How to Run-Part 2: Cues, Pictures, Videos, and Hip Extension

Given the response to my last post on How to Run, I figured I needed to explain and expand on some of the concepts covered.  To complement the reading heavy last post, this time around I've included a video and several pictures to help demonstrate some of the concepts discussed.  I've also tried to address the problem of conceptualizing hip extension.

Before getting to the visual aids, I'd like to first give some practical cues for changing your running form.  In what is becoming a reoccuring theme of this blog (and was mentioned in the comments by some astute readers), often what we see and what actually is happening are two different things.  To help alleviate this confusion, I've listed some of the visual "problems" that are often seen in running, and then given their actual causes.  While knowing the actual cause is great and all, it's useless without a way to fix it.  To help you out, I've listed a number of possible "cues" to use to help correct the problems.  Hopefully you find this information useful.

Finding the Cause:

Problem:   Excessive Back Kick
Possible Causes: Too much forward lean, active pulling of foot to butt

Problem:  Short/Flat stride
Possible Causes: Excessive extension of the entire leg, trying to toe off, too low of a takeoff angle, reaching out with lower leg to cover ground.

Problem: Very Little Hip Extension
Possible Causes: Trying to get quick with the feet and pulling them up early

Problem: Reaching out with the lower leg/heel striking
Possible Causes: Excessive/slow back kick, leaning backwards, delayed opposite arm swing because of the arm crossing or moving outwards, excessive shoulder rotation

Problem: Angle of swing leg too large or too small
Possible Causes: Hip extension either too great (for too small of an angle) or too small (for too large of an angle).

Cues:

Problem: Reaching out with the lower leg
Cue: Put foot down behind you, as soon as the knee stops drop the foot to the ground

Problem: Hip Extension
Cue: Allow the hip to extend, Use the hip like a crank- initiate it let it go.

Problem: Flat/Short Stride
Cue: Think more vertical, have the horizon bounce slightly, don't push off the ground as long and leave the foot alone.

Problem: Excessively bouncy stride
Cue: Think more horizontal, watch horizon and limit the bounce.

Problem: Pawback
Cue:  Leave the lower leg alone. It’s just along for the ride. Be patient. Don’t try and get quick.

Problem:  Dorsiflexion of the foot
Cue: Keep the ankle in a neutral position.  Leave the ankle alone.



Hip Extension:

The biggest source of confusion in my last biomechanics article was on hip extension.  This is my fault and a remnant of reading too many biomechanics papers.  As with everything in biomechanics, there is a description of how it looks like and what it feels like.  Describing what hip extension looks like is a piece of cake.  It's best thought of as the moving of the whole upper thigh backwards in the running motion.  It helps many to focus entirely on the hip joint, and think of the movement coming from there. This is clearly seen in the pictures below.

Describing what it feels like is a little more difficult.  The point I was trying to make, but didn't come across quiet as clearly as it should have, is that the hip complex is where the power comes from.  It's not from pushing off with your toes or with your calves.  The cue should be to focus on the hip as your sort of speed control.  As mentioned in my long post on the biomechanics, the hip acts like a crank. The faster you want to go the more powerful or quicker the hip extension needs to be.  It's always present, it's just the degree of extension that controls the speed.  Once you've initiated it, allow it to happen.  It's not forcing the leg backwards, it's starting it and the letting it do it's work.  This will take some experimenting around to get the right idea and correct feeling.  Most runners start off with limiting the hip extension and then go to the opposite extreme in trying to force full extension on every stride no matter the pace.  Eventually, you'll settle in as you become aware of just how much is really needed for each given speed.  It's like when you first learn to drive and you're too hard on the breaks when stopping because you haven't fine tuned the process yet.


Pete Larson of the excellent blog runblogger.com sent me a great picture from the Boston Marathon that illustrates hip extension perfectly.  Watch all of the elites in this picture and they all look remarkably similar with their extension leg. Note the degree of hip extension as well as the angle. As they say, pictures are worth a thousand words, so here you go:
























Example: Cody


           Above is a series of video's I took at the park with a former runner I coached who now runs in college.  Cody's a good example of someone who was a bad heel striker whose arms would also go crazy when he fatigued.  He's come a long way and is a quick learner as you'll see in the video.

