Seven Stride Cues To Increase Trail And Ultra Running Efficiency

Stay the CourseIt is refreshing to see an increasing number of runners and coaches in the trail and ultrarunning niche emphasize the importance of running-stride efficiency. More runners and coaches recognize that how we run not only impacts how we feel, but also how we perform.

A chief strategy to enhance running efficiency is hip utilization. This has been on my professional radar for several years, since being exposed to the research of Dr. Chris Powers, one of the premier running-mechanics and injury researchers in the United States. His body of work indicates that hip utilization–namely of loading and using the gluteal muscles, the prime movers of the hip joint–results in enhanced running economy and decreased injury risk. Indeed, the gluteus maximus muscle (the main butt muscle) is the largest and most powerful muscle in the body. But efficiently and powerfully using it to its full ability is often easier said than done.

Indeed, both personally and professionally, enhanced hip-muscle engagement has led to faster running with less problems, both in training and racing. Hip loading spares the overuse of every muscle group below the hips, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves–all muscles prone to overuse and cramping in trail and ultrarunning training and racing.

Hip loading and use is the gold standard of strong, efficient running. But it’s not easy. As Dr. Powers likes to say, “the hip is a redundant system,” meaning it is very easy to compensate into an inefficient strategy. Thankfully, for every compensation, there are nearly the same number of mid-run strategies to help you use your hips while running. In the rest of this article, we discuss what are in my opinion, the best seven strategies for properly engaging your hips and running as efficiently as you can. See also the video at the end of the article in which I show these strategies in action.

1. Lean Forward

What muscles do the propulsive work while running comes down to orientation and alignment: how the body accepts force from the ground and how it creates force from within. Without going too deeply into the physics (namely torques and force vectors), the ideal athletic alignment for optimal hip loading is this: chest over knees, knees at or behind the toes.

As discussed in this article about hip loading, I consider this the ‘universal athletic position.’ In this alignment, the body is poised to maximize both stability (in the trunk and hips) and hip-centric power generation. As such, you see it across all sports, from the football three-point stance all the way to the distance-running forward lean.

Simply put, a forward lean is one that places the chest over the knees. And while one must also keep the knees from over-flexing (see below), simply leaning forward goes a very long way to placing the force vector into the hip joint.

However, it also facilitates propulsion in two other ways:

  • Orienting the body’s momentum in a
  • Orienting the pelvis so that the hip can push behind

How-To:

Efficient forward engagement with running often feels like falling forward. As a visual, be sure that during any given stride while you are leaning forward, you can see your stance foot–all five toes–land beneath you, simply by looking down at your feet.

2. Arch Your Back

While a trunk lean establishes forward orientation, trunk extension enhances alignment. As with the lean, an extended trunk helps position the pelvis and hips to push behind.

But more importantly, spinal extension creates extra hip power by activating a muscle-connective tissue system called the thoracolumbar fascia. This system–a series of criss-cross connective tissues that run diagonally from one shoulder blade to the opposite hip and pelvis–is a powerful energy-storing and generating system that combines arm and leg power, channeling the energy of the arm swing into the hip push-off on the opposite side. Think of it as a powerful, contracting bungee system on our backsides.

However, this system can only function efficiently with a neutral, moderately arched spine; slumping forward overstretches the thoracolumbar fascia, deactivating or otherwise weakening its power. A strong, neutral mid-back arch helps maintain this system, keeping power flowing from the arm and trunk into the legs.

How-To:

Achieve and maintain a small-but-strong arch at the mid-back. Below the shoulder blades but above the low back is the thoracolumbar junction in the mid-back, where the thoracic spine/rib cage and lumbar/low back meet. Avoid an isolated low-back hyperextension, as this exaggerated arch will only isolate the movement down below, often causing back pain.

3. Pawback Pull

The pawback strategy, which involves a forceful pulling-through of the leg before and during footstrike previously outlined here–is a powerful way to activate the posterior hip extensors. A conscious action of ‘pulling’ creates a pre-stretch load to the glute max and hamstrings, which accentuates their extension power upon landing and pushoff.

