Guest blog by Jeff Gaudette (RunnersConnect)
In last week’s article on building a better runner, we talked about the importance of the core (hips, transverse abdominis, lower back) in preventing running injuries.
Hopefully, you started incorporating some of the suggested exercises in your schedule since staying healthy and thus being able to train consistently is an important component of long-term development.
In this month’s installment, we’re going to change gears from injury-prevention and focus on performance improvement.
Specifically, we’re going to look at the role of the hamstrings, hips and glutes during the running stride and how they generate the power to propel you forward.
The role of the hamstrings and glutes during the running stride
One very common mistake, or perhaps misconception, about how to run is exactly where the “power” in your stride comes from.
Most people picture power being generated in the running stride when the foot pushes off the ground, which is correct. But in the mental image that most people carry with them, that “push” comes from the quads, much like a leg press, or the calves.
While it’s true that some of the power in the running stride comes from your quads and calves, the reality is that the quads and calves play only a minor role in your ability to generate a powerful stride compared to the hips, hamstrings and glutes.
The power these three muscle groups generate and the biomechanical process is called hip extension.
Therefore, understanding exactly how hip extension works, being able to visualize the process, and then identifying ways to improve is essential.
What is hip extension?
Hip extension is the act of driving your entire upper thigh (and leg for that matter) backwards after your foot contacts the ground. The power for this movement is generated primarily from the hip extensor muscles, glutes and hamstring and it is perhaps the single most important factor in your ability to run faster.
Hip extension begins as your foot contacts the ground (ideally directly under your center of mass) and continues as you pull the leg beneath you and ends right before you push off with your ankle.
When we discuss or try to improve hip extension, we generally focus on two areas:
1. The degree to which you apply force as the leg contacts the ground and you drive it behind the body, often called the drive phase of hip extension.
2. How far behind you the leg travels – the amount or angle of extension.
The drive phase is a combination of how powerfully you contract and engage your hip extensors, glutes and hamstring to pull the leg under and behind you as you touch the ground. The more powerful your hip extension, the faster you will go.
The drive phase of hip extension is brief and shouldn’t be confused with forcing the leg backwards
Once you’ve initiated hip drive and generated power through the hip, you should relax and let the leg travel behind you naturally. The distance or degree to which your leg travels behind you will be in direct correlation to how much force you generate during the drive phase.
Therefore, there is no reason to force the leg backwards – it will happen naturally.
After you’ve driven your leg back, the stretch-reflex of the hip flexors kicks in and begins to propel your leg forward. A common misconception about the role of the hamstrings during this phase of the running gait is that they should contract to bring the heel closer to the butt (which occurs to shorten the lever as the leg swings forward).
However, bringing the heel towards the butt actually requires very little activation of the hamstring. Electrographic research suggests it is as little as 7%.
The movement of the heel towards the butt is aided by the stretch-reflex generated during hip extension. This is why the faster you run, the closer your heel will get to your butt without trying to.
Wasting energy actively bringing the heel towards the butt by contracting the hamstring is inefficient.
How to strengthen your hip extensors, glutes and hamstrings specifically for running
Now that we understand how the biomechanics of hip drive work, we can better target our stretching, drills and strength work to improve exactly how these muscles function during the running stride. Here are some stretches, drills and exercises to get you started:
1. Theraband drive back x 20-25 with each leg
With your foot or heel attached to a cable machine, stand facing the structure that the cable is attached to. Balance on one foot (it’s ok to hold onto another object for balance) and bring your leg slightly in front of you. Drive backwards with your foot in the band. Focus on generating the movement from your glutes and hamstrings. Slowly bring the leg back up and repeat.
2. Single leg glute bridge (use stability ball for added difficulty) x 15-20 with each leg
Lie flat on your back with one leg bent, foot flat on a stability ball, and the other leg flat on the ground. Slowly lift your pelvis off the ground by contracting your glutes and core while keeping your shoulder blades flat on the ground.
3. Donkey kicks with theraband x 15-20 with each leg
Start on all fours. Insert a theraband so one end is wrapped around your knee and the other the bottom of your foot. Extend your leg back and up, focusing on contracting with your glutes.
4. Straight leg bounds x 100 meters
Run forward by keeping your legs straight and driving through the ground with your hips and glutes. Begin by running 50 meters. Progress until you’re running 100 meters.
5. Two-Joint Hip Flexor Stretch – Repeat 8 to 10 times
Lie flat on your back on a table or elevated surface (a bed works) with your legs just off the edge. Bring both your knees to your chest. Scoop both hands under one leg and then let the other leg drop down below the edge of the table or surface. Let you leg drop as far as you can while holding the other leg to your chest with your hands.
These 5 exercises will help get you started on improving your hip extension and developing flexibility to generate more power from your stride.
If you’re interested in additional exercises and learning more about how to improve your own running form, check out our personalized video form analysis and 6-week online course. The course includes an individual, slow-motion video analysis of your form and specific and progressive set of stretches, strength routines and drills to help improve your mechanics.
Thanks once again to Jeff Gaudette and RunnersConnect for sharing this great material with us. Be sure to check out their blog, which pretty much has all of your technical running needs covered.