Running biomechanics: What are the different stages of your run stride?

We commonly talk about improving your running mechanics, but how often do we actually explain the biomechanics of your stride? Understanding the mechanics of running and how you use and transfer power to increase speed could be hugely beneficial to those wanting to increase their run speed and strength, as it will help you understand how to improve your technique.

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What are the three phases of your run stride?

The three stages are of the run stride are: initial ground contact into push off; early recovery; and mid-to-late recovery.

1. Initial ground contact into push off

I’ll start with what we consider the most important part of your gait: contact and push off. The initial time your foot comes into contact with the ground is the moment your body needs to produce considerable force via your strength to keep your joints aligned for efficiency, and to limit potential injury risk.

This initial strength is used to limit bending at your hip, knee and ankle, which then transfers into mid-stance and push off. These final points are where your joints then extend to provide momentum to drive you up and forward.

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For context, the force on the ground which your body has to cope with is ~1.5 times your body weight, or as we like to say, for a typical triathlete, the weight of approximately 130 bottles of wine. It’s for these reasons that it’s this part of your gait that’s where problems can be resolved, and performance gains can be made.

2. Early recovery

Following the above phase, your toe then comes off the ground, your knee re-bends and hip flexs. Another way to consider this, is to think of it as the stage where someone behind you could see the bottom of your running shoe. It’s popular for coaches and triathletes to try and focus on technique in this specific phase, for example ‘heel flicking’.

However, we often find gait during early recovery is heavily linked to performance during ground contact and push off, as the movement your limbs go through, are simply a bi-product of the force put into the ground. For example, overstriders tend to enter the next phase of gait (mid-recovery – when the other foot strikes the floor) with the recovering leg further ahead and flexed. Consequently, drills focusing on early recovery, such as heel flicks, could simply waste energy, as the energy that creates the technique is fundamentally created via the initial ground contact and push off.

3. Mid-to-late recovery

As your next foot strikes the floor, the recovering leg is now in mid-recovery, and quickly your hip flexes/swings through and knee begins to extend to enter in to ‘late recovery’. This is the final stage before you re-start the cycle of gait again. But it’s also here where technique drills and cues can cause issues unnecessarily.

Consider the classic ‘high knees’ cue, which encourages you during this phase to draw your hip through and flex it higher. The problem with this is it’s highly likely that it then sets you up to overstride on your next step. This ironically only reinforces some of the less desirable technical qualities with your running already noted. Practically we often can tell when a runner is thinking about knee lifting, as the style of running looks almost like they’re a puppet with strings lifting their legs up. Consequently, its advisable to not place more focus on this stage of your running gait.

How can you improve your running mechanics?

It’s evident that your attention needs to be focused on how you contact the ground and, in improving this, will indirectly improve other aspects of your running gait. Quick tips to assist this and to think about are:

– Being ‘tall through your hips’ as you strike the floor

– Striking the floor so it feels your foot contacts inline with your hip

– As your push, imagine it’s like using the sole of your foot to ‘push a roller quickly’ underneath your foot, as if your were running on rollers.

However, fundamentally this phase of running is characterised by your ability to generate force, which is governed by your strength. Therefore improving your hip and leg strength via resistance training is fundamental first, then alongside this using technical drills and focusing on certain, simple cues during simple running.

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Dave Cripps is the director of TriTenacious, a leading online strength and conditioning resource  for triathletes, and Coalition Performance.

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He holds both BSc and MSc degrees in sport and exercise science and is a fully accredited strength and conditioning coach by the UK Strength and Conditioning Association. He’s worked professionally as a strength and conditioning coach for over a decade, in over 20 sports at both world class and amateur levels, including triathlon, cycling, running and swimming.

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