Last year, the author coached Ironman athlete Caitlin Snow to the second fastest woman’s Kona run split in history (2:56). His program also produced five sub-3:05 Kona marathons this year. Here, Jesse writes about his approach to run mechanics and how he’s applying it to Caitlin and his other athletes. For an example of this analysis, see the video above.

Swim mechanics and bike fitting get all the hype these days. As triathletes, we’re keenly aware of our mechanical faults in the water and how to make our bike position as powerful and aerodynamic as possible. The mechanics of running, however, haven’t yet received the respect that they deserve. My goal here is to help triathletes overcome many of running’s common mechanical pitfalls.

Many athletes feel that running mechanics is of little consequence. The fact is, however, that mechanics can mask true fitness and speed potential, especially at the Ironman distance where many of the supporting muscle groups become fatigued late in the race. These inefficiencies then combine with a slowing engine, leading to marathon splits that are 12 percent slower than the athlete’s possible running times. This happens to both age-groupers and pros, and can often be avoided by paying run mechanics its due attention.

Translating even great running mechanics into an Ironman takes a great deal of work.

The goal of Ironman running is to bring as much of your open (aka ideal) running abilities into the race as possible so that this percentage doesn’t increase. To this end, it’s important to maintain an anabolic mental state: chest out and head up, like a sprinter exploding across the finish line—that’s what I mean by anabolic. (This is in direct contrast to the catabolic carriage, defined by a crumbling posture and negative state of mind.) It’s unlikely that any of you are going to cross the finish line of your next Ironman looking like Usain Bolt, but that should certainly be the ideal we strive for, and running mechanics can help us get there.

Let’s consider the most common areas of deficiency in runners and triathletes. While we’re at it, we’ll discuss how these can be fixed before they derail the fitness you’ve worked so hard to produce.

Poor extension

This is measured by how far behind the body your leg (i.e. femur) extends during the recovery phase of your running stride. I like to see a minimum of 16 degrees of femur extension off of the vertical. This quality is critical in good running posture, because it typically leads to a higher running cadence. By extending the femur further behind the body, your lower leg tends to recover much higher and closer to your buttocks. With this higher recovery, the lever created from your hip down has less rotational mass and is therefore in a position to recover forward, faster. This faster forward recovery leads to a higher running cadence and, most times, a better strike location relative to your upper torso position. 

Most runners know that a higher running cadence is critical to reducing fatigue, increasing speed, and reducing the possibility of injury. But simply heading out the door and running with a faster cadence typically leads to hip flexor injuries (due to increasing the load put on them) The key to a proper increase in running cadence is good upper torso position and hip flexor flexibility, which greatly improves femur extension.

Upper Torso Position

This is the position of your body from your waist to your ear relative to the vertical position, and is critical to improving cadence and proper foot strike position. I like to see the upper torso at a forward angle of about five to ten degrees off the vertical, which reduces braking forces and vertical bounce. A good upper torso position also permits the upper quad and psoas a bit of slack, allowing for good extension, as discussed above. While creating a good upper torso position is very much cognitive, it also requires good soleus flexibility. Many triathletes lack this, leading to poor running mechanics, and many times, Achilles tendonitis and/or planter fasciitis. Extreme vertical bounce in a runner’s gait can overload the hips, and lead to slower than necessary run times (time spent moving vertically is not spent moving horizontally). An additional one to two inches of vertical bounce beyond normal can translate to as much as 300 to 600 feet of vertical climbing in a flat 40-minute 10K (running at 90 steps per minute). This essentially creates hills where they don’t exist.

Soleus and hip flexor/upper quad flexibilities are critical to good running mechanics. These are the very same areas that become very tight with frequent riding in the aero position, so it’s no surprise that we see so many poor running strides on Ironman marathon courses.

