In last month's article on building a better runner, we talked about the importance of the core (hips, transverse abdominis, lower back) in preventing running injuries. Hopefully, you started incorporating some of the suggested exercises in your schedule since staying healthy and being able to train consistently is an important component of long-term development.
This article switches gears form injury prevention to improving performance. Specifically, you'll learn how the hamstrings, hips and glutes power the running stride, and why building strength and flexibility in these areas can help you run faster.
The Role of the Hamstrings and Glutes
Most runners don't realize exactly what powers their strides. They picture power being generated in the running stride when the foot pushes off the ground, which is correct. But in the mental image that most people have, that "push" comes from the quads, much like a leg press, or the calves.
While it's true that some of the power in the running stride comes from your quads and calves, the reality is that the quads and calves play only a minor role in your ability to generate a powerful stride compared to the hips, hamstrings and glutes. The power these three muscle groups generate and the biomechanical process is called hip extension, which is the act of driving your entire upper thigh (and leg for that matter) backwards after your foot contacts the ground. The power for this movement is generated primarily from the hip extensor muscles, glutes and hamstrings, and it is perhaps the single most important factor in your ability to run faster.
Therefore, understanding exactly how hip extension works, being able to visualize the process, and then identifying ways to improve is essential if you want to become more competitive.
What Is Hip Extension?
Hip extension begins as your foot contacts the ground—ideally directly under your center of mass—and continues as you pull the leg beneath you. It ends right before you push off with your ankle.
When you try to improve hip extension, you need to focus on two areas:
1. The degree to which you apply force as the leg contacts the ground and you drive it behind the body, often called the drive phase of hip extension.
2. How far behind you the leg travels and the amount or angle of extension.