What It Is to Run
18th December 2019
Humans are perfectly adapted for running – our anatomy and nervous system is perfectly formed for it. Despite this, through disuse, injury, or weakness, some of the faculties that enable us to be such expert runners can become impaired. Running is a whole-body movement, with all the limbs and trunk working together to propel the body through pace. An impairment to these components can greatly affect the efficiency of movement, leading to poor performance or even injury. And no, running doesn’t wear out your knees.
Seasoned runners or New Year’s resolutionist, couch to 5k, or starting summer marathon preparation – running is one of the most popular, most effective, and most innately human forms of exercise. There is a general consensus among evolutionary anthropologist that running is as natural to humans, as swinging in trees is to gibbons. Humans have special physiological features: our ability to pursue prey on two feet, with our two arms available for carrying spears or bows, skins of water; and our ability to sweat to keep ourselves cool while doing so (unlike many other mammals). These features, alongside our ability to communicate, plan, and cooperate, enabled us to successfully hunt large animals, providing the calories, nutrients, and resources that allowed us to conquer our environment. Fast forward a couple of hundred thousand years or so, and we are far detached from the environment and lifestyle of our ancestors, with our desks and chairs, supermarkets, and tarmacked roads. However our anatomical and neurological architecture remains largely the same.
When considering how imbedded in us running is, ponder this: all swimmers learn to swim – even as a culture we have learned to swim – techniques and styles have been refined and passed on generation to generation to enable those of us who can, to move effectively in water (although most competitive swimmers will still only swim at approximately walking speed). Nobody in history, ever, has gotten into water for the first time, and done anything that looks like a good breast-stroke or front crawl. But running comes naturally. We don’t need to teach children how to run. At the point at which their anatomy and nervous systems are sufficiently developed they just run. If given the opportunity they will often become very good runners, no tuition necessary.
In fact running is so innate to us that most of the neural activity necessary to coordinate our muscles occurs outside of the brain, in simple reflexes in the spinal cord. Once we start running, we continue running as automatically as we withdraw our hands from a hot surface or close our eyes to a loud bang. It actually usually takes impulses from the brain to stop us from running – whether that’s because we have completed our route, or because we are cardiovascularly exhausted.
So if running is so automatic and natural, why I am proposing that there is a way you can do it better?
Rather than proposing to teach you how to run, I am identifying certain physical abilities that the body must have in order for efficient, reflexive, running to happen. Through stiffness, weakness, or disuse, our bodies can become poorly conditioned. Through specific practice, progressive use, and strengthening we can (often) overcome it.
Here are a few examples, and ways of testing function.
Foot and ankle mobility
26 bones, 33 joints, and literally hundreds of muscles, tendons and ligaments. Yet most people have an impression of the foot as being some sort of inert slab on which our bodies stand. All these components within the foot give it the ability to adjust to varying terrains beneath it, transfering ground reaction force through the limb into the rest of the body. Poor shoes (‘foot coffins’), injury, and poor function of the supporting musculature can all lead to poor foot function. Sometimes this can manifest as an excessively ‘flat’, or ‘pronated’ foot; sometimes is a rigid foot or ankle; sometimes as pain in the sole of the foot. An impairment of foot and ankle function can also impair the reflexive contraction of the calf muscles – leading to a laboured running style o poor performance; compensation through the knee and thigh muscles; or achilles tendon complaints.
- Standing with the front of your foot on a stair and your knee straight, can you drop your heel below the level of the step? Or does your ankle stay at a 90 degree angle? A good range of movement here would be 20 degrees beyond a right angle at the ankle. Less than this could impair your running.
- Can you hop on the spot without your heel touching the floor? The bouncier the better. The less bounce you have in you the harder is it to run efficiently. Both foot and ankle stiffness, as well as muscle strength issues can impair this skill. This test can also highlight weakness at the hip.
In anatomical speech: the movement we perform at the hip when pulling the knee up to our chest is called ‘hip flexion’. The opposite of this, when we push the leg behind us, like kicking the door closed behind us, is called ‘hip extension’. For debatable reasons many people struggle to properly extend the hip. This can cause many compensations that can sap efficiency, and even predispose pain and injury – especially back pain.
- Stand on one leg and push the non-standing leg behind you. Can you get the whole foot behind the other without extending your back? The inability to do so suggests an impairment of hip extension.
All movement begins in the trunk. In fact it can be useful to just imagine the limbs are mere extensions of the spine, amplifying, rather than initiating movement – much like how the caudal fin of a fish acts to amplify and apply the movements of the rest of its body. This model was described famously by a biomechanist named Serge Gracovetsky as ‘the spinal engine’. When we run, the upper trunk and shoulder opposite rotate back, as the hip on the opposite site extends. This creates a strong elastic rotation of the trunk, which then recoils, reversing the position of the arms and legs simultaneously, and efficiently. The body uses elastic recoil, and rotation to drive the limbs enabling the generation of force far greater than a limb in isolation. Restriction of this rotation through the spine can impair the body’s ability to both produce force, and use the limbs through their full range of motion.
- Sit upright on the edge of a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your arms folded across your body. Rotate as far as you can to one side keeping your buttocks and legs still. Can you rotate past 45degrees? If not, you could benefit from improving your ‘thoracic mobility’. Poor mobility here can predispose neck, shoulder, lower back, or even hip and knee pain by impairing the transfer of force through the body.
So if you are struggling with your running ask why. Sometimes it’s not just a case of training harder, but also training smarted. If you are struggling to recover from an injury maybe you are not addressing the root problem. We don’t need to run down our prey any more, but running is such a fundamental way to live in our bodies, it would be a shame to give up on it unnecessarily.
…and no, running doesn’t wear out your knees.
Blog compiled by by Matt Penman M.Ost, Head Osteopath at Central Osteopaths
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