Fishing Rods and Bad Dogs
There’s nothing like caffeine and exercise to stimulate the grey matter. My evening run is a great time to ponder the intricacies of running form and practice new running cues to determine how they feel when unleashed on my patients. This period of the day has spawned the creation of many of the cues I use in the clinic and helped lead to the creation of Four Steps:
The first of these steps is ‘Run Tall’ and is further detailed with:
a) Project the chest up and forward
b) Look forward with crown of head lifted
c) Avoid arching lower back
When teaching runners to ‘Run Tall’ I use some of the details described above until the athlete assumes the desired running posture. This is typically a reasonably upright torso position with 0-5 degrees of forward lean. The head is over the shoulders and the lumbo/pelvic region is in a neutral position.
Of late I’ve found one particular cue that works very well for the majority of athletes in achieving this position. This cue involves some fishy imagery in that the runner imagines the person of their choice standing on the horizon with a large fishing rod and that they (the runner) are the fish on the end of the line. The line is attached at chest level and they are being reeled in. This is a fantastic cue for reducing the excessive forward lean of up to 15 degrees I often see and helps set the body up for some of the other cues we use. Instead of the runner leaning forward and downward they are assisted in projecting upward and forward. The key word here is ‘projection’. Some runners are told to lean forward in the belief that gravity assists in forward momentum. Obviously there are some running schools of thought that missed Galileo’s leaning tower of Pisa experiments, Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. All of which basically state that earths gravity makes things fall downwards-not forwards.
To initiate running we must move the centre of mass (COM) ahead of the base of support which may initially be assisted by a forward lean but is certainly not a pre-requisite. (The COM is centred roughly at the level of the belly button rather than the chest as many believe). Once this has been achieved then leg action maintains this forward momentum and no further forward lean is required. Newton’s third law states that every force generates an equal and opposite force so as long as the legs are generating a force directed downwards and backwards, the body will move upwards and forwards. If we lean excessively forward then the leg and back muscles will have to work harder to keep us upright, avoid falling over and to move the COM upward and forward.
Running requires a complex combination of nerve signals, muscle activations, tendon tensions, joint rotations and torque generation all of which result in the centre of mass (COM) moving forward. As there is a flight phase where the COM moves upward as well as forward the complex combination of movements must exert an upward force greater than the mass of the body (kg) x gravity (9.8m/s2) and a horizontal force vector greater than air resistance and ground friction. It therefore doesn’t make too much sense to think that gravity might assist forward momentum as it is this force which must be overcome.
But don’t take my word for it. When Amby Burfoot, Editor for Runner’s World, asked running experts Michael Tammaro, Ph.D. (Physicist), Steve Magness (assistant coach to Alberto Salazar, and biomechanist Irene Davis, Ph.D. about gravity they agreed that, “Gravity can do nothing to improve your running efficiency on a flat surface. That’s because gravity provides no horizontal force; it simply pulls you back down to the earth.” This was a statement on gravity rather than leaning forward so it may be that a slight forward lean has other benefits unrelated to gravity. We know that in running, the muscles of the legs drive the COM upward and forward. We also know that we don’t have to think too hard about how to activate the multiple neuromuscular paths to achieve this. We simply form the intention to move forward at a speed faster than walking and somewhere in the prefrontal cortex this intention is translated into electrical signals. The details are then taken care of in a descending level of control further down the chain in the midbrain, cerebellum and spinal reflexes resulting in the desired muscular movement pattern to achieve the intention. Intention is therefore the driver of conscious movement. Based on our knowledge of how the body moves we can use imagery to define this intention which then refines the resultant movement patterns accordingly.
When I first started in the gait retraining business I used the ‘forward lean from the ankles’ imagery and drills often used by other running schools. It certainly had a good effect on run initiation but I found it often resulted in a stumbling style of gait in which runners were simply avoiding falling over rather than running. The intention was to move forward and downward with this imagery and the legs seemed to be playing catch-up to the body. As we know that the COM is driven forward and upward (rather than forward and downward) a different imagery was required to achieve this movement. The image of being reeled in by a fishing rod is one example of how slight modification of this cue achieved an improved running style. A more smooth flow of movement is achieved in which the athlete feels he/she is being assisted in the intention to move forward and upward with improved body position. A slight forward lean is the result from this imagery but it has nothing to do with gravity. Unsurprisingly this not only assists in Step 1-Running Tall, but often gives the added bonus of reducing perceived effort. Try it on your next run.
As mentioned previously we cannot use the same coaching cues for all individuals due to different learning styles. There are a few that adopt an undesirable posture of puffed out chest, shoulders back and arched lower back. If this is the case we can use the ‘Bad dog’ cue. Again imagery is used to picture a naughty dog that has been told off-hence ‘Bad dog’. A particularly bad dog tucks its tail between its legs assuming a lovely posterior tilt of its pelvis. This normally gets a few chuckles but is understood and reproduced by most. This can be most effective in encouraging a neutral or more stable lumbo/pelvic position if excess anterior tilt is noticed as a result of the fishing rod cue. As more research is guiding us to the importance of a stable lumbo/pelvic position in injury prevention this becomes a simple and effective cue to guide our athletes towards this posture.
Next time you are coaching a forward lean ask yourself why. Is it because you really want to use gravity or is it rather the posture that is adopted with the intention to move forward. If the latter, then fishing rods and bad dogs may come in handy.