Long Distance Running Biomechanics
Humans are remarkable at running long distances when compared to other land mammals. Our incredible ability to shed heat – through sweating – and our upright posture are what allow us to run marathons and ultra-marathons. Very few mammals can run these distances, especially at the speeds that elite athletes perform. However, running bio-mechanics is what makes us stand apart from other mammals.
In a nutshell, our ”sustainable distance” is quite hard to beat. While hyenas and wolves tend to travel about 14 to 18 kilometers a day (9-11 miles), African hunting dogs typically travel an average of 9-10 kilometers a day and horses can cover about 20 kilometers a day.
Hundreds of thousands of people, by comparison, routinely run 42.2-kilometer marathons in just a few hours. Each year tens of thousands of humans compete in ultra-marathons of 50 to 500 kilometers. Indeed, huskies can travel up to 100 kilometers in extreme Arctic conditions when forced by us, but in warm climates – no way.
Take a horse for example. It looks like it is taking huge lunges forward, yet its hooves quickly swing back before they touch the ground. Although human runners have shorter strides, they can cover more distance (per step) than a horse. Putting it differently, with an equal amount of ‘gas in the tank’, a human can actually run farther than a horse.
The question remains: how did we get this way? Is it like Christopher McDougall explained in his famous book? Did we chase our prey until they collapsed in the heat? Why did evolution shape us into great long distance runners?
Are Humans Born to Run?
Recent studies have raised the theory that humans have, indeed, evolved to be endurance runners – to chase prey, migrate and evade predators. While most people would say that the Neanderthals are our ancestors, they are completely wrong.
They were actually a parallel species that competed with Homo sapiens (our actual ancestors) for survival. “Competed,” actually, is being very kind; the Neanderthals had Homo sapiens beaten. Tougher, stronger, and smarter, they had a bigger brain and better natural insulation against cold. Skilled weapon-makers and gifted hunters, they had a big start in the race for world domination.
So, since everyone would go Neanderthal all the way in a Last Man Standing contest between Homo sapiens and Neanderthal, it begs the question: where are they?
Running biomechanics is the answer. Neanderthals ruled the world till the weather improved. Forty-five thousand years ago, a hot climate moved in and the Long Winter ended. Many forests shrank, while grasslands stretched to the horizon.
This new climate was perfect for the Homo sapiens, those skinny people found this new climate perfect for chasing impalas. The extra pounds of body weight of the Neanderthals, and their inability to run made them retreat to forests – to chase the big animals, like they always did.
That’s the big difference between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. The latter were not flexible enough, they couldn’t adapt to change so they became extinct. Studies show that the Achilles tendon plays a key role in running, walking, jumping and that’s the main difference between mammals that can run and those who don’t (take pigs and dogs as an example). Both Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals had the Achilles tendon, but the difference was in their running biomechanics.
What is Running Biomechanics?
The mechanical principles and laws relating to structure and movement of our bodies when running. Running biomechanics looks at how we run through focusing on things like how our joints and muscles work during running. Aspects like ground contact time, pelvic movements, and foot strike patterns all feature in running biomechanics. It’s basically a deep-dive measure of your everyday running form.
Running biomechanics is key in long distances because it offers valuable data and insight that can help you run more efficiently; how to avoid injury, where to improve, and what to do to quickly fix it. Although there’s no such thing as perfect running form — runners are different — there is a poor form, and sports researchers have a good idea of what bad running biomechanics actually looks like. When avoiding things such as excessive pelvic rotation and over-striding, you can help improve your performance and efficiency and reduce your risk of injury.
In addition to this, training programs, running footwear, running style, conditioning exercises can all be enhanced when you are able to understand the whole body interaction, dividing the running stride up into separate components. Slight changes can hugely improve running performance.
What are the best techniques for efficiently running long distances?
Everything starts with the Running Cycle. It can easily be divided up into two “phases” – the stance phase (one foot is in contact with the ground) and the swing phase (the lower extremity is swinging through the air -the foot is not in contact with the ground).
The contact/stance phase is usually paid more attention in performance & injury studies as it is the phase where the leg and foot bear the body weight. Often, the swing phase is just a passive movement, the product of the contact phase and not consciously controlled.
Saving your energy for endurance requires you to run with more ease and less tension. Minor corrections can make a huge difference in injury prevention and performance.