The reason I like this video so much is that you can see the progression of correction.  On the first stride, you'll see a flat stride with a bit of a heel strike.  Essentially, he's trying to cover ground by reaching out with his lower leg a little bit.  Compared to the Cody of the past, this was a big improvement, but there's always something to work on.  On the second stride, we tried to address the foot strike issue by getting him to focus only on putting his foot down sooner.  Here you'll see that his feet come down underneath him and he lands midfoot.  However, his stride is a bit shorter and a bit more choppy.  That's a normal response when you get someone to put their foot down sooner.

On the last stride, our goal was to get him to lengthen his stride, but instead of doing it by reaching out with his lower leg, we did it by covering more ground in the air.  The cue here was to focus on not only the power coming from hip extension, but also on projecting the body in the optimal direction with that push off.  What that means is that we tried to increase the vertical component.  Basically, Cody tried to introduce more bounce into the stride.  If you go back and look at the 3rd stride, you'll see that Cody has a longer stride because of an improved push off/vertical component while still landing with his feet underneath him.

Hopefully in this video you can see the progression that Cody went through.  The key was addressing one problem at a time and eventually putting it all together as a whole.  First we got the foot strike fixed and then brought back in the stride length by pushing, not reaching.


The El Guerrouj Pictures:
I don't have a scanner, so you'll have to settle for some cell phone captured pictures of my El Guerrouj running shots.  Although you can't make out everything, note the hip extension, body position, and overall relaxation of El G.







29 comments:

  1. Thanks for the clarification. Not really feeling the cue but the photos are helpful as a "final product". What about rotating the hip slightly, does that encourage the extension or work against it?

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  2. Due to running minimalist and occasionally barefoot, i have been lifting my foot as described by certain advocates but my hip flexors have been getting fatigued. Thanks to your how-to-run and boimechanics post i now just let the leg basically get on with it. I do use the slingshot cue, but the upshot is, my flexors don't ache anymore. I do have one question though: should i be conscious of my hip position , i.e., slightly forward and ensuring I'm not sitting back or that my rear is poking out. I did play with this yesterday and felt a difference but good or bad I'm not entirely sure.

    Thanks so much for your solid running advice though. It has helped running to become easier and more fun.

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  3. Great clarification on hip extension -- intellectually, now I get it. The way I am currently trying to think about/feel the front of the hip during extension is that, as the leg straightens behind, the hips stay "flat" and resist being pulled back on that side, but doesn't rotate forward either (which would really be the spine rotating?).

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  4. Anonymous1:51 PM

    Perhaps this is a good explanation of hip extension (found it on the Internet): "If you are not sure what hip extension is then stand up, with your feet together. Lift one foot off the floor and with a straight (or bent) knee push that foot back so that your thigh moves backwards...that's hip extension."

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  5. Try this; Stand on one leg and dorsi-flex your ankle, straight away you move foreward and your hip extends behind you!!!
    Both Ryan Hall[in a video] recommends Dorsi flexing the ankle, and he has got one of the longest strides going!
    Ceb Coe also recommends dorsi flexon of the ankle to improve stride length.
    Steve maybe you a wrong to say dorsi flexing the ankle is incorrect???

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  6. Rick- I should clarify, I'm against an active dorsiflexion during the swing phase. Coache's cue "toe up" all the time, and it's my feeling that the ankle is just along for the ride. It'll go into periods of dorsi and plantar flexion based on what needs to be done. Particularly before footstrike. A common cue is to dorsiflex before footstrike, but if you do that, you're encouraging a rearfoot strike at worse and at best your putting your ankle out of proper position.

    Anonymous- Thanks for the quote, sums it up nicely.

    Reaper-That's a good way to view it. It works well with the rubber band concept.

    Si- Seems like you've got the idea. As for hip position, it definately plays a role. Experiment around with it, but you'll see that if the hips are tilted to far back, you'll be in that sitting position. When you're sitting, you're not going to get as much extension.


    Girl in motion- It definately plays a role. Rotating the hips can either help or hinder hip extension. As I mentioned with the above commentator, if you rotate too far backwards, you're not going to get the powerful extension that you normally would.

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  7. Steve,
    It seems when I extend my hip a certain distance and begin contracting my glutes, my thigh (and then the rest of my leg following) turns slightly to the outside. Would this be an indicator of excessive hip extension?
    Thanks

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  8. Thanks Steve. I'm sure that (and additional comments) makes the meaning of hip extension clearer for readers.

