When I first became involved in organized running, I had a vision of myself that looked something like this: ponytail swishing, arms pumping with ease, long strides with my legs, and my heel effortlessly pushing off of the ground with the strength of my calf.
This is what I actually looked like…thanks to my high school yearbook. Hahaha….how about that facial expression? Fierce.
Like many young runners, thought that the main muscle used in running were the calf and quads. Oops…. it was not until I went to college and studied how the body works that I understood what the primary muscles used in running were. And it was not until I began watching people run and seeing where they were weak, that I really began to use my own primary muscles more, the main one being the hip and butt muscles.
I worked with a physical therapist that would tell his runners, “run with your butt!”. What the heck does that even mean? And, how do you do it?
Imagine a professional runner. When you watch their stride, they appear to be fluidly moving through the air with an ease in their stride. Most novice runners are using their quads and calves the most while running whereas a more advanced runner uses their hamstrings, hips and glutes (the posterior kinetic chain). This motion is called hip extension and it is crucial to master this movement if you want to continue running long and injury free.
Check out Shalane Flanagan’s and Amy Craigg’s hip extension in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Los Angeles, 2016.
Why is hip extension so important?
Think about this: the propulsive motions in running gait come together to create an overall extension pattern. As we run, from the moment our standing foot begins to pass under our body, the overall goal is to create optimal forward propulsion (and some upwards displacement). This propulsion is created by effectively pushing the ground away beneath and behind our forward moving center of mass. We can clearly see great examples of this propulsive extension pattern in many elite distance runners. Look at the Kenyans, for example: their ability to extend powerfully though a large range of motion before the foot leaves the ground, contributes to their long stride length and impressive elastic recoil in the heel to butt motion. At best, if a runner lacks hip extension, they will not be able to increase stride length enough to realize their true potential pace while remaining efficient.
How do we become better at hip extension?
We must learn to run with our butts. The best way to start this process is to do the exercises that I have outlined in the last post. All of these exercises are centered around creating a strong mind to body awareness. The neuro-muscular system is prone to adaptation and it will not take very long to develop this skill. You must teach the body how to move outside of running and then apply those principles to your sport.
I found a significant difference in my running when I learned how to “run with my butt”. I was sore in places that I had never been sore before and I learned exactly how weak my hips were. the best way to practice “running with your butt” is to run on a road that has an increasing uphill slope.
Your butt is more important than you think. Doing squats and lunges are a great way to build muscle volume but if your mind does not know how to activate the muscles at the right time, you are not running to your full potential. Creating a sense of awareness and perfecting your hip extension is the best way to create a better running efficacy and prevent injury. You may even PR in a few months. Stay tuned to learn why humans are so bad an hip extension and what you can do in your daily routine to change that.