In part 1 of Running Machines we briefly discussed the adaptations of the human body in regards to running, gave a simple method for correcting foot position and related many parts of the human anatomy to mechanical components. To continue my car/machine analogy: if your automobile must pass through a checklist of requirements to drive on the road then here is my checklist of things your running machine should be accomplish before you put it on the road. Please keep in mind, this is a minimalist checklist. These are the most basic attributes you need to possess to run effectively, in my opinion anyway.
Walking in a stable position
This may sound overly simple but hear me out. You need to be able to walk properly, that means keeping your toes pointed forward, not swinging your legs out to the sides and keeping your spine straight. We already touched on keeping your toes pointed forward and not swinging your legs out in Part 1. So I will not beat you over the head with it, but the last point is worth elaborating on: keeping your spine straight.
Think of a man, an out of shape 50-something year old walking home after he was just fired from his job… Hold that image…
I’m willing to bet that the man you imagined is walking with his shoulders rolled forward, looking down and no stiffness in his core. This is the picturesque image of a person that has been absolutely defeated. It’s also a great display of walking without a straightened spine. If you find yourself walking in a similar position (likely not as exaggerated) you should stop and go through a simple bracing sequence:
Simple Bracing Sequence
- Place feet shoulder-width apart with toes pointing forward
- Let your arms hang by your side
- Squeeze your butt
- Allow your arms to turn outward at your shoulders (undoing that forward roll)
- Contract your core
By engaging in this simple bracing sequence you are straightening your spine and creating a stable support system for your midsection (think of how weightlifters use those thick belts). By repeatedly bracing your spine throughout the day you are training your body to a new norm and before long you will not have to be as mentally engaged to maintain a solid braced position.
*Keep in mind this is a very simplified bracing sequence and is great for walking but as we progress we may have to get more technical.
Squat to jump, Squat to land
Once we have mastered the age-old art of walking we’re ready to progress to the next step of running. When you break running strides down you have a series of one legged jumping and landing (it’s no wonder why people think running is hard on knees) so you had better be able to jump and land with two feet. Here’s what I want you to do:
- Engage the bracing sequence from above
- Squat down as if you’re going to launch into space
- Note whether your knees move outwards or inwards
If your knees moved outwards chances are they went over your toes and thanks to years of high school coaches many of us think that’s terrible. If you squat down and your knees go over your toes, that’s completely fine. If your knees bent inwards then we have an issue: Valgus Knee. Valgus knee is a movement fault that becomes especially apparent when squat, if our knees want to move inward this can create some semblance of stability but it’s at the cost of the integrity of the cruciate ligaments of the knee. If your knees bend inwards then the main focus should be entering a squat position and moving your knees outwards instead of inwards.
If you can successfully sink into squat position in preparation for a jump then the next thing I want you to do is: JUMP! After you jump focus on your landing, your landing position should mirror the position you squatted down into. You don’t have to jump especially high, just enough to test the positions and be sure you are maintaining a braced position throughout jumping and landing.
Not far, just 20 meters or so and yes you should be barefoot or in barefoot shoes. Jog the 20 meters at a comfortable pace and pay attention to what parrt of your foot is striking the ground. Are you putting the ball of the foot forward or firmly striking the ground with your heel?
Let’s start with the worse case scenario: Heel Striking. If you’re leading wth your heels you are going to be the first to develop knee problems, striking with your heel takes the natural springs (the arch of your foot) out of the equation and send that force directly to your knee via conduction through your bones… Ouch! If this is you then repeat the test a few times, you’ll find that after a few sessions of heel striking barefoot your foot will naturally start to lead with the midfoot and this is where we want our feet to connect.
If you’re leading with the balls of your feet then I’m guessing you used to play soccer or did a lot of sprinting. While this is good for short bursts of power the balls of the feet can also quickly become worn out.
From my own personal experience I’ve found the sweet spot being somewhere between the midfoot and the ball of the foot (years of soccer). Finding the ideal spot is a matter of self-experimentation but I’m relatively certain that it’s not going to be the heel for any of us. This test is not something you have to do regularly and you don’t have to be able to run a 5k barefoot, you just need to run in such a way that you can run barefoot wtihout pain.
Wrapping it up
The three things you absolutely, positively, no-way-around MUST be able to do to run effectively are: walk in a braced position, squat/jump/land in a braced position with knees moving outward during squat/landing and you should run in such a way that you could do it barefoot. These pillars will later translate into running with a braced position, landing in a stable manner and protecting our feet/knees from injury.