I’ve recently started acknowledging my hamstrings (and when I say “acknowledging” I don’t mean I’ve been having actual conversations with them, like I sometimes do with my shoes. I’m not weird you know). What I mean is, I’ve begun to accept the fact that they’re there, and that they do stuff. Important stuff. I used to think that the hamstrings were just there to stop your legs falling off, but these days I know better – it’s willpower that stops your legs falling off, and possibly some sort of inside-the-body glue. And it’s not just the hamstrings I’ve suddenly taken an interest in either; it’s the whole whole posterior chain, which is a fancy term for all the muscley stuff that happens behind you, including the hamstrings, glutes and back.
(I should point out that I’m an expert of running form and physiology in exactly the same way that I’m a talking pineapple called Colin, i.e. not really very much at all)
My running form has always consisted primarily of throwing myself forwards and hoping that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, my legs will catch up with the rest of me. But then I started reading articles about running technique and talking to people who know about this sort of thing, and I soon realised that, like many other runners, I wasn’t making best use of all the bits in my legs (if you’ll excuse the technical jargon). I’ve always had a tendency to think of my legs in very basic terms: quadriceps in front, hamstrings at the back. I just sort of assumed that the quads were for running, jumping, squatting, basically anything physical, while the hamstrings were really just there to be pulled, the useless idiots.
The glutes (which is science’s clever way of stopping us from saying the word “bottom”) are the largest muscles in the human body, and capable of generating a phenomenal amount of power. Unfortunately, as a species we now spend our days sitting down sipping vanilla-and-onion mocha lattes rather than bounding around the countryside hunting for squirrels and being chased by dinosaurs. I wasn’t very good at history.
But my point is, the glutes (along with the rest of their chums in the posterior chain) are under-used these days, even by runners and other sporty types. They’re the body’s equivalent of the awkward fidgety spotty kid who never gets asked to dance at the school disco. The way I ran relied mostly on the quadriceps doing all the hard work, while my posterior chain just sort of hung around feeling unwanted and wondering why Cathy Timmins wouldn’t go out with it.
There were a couple of things I hadn’t realised:
- As I mentioned earlier, the muscle groups that make up the posterior chain are huuuuge and capable of generating tons of power.
- It’s really quite easy to recruit these muscles groups to do your evil bidding (or just to help you run; it depends on what you want out of life I suppose)
My hamstring journey began last year at the very first Write This Run seminar, where running guru Karen Weir (www.runwithkaren.com) was one of the speakers. I blogged about the seminar here, but here’s a cut’n’paste of what I had to say about it, in case you’re too lazy to read the whole thing or maybe your hyperlink-clicking finger is a bit tired:
“Top running coach Karen Weir shared some great tips on running form. Apparently, we should aim to keep our glutes 30% engaged. A few people weren’t sure how to measure this, but I find the easiest way is to engage them to 70%, then take away 10% engagement and just halve what’s left. Simple. She also advised us to keep a credit card clenched between our butt cheeks. I think she meant an imaginary one, but my way is better as it deters potential muggers.”
So for a while now I’ve been trying to incorporate the “semi-clench” technique into my running form, as well as picking my heels up a little more. Both of these techniques encourage the glutes to fire, recruiting the posterior chain and taking some of the load away from the quads.
(I’ll have to double-check, but I think the amount of training buzz-words in that last sentence now qualifies me as a personal trainer).
I’ve been keen to phase these changes in gradually rather than dramatically switching my technique overnight. This is an uncharacteristically sensible approach for me, but it’s mostly down to the fact that I have a very short attention span and only actually remember to do it for a few seconds at a time. When I do consciously engage the posterior chain during a run, I’ve noticed some interesting results, especially if fatigued. My movements become noticeably more fluid, and I find it easier to cycle my legs, rather than just pounding them up and down like some sort of steam-powered franking machine that’s accidentally been switched to “kill”. My heels begin to naturally flick up after each stride, as if they’re connected to my butt by elastic (they’re not, I checked).
Looking at my stats from these runs (ooh, stats!), things get even more interesting. At the point in the run where I switch to a more hamstringey (real word) technique, my pace speeds up considerably but my heart rate and perceived exertion are unaffected.
I’ve noticed that I’ve started unconsciously running like this more and more, while at the gym I’ve also been trying to incorporate a bit more work on my core and posterior chain (and by “a bit more” I mean “some”). I’ll keep you updated, and let you know if my legs turn inside out or I suddenly break a 2-minute mile.
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