Olympians and gold medallists from his practice in Boulder, Colorado.
Stay connected with news and updates!
Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.