Evolved from our hunter-gatherer ancestry, running is a natural movement for the human body. There is also a built-in efficiency in a natural running stride and beauty in watching the graceful and efficient propulsion of the legs and arms in moving the body forward. This type of stride seems effortless and is often accompanied by relaxed and calm facial features.
However, it is common to see running strides that are choppy, heavy, less than efficient, burdensome, and mostly accompanied by tense body language and facial features.
The body carriage and habits we have developed through our body’s history, from childhood to present day, and daily movement patterns carry over to how we run. Running requires a coordinated effort of the entire body, from feet to head, with each part requiring its own balance of mobility and strength. A limitation or imbalance in one part of the body will have a compensatory effect elsewhere.
While it’s helpful to understand specific muscles and joints, it’s important to keep in mind the inter-dependency of the parts as they interact to function as a whole. The body’s connective tissue creates a matrix system of levers and pulleys, creating the biomechanics necessary for movement.
Movement efficiency comes from the parts working together in a coordinated and symbiotic manner. For this reason, it is important to train the entire body in a variety of ways versus seeking one stretch to fix a problem. Besides improving efficiency in your running stride, this also reduces risk of injury.
The biomechanics of efficient running includes a coordinated effort of many body parts from head to toes. If your exercise routine includes only running, some parts will become overused while the under-utilized parts will lose mobility and strength.
Let’s examine one small, but key, part of the body required for an efficient stride: the feet and ankles. The feet and ankles need to be strong and mobile to withstand the weight bearing impact of running. A problem in the foot or ankle can create problems up the body’s kinetic chain. Including some footwork in your routine will pay big dividends.
For efficient movement patterns, the mobility and strength requirements in the feet and ankles include:
- Three strong arches in the feet to provide a natural air sole for shock absorption. Exercising the feet can strengthen the arches to provide better cushioning.
- Adequate mobility of the toes, specifically toe extension, is required to push off the back foot in propelling forward.
- Joints are made for movement. There are 30 joints in each foot so they are naturally designed to be mobile. This mobility allows them to be responsive to their environment and adapt to the various twists and turns they encounter.
Ankle joints need to be strong and mobile. When the leg is forward in stride, the ankle is in dorsiflexion (toes toward shin) as it lands. This puts the spring in the step and lightens the landing. Lack of strength makes them susceptible to strain and lack of mobility creates a heavy landing and a shuffling stride.
Following are a few feet and ankle exercises to work on regularly:
For ankle and foot mobility. Start on knees with the tops of your feet on the floor. Sit hips back towards your heels, propped as needed so it’s comfortable. Hold for up to 1 minute. Over time reduce the props as the tissue adapts.
Improve toe mobility and strengthen the arches of your feet. From Hero Pose lean forward and curl all your toes under. Lean hips back towards your heels as tolerable.
Strengthen ankles. Stand tall, spreading toes and press feet to the floor. Shift your weight onto one foot, without shifting your hips, and lift your other foot off the floor. When you feel stable, close your eyes. Use arms to help hold your balance.
Improve ankle dorsiflexion. Start by kneeling with one leg forward, and hands on the floor or blocks. Slide your knee forward, beyond your toes, while keeping your heel grounded. Hands can remain on the floor or extended forward for deeper stretch.
These exercises are included in the book Yoga for Runners by Christine Felstead. The book includes a comprehensive review of the body’s key joints and muscle groups related to running and general movement. Breathing and meditation are also examined as ways to enhance running.
You can also check out some great tips on walking form here.
Christine Felstead has an extensive history as a long-distance runner and yoga instructor. She married her twin passions and pioneered the yoga for runners concept in 2001. She teaches yoga classes, workshops and retreats for runners and endurance athletes. She has produced two best-selling DVDs on yoga for runners and a 6-episode educational series. She authored Yoga for Runners, 1st edition in 2014 and in August 2021 launched the 2nd edition. She resides in Toronto and recently has made her Yoga for Runners classes and workshops available online.