- Head Position
Look ahead, neither down nor up. Relax your head, and get your eyes on the course about 10 meters (32 feet) ahead. When running long distances fatigue usually causes shoulders to raise up and the head to tilt back. A frequent issue – fix it by being conscious of your position.
- Stride Length
Do NOT over stride. This is the cardinal sin of (distance) running. Run tall. Run with a low forward knee lift.
- Body Angle
Imagine a line from the top of the head to the arch of your feet. Run tall and keep your back perfectly straight. This is a non-negotiable aspect of posture for every runner.
- Arm Action
Run with your arms relaxed at a 90-degree angle. The swing should be exactly like a pendulum from your shoulders, with the elbows down and the arch extending from chest to the seam of your shorts. Don’t twist from side to side.
Wrists should be loose and your hands relaxed. Cup your hands and touch the forefinger to the thumb.
- Knee Action
Don’t lift your knees beyond the natural swing. Let your legs go forward naturally swinging with the weight of your leg.
Don’t waste energy through stress or tension originating in the hands, arms, or face. Save energy for running with an efficient form.
Foot Biomechanics During Running
The average person logs 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) per year. One hour of running transfers 1 million lbs. of force through the feet. The degree of the force impacted on your body with each running step is about 2.5 times your body weight.
One of the biggest controversy in running biomechanics lies here. Some people claim that heel-striking is better for amateur runners while many researchers and sports coaches highlight the benefits on landing on the lower part of the ball of the foot – dropping the heel, and pushing off the tip of the foot. When you go faster, you have a tendency to land on the lower ball of the foot.
The way that your joints and bones move is referred to as your biomechanics and your biomechanics notably effect both the ground reaction force and the way that this force is distributed throughout your entire musculoskeletal system.
Foot biomechanics are based on the three main types of foot strike:
- The heel strike is used by roughly 80% of runners, making it the most common style, in terms of how your foot hits the ground during a running session. The first thing to touch the ground is your heel, after which the rest of the foot pivots downward.
- The mid-foot strike consists of hitting the ground with the outside edge of your whole foot. Runners who practice the heel strike usually progress to mid-foot when they increase their speed. You could say that it’s the most “balanced” running style.
- The forefoot strike decreases the impact force, as the tip of the foot hits the ground first, being closely followed by the rest of your foot. The downside of this running style is that it requires more physical effort.
Foot types also play a huge role in foot biomechanics:
- Pronation is the distinctive inward collapse of your foot when it touches the ground. Know that it is perfectly normal and what actually matters is how your feet absorb the shock of running which is approximately 2.5-3 times your body weight. The right amount of pronation is a natural function of human motion.
- Overpronation is an excessive amount of pronation. Your arch is capable of absorbing a certain amount of shock, but when the arch collapses too much when striking the ground, the resulting shock can send torque up and down your leg. When not corrected, overpronation—this inward twisting of the lower legs and foot—can result in plenty of injuries to your knees, shins, or hips.
- Underpronation is the exact opposite of overpronation. The foot is usually too rigid (with an inflexible arch) which means the arch does not collapse enough when it touches the ground. If that is the case, the foot does not absorb shock well at all.
It is essential to know your foot biomechanics in order to avoid injuries.
In long distance running even a small issue – through a combination of force and repetition – can lead to the accumulation of damage and injury. In order to buy the absolute best pair of running shoes for your needs, you first have to understand your feet.
Think of running biomechanics as the foundation of your running form, and your running form as what determines the efficiency of your long distance runs. A proper understanding of running biomechanics help you to become an efficient long distance runner to improve your performance.
More Reading for your bookshelf
- The Biomechanics of Good Running
- Evolutionary Aspects of Human Exercise – Born to Run Purposefully
- Strength Exercises for Improved Running Biomechanics
- TransEurope-FootRace 2009 Study
- How to Run: Running with proper biomechanics
- How to Run More Than a Mile Without Feeling Like You’re Dying
If you are interested in running biomechanics and want to try a shoe focused on enhancing performance, check out Airia 1.5! A biomechanical difference affects each stride when wearing this revolutionary shoe. Muscles are utilized in unique capacities, and since these shoes significantly alter the muscular usage patterns with a unique design, you will be able to run faster and/or longer, especially at your maximum effort.
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