When we think of running form and improving performance and efficiency, historically our focus has been on foot strikes: forefoot, midfoot, or the controversial heel-strikes. There’ve been many studies and debates around the topic of the best way to contact the ground, and how “we’re all doing it wrong” in terms of preventing injuries, running faster, etc.
What often gets overlooked, though, is our pelvic stability while running. So much of our focus pours into where and how we’re landing on our feet, that we’re forgetting that a lot of what drives running happens above the knee, at the core of our bodies.
Our core, specifically our pelvis, is the starting point of all movements so it makes sense – both from an injury prevention standpoint and an enhancing performance standpoint – to pay more attention to our pelvic movement as we run. Physical therapist and coach, David McHenry explains:
The foot is really just the end of a big kinetic whip–the leg. Core and hips are where every runner should be starting if they are really concerned with optimizing their form, maximizing their speed and minimizing injury potential.
Before getting into how to improve pelvic stability, it’s important to understand the three axes that our pelvis rotates on, and the movements associated with them.
Pelvic Tilt, Drop, and Rotation
Pelvic movement is the movement of our pelvis on three separate planes: sagittal, coronal, and transverse, which correspond to tilt, drop and rotation respectively.
Pelvic Tilt. Most effectively seen from the side of the runner; it is the movement of our pelvis on the sagittal plane. Try sticking your butt in and out to feel what an exaggerated pelvic tilt movement feels like.
Pelvic Drop. A common affliction of unevenly developed and/or weak muscles and levels of flexibility; it is most effectively seen from the front (or rear) of the runner. To get a sense of what this movement looks like, try swinging your hips from side to side.
Pelvic Rotation. Much like its name, this is the movement of your pelvis from left to right (or clockwise and anti-clockwise). Often an issue for over-striders or misalignment, a large pelvic rotation is an indication of driving your stride by throwing one side of your hip forward rather than pushing off of your foot.
Of the three pelvic rotation movements, the two most problematic ones are tilt and drop; tilt has everything to do with your posture and back strain, and pelvic drop has to do with pressure on your knees as you land. These are most likely to be the cause of injury to the back and knees for runners.
Unlike cadence, which is fairly easy to control as a runner, pelvic rotation tends to be a more of a challenge because it’s difficult to conceptualize such a subtle movement on a central location of our bodies without external eyes on you (i.e., a coach). Luckily, there are a few coaching cues that can help you during your run for reducing all three pelvic movements, as well as strength training exercises to do on your off days.
- Imagine you are preparing for a punch to the stomach and keep your abs engaged. This will help reduce pelvic tilt.
- Picture a finish line ahead of you and that you are about to cross it. When crossing, lead with your hips. This will help reduce pelvic tilt, as well as rotation.
- While running, try to maintain a 2-inch window between your knees. This will help stop your legs from crossing over, and reduce pelvic drop.
- With each stride, focus on your gluteal muscles on your back swings. Another way you can do this is by imagining a string tied to your foot that pulls your leg back after each step. This will help control pelvic drop and excessive frontal pelvic rotation.
Exercises and Stretches
Pelvic movement issues are often due to weak core muscles, weak glutes and tight hip flexors — likely from sitting all day. Spending time strengthening these muscles, as well as learning to properly recruit them during runs are the best way to stabilize your core for optimized form. Here are a few exercises you can do at home:
Planks: 30 seconds ~ 1 minute x 3
Target: Abs / Core Muscles
There’s a reason why the plank exercise has been around for years and is the most popular form of core strengthening exercises: it targets your entire core for a balanced workout. Your form is vital, though, so make sure you’re doing it right.
Get down on the floor face-down and onto your elbows and feet — both shoulders width apart. Make sure that you maintain a straight line from the tip of your head all the way down to your feet, and focus on keeping your hips squared.
Related: MyFitnessPal 30 Day Plank Challenge
Clamshell: 3 sets of 30 reps on each side
Target: Gluteus Medius
This is a great exercise to strengthen your gluteus medius, the key muscle for pushing off the ground.
Lie on your side with your knees bent, almost in fetal position. From there, lift your top leg to imitate a clamshell opening up. After a couple of repetitions, you’ll start to feel it in your glutes.
Dropped Knee Psoas Stretch with Rotation
Target: Tight Hip Flexors
The mysterious psoas muscle is the vertical muscle that runs down your core into your hips. Runners often experience tight hip flexor muscles and is a common cause of pelvic rotation.
For the dropped knee psaos stretch, start on your knees and stick one leg out in front and lean into it. Then, hold out your arms and rotate towards and past the forward knee. You’ll feel a stretch in your hip flexor muscles.
Video: Skip to ~1:00
Strengthening these muscles are the best way to see improvement in reducing pelvic rotation on all three planes. Equally important, however, is to understand what areas that need the most improvement in your running form.
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