Moreover, a pawback strategy also helps keep the leg ‘tall.’ Remember, ideal alignment is chest over knees, and knees behind the toes. A pawback pull is a powerful technique for keeping the leg mostly straight, avoiding excessive knee flexion, and keeping that force vector in the hip joint!

Lastly, a great side benefit to the pawback is a major decrease in over-stride landing potential, as the pawback helps orient footstrike directly beneath the body.

How-To:

Try the drills and exercises outlined in this video as well as the Straight Leg Pull drill. Then, when running, aim to pull the foot and leg beneath you as you land, as if you’re trying to create a cyclical, bike-wheel-type action with your legs.

4. Knees Out

This is a curious, but powerful stride cue. As a professional (and runner), I fought the notion of this cue: awkwardly ‘running bowlegged’ as a sort of way to avoid the troublesome ‘knee buckling in.’

But in practicing this technique and studying the actions of the gluteal muscles, the knee-out strategy became more than simple knee alignment. In short, a major complementary action of the glute max muscle is to externally (outward) rotate the hip, which is paired to maximal hip extension. So, in executing a knee-out strategy, this outward rotation increases the overall activation of the glute max! It may feel funny, but you’ll soon discover (as I and many clients have) that you’ll get a huge boost in speed and endurance.

How-To:

The knee-out cue should feel like a bowlegged, outward rotation of the knee, where you endeavor to keep the knee out while the feet remain directly beneath you. One way to practice this is to run directly on the lane line of a track. Try to keep your knees outside of the line, while the feet land directly on it.

5. Lift the Knees

This may be the simplest yet somewhat indirect way to improve hip extension. Lifting and driving the knee enacts Newton’s third law of motion, which states that, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A strong upward and forward knee drive creates the reciprocal response of a powerful hip extension push-off on the other leg.

A more nuanced examination finds that pelvic elevation facilitates this upward knee drive, which creates a reciprocal pelvic elevation on the stance/push-off leg. This is a powerful, efficient, core-driven running pattern that is the gold standard of running efficiency.

How-To:

It may seem complicated, but the strategy is simple: lift your knees (or, if you will, drive your whole leg) upward and forward, which will improve hip push-off on the opposite leg.

6. Push Off with Your Feet

As outlined previously, “strong strides start [and end] at the foot.” A strong lower leg and foot–at contact, through mid-stance, and during push-off–helps keep the hip engaged, leading to a larger-magnitude and more powerful hip extension. Conversely, a weak foot causes the whole system to buckle under itself: excess flexion at the ankle and knee essentially shuts down the gluteal muscles, forcing hamstrings, quads, and calves to over work during push-off. (Ironically, the calves will have to work double time for having not done their job during landing and stance.)

How-To:

First, practice the Ankling drill, outlined in the previously mentioned ‘elite-feet’ article, which is an exaggeration of a strong foot and ankle push-off. Then, with running, ‘finish’ the stride with a strong push-off behind, at the very end of the stride.

7. Swing the Arms

Lastly, we return to the upper body. Arm swing serves a triple function in running economy:

  • Force generation — where a rearward-swinging arm aids in both same-sided upward/forward drive and opposite-sided push-off
  • An efficiency multiplier — enhancing both tail-end push-off and efficient pulling under of the foot upon landing
  • Balance — helping to counter forces entering the body from the legs

For the former, the arms, via the scapula and surrounding muscles, once again access the thoracolumbar fascia to channel more push-off power to the opposite hip.

How-To:

Use a small-but-strong arm swing, driving the elbow (and with it, the shoulder blade) behind and downward.

Conclusion

People gravitate to trail and ultrarunning for many reasons, but among them, we are attracted to the notion that we can use the brain to succeed as well as the body. How we move our bodies can be as strong and useful of a brain strategy as any other. I hope you can put these strategies to good use in your next running adventure.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Which of these strategies speaks to you the most? As in, when you try them, which strategy generates a noticeable improvement in the efficiency of your running stride?
  • What part of your body do you think is the weakest? And, can you feel or notice that this weakness trickles along the kinetic chain into other parts of your body?

Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.