We’ve all heard this maxim before: Form follows function.
Originally, it was applied to and associated with architecture, but its reach has expanded into everything from product design to software engineering. It also applies to running form.
(You knew that was coming, right?)
Recently, I’ve been delving even deeper into the nitty gritty of the biomechanics of running gait. This is a huge topic and there is a ton of nuance and a LOT of opinions out there, but my sense as a strength coach for runners is that running form is a reflection of body function.
Seems kind of obvious, right?
But to me, the implication is that we need to be careful in how we attempt to optimize or improve our running form. Rather than expecting top down form cues to change our function and therefore our performance, we need to work to improve our body function from the ground up in order to positively influence our running form.
Many influential folks in the running community believe that our bodies self-select for the most efficient form for us, and therefore we should not mess with it. And I agree with this … to a certain extent. Mostly because I think that forcing form changes by having runners try to implement verbal cues or mimic other runners’ form without looking at how their body actually functions is simply cruising for a bruising. Yes, our bodies do self-select our current form for efficiency, but it’s based on what function we have available to us as a result of our present state of mobility, stability, strength and power. With training, we can improve the function available to our bodies and therefore improve our form.
Let’s look at an example that sheds some light on this. We know that elite runners spend less time in contact with the ground on each stride than recreational or non-elite runners. But a study that tried to look at the performance implications of reducing ground contact time by simply verbally cueing runners to do so didn’t result in improved performance, it resulted in a boatload of injuries. This is because ground contact time isn’t really an active process, it’s a passive reflection of the quality of our stride. By trying to actively control or force a change in what should be a passive mechanism, runners ended up getting hurt.
It might surprise you to learn that much of what occurs in the running gait cycle is actually a passive mechanical or reflexive response rather than a voluntary muscular action. In fact, as much as 50% or more of propulsion can simply be a release of stored kinetic energy, which occurs passively - we don’t have to think about storing and releasing energy, it just happens.
But if so much of running is a passive response, where does that leave us? Is there anything we can or should do to improve our form?
Yes. We can improve our function by optimizing our mobility, stability, strength and power for running. The more we can improve our active functions through running-specific strength training, the better the quality of our passive responses, leading to better form and improved performance with reduced injury risk. For the most part, you are better off training your way to better form than thinking your way to better form by trying to implement certain form cues that may or may not be currently available to your body.
Let’s go back to that ground contact time example. The relatively short amount of time elites spend in contact with the ground isn’t necessarily something they are aware of and actively doing, it’s simply the passive outcome of a conglomeration of positive functional adaptations to their training like:
Higher capacity to load and store kinetic energy
Better utilization of the stretch reflex in order to release that energy
Greater strength and stability leading to more power per stride
Taken all together, this allows them to propel more efficiently and effectively.
So let’s look at a few examples of how running-specific mobility, stability, strength and power can impact our running form through the swing and stance phases of the gait cycle.
First, picture a slingshot.
The swing phase of the running gait cycle (when your leg is moving through the air after you push off the ground) is primarily a passive reflexive response to powerful hip extension. Extending through the hip is kind of like pulling back a slingshot. The result upon release is a chain of relatively passive propulsive mechanisms through the rest of the leg. The hip flexors, which have been stretched, respond by powerfully snapping forward, lifting the knees and carrying the lower leg through in response. The hamstrings activate to control how far out the lower leg swings so that we’re not landing on a fully extended knee.
So what part of this do we impact through our training in the gym? By improving the strength and power of your glutes, your body will have better access to a more powerful slingshot without having to force any particular thought of driving your knees. By ensuring sufficient hip mobility, you are improving the quality and degree of your hip extension (how far back you can pull your slingshot before releasing). By optimizing the strength and resilience of your hip flexors and hamstrings, your slingshot becomes even more responsive.
In stance phase (when your foot is in contact with the ground), we can focus on training things like your coordination and stability from the foot, all the way up to the hip, through the core, and even the upper body, so that we waste less time with each step controlling instability. By eliminating that inefficiency, we allow our bodies to put more energy toward loading and releasing the next slingshot motions that occur through the ankle and foot, therefore reducing ground contact time while improving power per stride - without forcing anything.
These are just a few examples, but essentially, through comprehensive strength training that includes mobility, stability, strength and power, our goal is to root out anything that might be compromising the effectiveness of your “slingshots” in order to improve your form, enhance performance, and reduce injury risk.
That said, I do believe that there are a few verbal cues that are worth implementing or at least worth experimenting with, but those might be another topic for another day. Instead, I will leave you with this quote from Louis Sullivan, the architect to whom the maxim is attributed:
“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function … Where function does not change, form does not change.”
What could you do to improve your function? Need help? We’ve got you covered.
If you are interested in an in-person functional assessment, running form analysis, and/or a 1:1 strength coaching session to improve your confidence in your lifting technique, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!
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