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  9. Anonymous12:10 AM

    Hi Steve,

    Another good post for discussion. As you know, I take a somewhat different approach to the benefits of improving mechanics to effect faster running speeds. Based upon the available science, perhaps 10% of running performance can be improved by mechanics.

    First, normal humans are bipedal. We are hardwired to move on 2 feet whether walking or running. Can that be improved upon by changing mechanics? Perhaps, but considering the thousands of years humans have been bipedal, the effects are minimal. Unless foot contact is beyond center of mass, it matters little what is happening prior to and after foot contact. This is where we get in trouble watching athletes run or watching the videos of athletes running.

    Second, as you noted earlier in your previous post, we tend to focus on the effects of movement as opposed to the causes of movement. "EVERYONE RUNS DIFFERENTLY." We are not the same sizes, nor have the same bone lengths, nor have the same muscle attachments or inherent muscle fibers. There is not a "one size fits all" approach to perfect running mechanics. The sooner athletes figure this out, the better they will become at discerning their running "form." It is like saying that a classical guitarist could teach Jimi Hendrix to improve his guitar playing, even though he played a right-handed guitar left-handed with the strings upside down. The form Hendrix used was both fast and efficient. Ultimately, the desired result was genius.

    To think that altering foot contact (.08 to .09 sec.) through dorsiflexion or plantar flexion, or the altering of force application (.04 sec) or the repositioning of limbs (passive elastic recoil) are the ways to faster running speeds is, IMO, naive and scientifically unsupported. If you want to run faster, then concentrate on improving applying more muscular force, improve ground contact, and improve the rate of force delivery. Everything else pales in comparison.

    Respectfully,
    Coach Doug Robinson

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  10. Until now, I have been trying lift my feet as soon as possible, for a short, fast stride.

    So the hip extension has been hard to grasp.
    I had to deliberately drive my leg back and that was tiring.

    But now I am running in racing flats with a lower heel, and I notice something different.

    As the leg goes back, there is a point where my heel naturally lifts off the ground and the leg swings forward without thinking about it.

    In the shoes with the big elevated heel cushion I don't seem to feel this. Is this because the big cushy shoes prevent the ankle from flexing and 'loading up'?

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  11. Good point ac,
    i've been running in minimal shoes for about a year now.
    Yes a flat sole means your calf and tendon stretch out more and so spring back more.
    Also a flat shoe allows for more dorsi flexon in the ankle which in turn i think allows for greater hip extention.
    I wore a pair of trail shoes [high heel] today for the first time in ages and my form felt dreadfull, 'It's the shoes'!!!
    I'm I correct Steve?

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  12. Ryan Hall video on foot strike http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82ghOr78FcU

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  13. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbKp2HeUpkY
    watching this video of Ryan Hall at speed, I'm left wondering is the important thing the arm drive or the shouler rotation.
    going to college last year running with a ruksack on my back i could not use my arms as i had to hold onto the straps to stop the bag from rocking about, running seemed harder without the use of my arms until i started rotating my shoulders from side to side, i started generating more power and my speed picked up!

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  14. Ben- Yep. If you pay attention to your body it'll tell you when it's too much. When you have to fforce things to happen to go any further that's usually a good sign. It's the same with the arm swing, you can feel the arm "catch" when going backwards, but some people ignore this and keep going.

    Coach Robinson-
    As always, aprreciate the commentary. Even though we fundamentally disagree, it makes me think, which is always a good thing.

    To adress some of your points. You've always got to be cautious with the "evolved" or "natural" argument because you have to remember that we didn't evolve or develop to run fast. Running fast wasn't the deciding factor in our evolution, it was just a consequence, a secondary factor. Secondly, we know that outside factors significantly change how we do things "naturally". Foot strike is an obvious one that I'd say has been sufficiently studied in the literature.

    I agree that there are no one size fits all models. In my opinion though, there are some overarching broad biomechanical principles that govern running. The details of those principles may differ based on individual physiology.

    Lastly, while force application is extremely important, I think this kind of one answer to the question thinking is dangerous. It's very prevent in Science and Research. We are always looking for one limiter, without realizing the complexity of the human body and the fact that there are indeed many different "limiters". It's a reductionist approach. It's what has led to horrible conclusions of fatigue based on lactate, or that only one thing limits your so called VO2max. The little things add up.