Hip Drop

This is best evaluated through video run analysis, and shows up in the dropping of one or both of the hips upon foot strike/weight transfer. With a horizontal line drawn across the very tops of the hipbones, a drop of more than 14 degrees can indicate a weak gluteus media and/or TFLs. A good video analysis will easily identify too much hip drop and the effect it has on your running stride. From behind, this hip drop looks like a zigzag pattern that starts at the feet, and extends up through the hips, back, and head. Upon the striking and dropping of the hip, we essentially see the legs and hips going in different lateral directions. The back follows the legs, and the head follows the hips. This is a chain-reaction of lateral deflection going in opposite directions. For example, with a weak left gluteus medius the right hip drops and the left hip leans to the left, causing the legs and back to actually lean to the right. And, in a last-ditch effort to keep the body from falling over, the head goes the way of the hip, leaning to the left. All of this, when our aim is to run neither left nor right, but forward! Furthermore, the hip drop also tends to contribute to a lower running cadence, because more time is spent in contact with the ground, upon foot strike and rebound.

Lack of Shoulder Rotation

The shoulders play an integral role in efficient running posture. Many athletes are under the false impression that they should be running with a very square shoulder position, but in fact, it’s just the opposite. The best runners actually use their shoulder mass as a tool to help propel them forward, especially later in races when their lower body becomes fatigued. A lack of shoulder rotation tends to be cognitive in nature and/or related to a weakness in rotational core strength. A strong upper torso rotation, late in the run, requires a great deal of rotational core strength, as the athlete is relying solely on the soft-tissue strength of their core to facilitate the rotation.

Dropped Arm Position

Dropped arms and an “elbows out” position are typically the result of hip weakness and/or cognitive habit. Runners with weak hips (on one or both sides) tend to drop their arm on the side of the weak hip in an effort to pull the body back over to that side. This is one of those inefficient compensatory motions that slow runners down and tend to limit cadence. Most world-class runners exhibit the same acute elbow angle deep into their recovery posture, as they do during the drive portion of their arm swing. It’s as if the elbow is being pulled directly back from its most forward position with a fishing line.

Compensating for any of the above deficiencies usually falls into one of two categories: cognitive or strength/flexibility. Those that are cognitive in nature require the runner to make mental changes to their posture while running. For the other, here are some of best, most targeted, run-specific stretching and strengthening exercises aimed at the deficiencies identified above. Each of these directly impact one or more of the above critical areas, required for great running mechanics.

The integration of these five moves into your regular functional strength routine can help fix poor running form, or maintain already strong technique. Just two sets of each, once or twice each week, is all that is required.

1. Single Leg Squat: This is the single most commonly prescribed functional strength move that I use with the athletes who I assess. They can be done with a TRX, standing alone in your living room, or in the gym on a smith machine. In each of these cases, the eccentric loading that must be resisted by your hips helps to eliminate hip drops through strengthening of the glut medius and TFL, among other muscle groups.

2. Eccentric Calf Raises: This is the second most commonly prescribed run-specific strength/flexibility move that I prescribe. It helps to create a better forward upper torso position, leading to a higher running cadence and much reduced braking force. This move also practically eliminates below the knee soft tissue injuries.

3. Two Joint Hip Flexor Stretch: This move is very run-specific and really helps to target the hip flexors and upper quads, which are areas that are chronically tight in triathletes, due to high cycling volumes. For many years I prescribed a traditional psoas stretch to help fix very short extensions, as discussed above. However, I later realized that the two joint stretch was more functional, helping to engage the upper quad, and critical to creating better extension and running cadence.

4. Hill Bounding: This is better categorized as a key workout, but in many cases can help to lead to better running mechanics. Initially introduced by Coach Arthur Lydiard, I have successfully used this workout with my athletes for the past 10 years as both a key workout and run mechanics drill.

5. Rotational Core Work: By now, almost all athletes have realized the importance of core strength. What many athletes fail to realize is that rotational core strength is more important as a functional exercise! Practically any core specific abdominal move is fine, as long as it has a rotational component. For example, bicycle crunches.

Translating even great running mechanics into Ironman takes a great deal of work. Along with a well developed day-to-day nutrition and race-day fueling programs, proper running mechanics allow an athlete to begin to move into a positive environment, while other items like proper pacing will bring it all together on race day.

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Jesse Kropelnicki founded QT2 Systems, LLC; a leading provider of personal triathlon and run coaching, as well as TheCoreDiet.com a leading provider of sports nutrition. He coaches professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Dede Griesbauer, Ethan Brown, and Tim Snow among others, and is the nutrition/cardio advisor for professional UFC fighter Kenny Florian. You can track his other coaching comments/ideas via his blog at www.kropelnicki.com.