Efficient powerful running is truly beautiful to watch.
When I observe a graceful runner performing their craft I am captivated and in awe that elegance and strength can coexist in such a wonderful way.
As with any sport, some people are just born with the ability to run with ease and lightness of step.
Most runners, however, need to practice running to obtain a graceful stride.
So what exactly is happening to make running look and feel strong, efficient, and fluid?
In order to run you need to be able to generate force and absorb shock. Stated another way, you need to push yourself forward and dampen impact forces while landing.
Unlike walking, where both feet are on the ground for a significant part of the gait cycle, in running there is never a time when both feet are on the ground. Plus, during running, you have to properly land from the “float” phase where significant forces are present.
You can learn more about the running gait cycle and shock absorption from this article.
"Powerful Running: 2 Keys To A Strong Stride."
…And shock absorption in running is NOT about the shoes. A recent post I wrote will explain why it’s about YOU and not about the SHOE.
5 Progressive Strengthening Exercises To Help Runners Improve Shock Control
These 5 exercises are designed to progress in terms of difficulty and impact loading. Since running is a plyometric based exercise, the majority of these drills include jumping and landing.
This program has been designed to progress in terms of complexity, loading, skill, and strength.
- Exercises start on two legs and progress to 1 legged drills
- Exercises start with minimal jumping and progress to maximal jumping
- Start these drills without using additional weight and add weight as you master each drill
- Exercises start with additional balance support and support is removed as you progress
Exercise #1 Quick Squat Drop
This exercise will help you learn the ability to absorb shock in a “hip dominant” position.
Often times, runners lack sufficient gluteal strength and therefore run using predominately their quadriceps. This makes proper shock absorption difficult and can result in issues like patellofemoral pain and patellar tendonitis.
In this drill, using a band around your knees will encourage your gluteal tissue to activate and assist in shock control.
Perform the drill by starting from a standing posture with legs slightly bent. In your head count down 3,2,1 and then “drop” into a squatted position as fast as you can and pause at the bottom of the motion for 2 seconds. You may find performing a slight bounce at the beginning can help with the quickness of descent. There should be no pause when your feet hit the ground.
Exercise #2 Lunges
The next double leg exercise that "leads into" single leg activity is lunges.
Frequently lunges are performed using an upright back posture and a large step forward or backward. Performing an lunge in this fashion will ensure you work your quadriceps but will lack sufficient gluteal activation. Again, the idea of this exercise series is shock control and being able to actively use your hip and buttocks muscles greatly assists with absorbing impacts.
To perform a "hip dominant" lunge, you need to take a shorter step forward and incline your torso forward (chest over knees). This forward trunk lean is what activates or kicks on the gluteal muscles.
Additionally, it is necessary to keep your pelvis held in a level position. Typically, the movement fault with a lunge is opposite side hip drop (so if you are stepping forward on your left leg, your right hip will drop). When your hip drops it means you are no longer using your "active" shock control system (muscles) and are instead using your "passive" system (your hip joint).
Performing this exercise in a mirror is a must. Visual feedback will allow you to also control the position of your knee. Ideally, your knee should remain facing forward and not "cave inwards" (also a sign of passive shock absorption).
Exercise # 3 Single Leg Quick Squat
This exercise begins the single leg training drills.
The single leg quick squat is exactly like the double leg quick squat except using only 1 leg. This increases the demand and work on the gluteal muscles, trunk, quad, and calf.
Plus, as we progress with single leg drills, the exercises themselves begin to mimic the landing phase of running.
Again, it is important to perform this exercise in front of a mirror to ensure proper lower leg alignment at the pelvis and the knee. Also, it is important to keep your knee behind your toes to avoid overloading the quadriceps muscle.
This is a great time to practice proper arm swing. If you are performing the single leg squat drop on the left leg, then be sure to land with the right arm forward in a 90 degree position (like in running). As you gain confidence and control with this exercise, add a dumbbell to the hand opposite the landing leg.
Exercise # 4 Single Leg Split Squat Jump
Now we are going to add a jumping action to the single leg squat drill.
Since single leg activity requires a higher level of motor control at the core, hips, and knees we add back in a bit of support. I prefer to use a bench or chair to support the non-jumping leg. A flat bench helps to provide a visual cue to help you align your pelvis on the horizontal AND it gives you a cue to "sit back" during the drill.
The movement faults for this drill are to let your knees move forward of your toes, to let your pelvis drop, to keep an upright torso, and to side bend laterally upon landing.
If you are unable to control these faults with the jumping action, just start without the jumping and work your way up. Just as in previous drills, be sure to coordinate your arm motions to mimic running. You can also add weight to this exercise to increase the difficulty.
Remember, get into the landing position "quickly" without arresting your motion upon landing.
Proper starting and landing position
Exercise #5 Single Leg Squat Jump
This exercise is the culmination of all the other skills learned in the other drills.
The single leg squat jump requires strength, power, core control, lower extremity control, speed, balance, and endurance. Sounds pretty similar to running itself!
To perform this drill correctly takes time, practice, and the foundational movement control learned from previous drills. Plyometric movements tax the muscle tissue to a greater extent than regular exercise so don't be surprised if you are quite sore after doing just a few of these single leg squat jumps.
Again, a mirror is the best feedback tool for this movement. If you can perform 10-15 repetitions of this exercise with proper form than you are primed for powerful efficient running.
Whether you are a seasoned or brand new runner, these exercises can greatly improve your ability to absorb shock and run with grace and power.
As these drills have shown, shock absorption in running is way more than just shoes!
Written By: Kevin Vandi DPT, OCS, CSCS
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Kevin Vandi, DPT, OCS, CSCS
Dr. Vandi is the founder of Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy — with his background in physical therapy, orthopedics, and biomechanics, he is a highly educated, compassionate specialist. Using state-of-the-art motion analysis technology and data-driven methodologies, Kevin has assisted a wide range of clients, from post-surgery patients to youth and professional athletes. When he isn’t busy working or reading research, he spends his time with his wife Chrissy and their five wonderful children, often enjoying the outdoors and staying committed to an active lifestyle.