    The change in ground contact between a heel strike and a whole foot strike is often be as much as .03-.04 per foot strike. That's huge if you think about it over a race. And that's just by simply changing how the foot strikes the ground. Which is a result of what you're doing before you strike the ground...i.e. recovery mechanics.

    Secondly, if you look at the stuies on energy use during the stride, the amount of energy coming from passive mechanics is enormous and part of this is due to passive elastic recoils.

    In my opinion, it's naive to not look at the whole picture and try and maximize each thing. It's akin to training distance runners by saying that oxygen consumption is the only thing that matters so all we are going to do is do long aerobic runs and aerobic intervals. While these might be the most important things, I can gaurantee you aren't going to have as good of a performance as the runner who includes the whole gamut of training intensity/types to maximize even the little contributors ot performance.

    AC- Well done, you're correct that the shoes likely play a role. It's likely that the shoe inhibits this process a bit. You've got the right feeling exactly.


    Rick-You're correct, nice explanation.

    On the arm/shoulder rotation. Interesting observation/example. The arm swing has to counteract the movement in the opposite lower body. When you weren't able to swing your arms, you compensated by rotating the shoulders which made it easier. What happened is instead of the arm swings taking up the counteracting of the lower body, the shoulders did. In this instance it definately helped.

    However, when you can use your arms, it's best to use them to compensate instead of full shoulder rotation. Both can be used as compensation mechanisms. In reality, you'll get a slight shoulder rotation with the arms. The key is not having the shoulders rotate to the degree that they start throwing off other stuff.

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  15. Tom Tellez and hip extention
    First thanks for reply.
    Since reading your 2nd article on running form I've been trying to work on hip extention, but it did not feel quite right, then i rememberted what Tom Tellez had said about not waisting time letting your foot come back down to the ground with gravity alone but to activate hip extention so your leg and foot swing down quickly with the foot landing close to COG.
    Soon after the foot becomes grounded I switch the glutes off and let momentum carry my body over the grounded foot.
    RESULT this felt great:]
    I have read that due to the quads dominating once the foot is grounded it's not possible to extent the hip back through muscle activation of the glutts,
    there is a test you can do by standing about two feet from a wall facing it, standing on one leg lean into the wall putting your hands out to touch the wall.
    You can feel gravity pushing you against the wall, but can you push hard by trying to extend your hips?
    The answer seems to be NO!
    The only way to increase force is by raising your calf muscle up.
    Conclusion
    I feel the push back of hip extention after the foot is grounded is just an illusion and that after foot contact it is momentum and ankle flexion that moves you foreward and increases stride length!

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  16. P.S.
    Hip extention test two
    Stand on one leg, now activate your glutts for all your worth, do you move foreward?
    You might if you activate a calf raise, or you can if you get off balance, but not through hip extention!!!

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  17. How many has problems with too poor hip extension really? It's not a criticism, because I don't really know, but I at least previously thought that what you need to do with the hip is jst to make sure that it is not tilted forward or backward in the support phase ("sitting running" etc), then hip extension works out ok, and is more a function of your heart/lung capacity rather than conscious technique.

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  18. About dorsiflexion before touchdown. I've seen it this way -- the ankle should foremost relaxed, but if there is problem with too steep an angle (= too pronounced forefoot landing) then the foot should be lightly dorsiflexed to find the right position. In my own running, I have been helped to think about this. I've also heard sprinting experts say "the foot should be neutral or lightly dorsiflexed before touchdown".

    If standing still on one leg and letting the leg in the air hang relaxed with the lower leg perpendicular to the ground, the foot will point down in a steep angle, too steep for a proper touchdown. Will the swingback (pawback) of the leg prior to touchdown cause the relaxed foot to lift enough to make touchdown at a suitable angle? I've thought that the answer to that is generally "no", so there may be a need to adjust the angle with dorsiflexion. What do you think?

    I realize that landing a too steep an angle could be "active reaching with the foot" and adding active dorsiflexion to that would be to cancel out one tension with another, when relaxation should be the goal. However, I do think that some people can succeed with ankle relaxation so well that the foot point down too much.

    I should also mention that I like my forefoot landings to be very flat, near midfoot (or actual midfoot in shoes with heel buildup). I think that the forefoot landings I've seen in many recent barefoot running videos are generally a bit too steep.

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  19. Simon9:04 PM

    I totally get the hip extension thing but for the last 6 months, my hip flexors still seem to get fatigued and ache, sometimes right, but usually left. I thought if i just keep focusing on form after a while i would get strong enough and the ache would go, but it has not. I try to run straight and upright with arms, feet. I land basically midfoot - forefoot slight kiss first, under COG, leg bent. I've videoed myself and I look fine! What could be causing this?

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  20. I really enjoy all of your posts and especially this one because I have never had a clear understanding of hip extension. Could you post a file of the EL G photos that you reference or is there a place to buy it? Those pictures are an awesome reference and I would love to have one. Thanks!

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  21. Steve,

    I think I know quite much about running technique, but there's one thing that I have not yet figured out fully. At touchdown, foot under knee (lower leg perpendicular) is a good thing, however, among all those that land with a perpendicular lower leg I can see that there are quite large individual differences how bent the knee is at touchdown. Some land with a quite straight leg like sprinters do, while others have quite a lot of bend.

    One example of bent knee touchdown is Ryan Hall, while one example of a more straight leg is Haile Gebrselassie.

    Of course, with a more bent knee, you will land farther ahead of the CoG. However, perhaps you gain some on loading of the leg. I don't know. How do one know if the bending of the knee at touchdown is ok, or if it should be more straight or more bent?

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  22. Rick- Great experimentation with your own running. Your experience echoes one of Tom Tellez' favorite cues, which is to just worry about initiallizing hip extension, then forget about it. So, if you just focus on the piston like initiation, then let it go, you're good.

    Anders- You're right there's a problem with too high or low of an angle. But what you find is that people who plantarflex too much pointing their toe down or dorsiflex too much, it's because they are trying to do it. In general if you just leave the ankle alone it'll go through the range of flexion that it needs to and you'll land in a pretty neutral state. It depends on the person, so there might be some adjustment needed for each individual, but it should be fine tuning, not holding the foot in a dorsiflexed position like is often taught.

    Simon- Are you forcing anything? If your hip flexors hurt are you trying to lift your knee or bring your knee through. Even if you look picture perfect, sometime you're actively doing something that occurs pretty much passively. So you might look like other runners with great form, but you're forcing your way to get there. Focus on the part of the stride that seems to make the hip flexors sore and see if maybe you are "trying" when you shouldn't.

    Tyler- I'll try and scan the file.

    Anders- the bending of the knee at foot strike is going to be dependent partially on where you land in relation to the COG. Additionally, it's going to be speed dependent because the amount of time in the air and vertical displacement plays a role. Pete Larson's site www.runblogger.com has a great post on landing in relation to COG you might find interesting.

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  23. Anonymous9:45 PM

    Hey Steve just wondering after you initiate hip extension, do you just let the leg cycle through naturally? I was wondering if you have to actively drive the thigh forward after hip extension or should you just extend the hip and put the foot down to initiate hip extension again.

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  24. Kevin Do10:59 PM

    Steve my feet tend to turn heel out as my feet leave the ground from behind me what could be causing this problem if this is even a problem?

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  25. Thanks steve for your explaination on hip extension. It helps a lot. I'd like to ask when should we initiate hip extension?before or after landing?

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  26. Anonymous6:11 AM

    Hello, first of all thanks for the great content you provide...

    I've gaind a whole new perspective on running form by reading your blog in the last few days. I'm am sprinter, i run 60m 7.01s, 100m 11.01s, 200m 22.61s(this i do not get why), 400m 49.47s.

    This is picure of my running form:
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/69283218/runform.jpg

    Can You please comment on my running form, my observations are that my knees are too high, my front hand is going too high and is too open.
    The thing i do not understand is hip extension i'm not able to figure it out by watching my running...

    I think i have errors that limit my speed.. and i would really appreciate any help and comment.

    Thanks in advance, best regards-

    Dino Kraljević, Rijeka Croatia

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  27. Thanks for awesome post.

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  28. so what would you suggest I do if my activity type is mostly interval training and I have terrible pain in my tibialis anterior muscles? I have noticed a pattern of increased dorsiflexion in my walking and running forms, but I'm not sure how to go about properly correcting myself.

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  29. Hi, thanks for the detailed description on hip extension. I feel I have been more focused on cadence at approx 180 steps a minute as I feel if I try and extend the hip more my cadence is less. I will try and switch my focus to the hip extension and will the cadence come naturally in time Steve? Thanks again for all the details

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