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The Power Stroke in Running

Runners will do and try anything to run faster. Nutrition supplements, creatine, Bee Pollen, fluid replacements, caffeine, carb loading, and more shoe enhancers than you can possibly remember. Plus not to mention all of the illegal training, performance and recovery enhancing drugs. But the one aspect of running that a runner can control the most, and is probably the easiest aspect in running to address, and is the most forgotten link in the improvement chain, is biomechanics.

Understanding biomechanics is, for most runners, the most neglected and confusing subject in running. Runners know and understand how to run and how to train, but when they have to articulate the why of running movements, they become mental lightweights.

When you ask runners what is the most important biomechanical event in running, the biomechanical event which is responsible for generating the power for forward running, they usually tell you is has something to do with the leg that is on the ground. A good answer but a wrong one. Runners, when they train, concentrate on the leg that is on the ground. Runners believe that is where the action is. When runners lift weights they work on building up the calves, building up the Quads, thinking that they are the key to faster running; not so. That is, simply stated, the power stroke in running, the primary forward driving force in running, is accomplished by the pulling action of the swing phase leg. The swing phase leg, the non weight bearing leg, is responsible for generating a pull on the runners center of gravity. This advancing center of gravity acts on the leg that is in contact with the ground, using the foot locked onto the immobile ground as a lever to generate rearward thrust, which drives the body forward. Therefore, the power for maintaining forward velocity (pace), the acceleration for speeding up (kicking) and the rate at which you run (cadence), is initiated and controlled by the non weight bearing leg while it swings through the air. So if you wish to run faster or if you wish to be able to hold your pace longer before fatigue slows you down, you have to strengthen, condition and imprint your swing phase muscles. The muscles that are responsible for the Power Stroke, the swing phase, are your hip flexors, Psoas Major, Psoas Minor, Iliacus and your inner thigh muscles. These muscles are the last group of muscles to get into shape and are the first group of muscles to de-train when we stop working out. You can almost predict how you are going to do in a race by how firm you can contract you inner thigh muscles. Feel firm? You are probably ready. Feel like jello? You are in for a long day. So if you wish to race well, to paraphrase a popular a workout video, you need "groins of steel."

When we fatigue in a race, it is not the leg on the ground that is slowing down, it is the hip flexors and inner thigh muscles that are fatiguing. As our ability to maintain the rate, pace or cadence that we are racing at becomes more difficult, the hip flexors and inner thigh muscles demand more blood and oxygen than the body can supply. Since the power stroke swing phase muscles are not in condition to function at the level you are recruiting them to perform, they must down shift ever so gradually into a power stroke swing phase turnover rate they can handle. Don't go out too fast. Or in other words, don't let your brain write out a check that you hip flexors can't cash.

Our hip flexors are the Psoas Major, Psoas Minor and Iliacus muscles. These muscles lie deep on our lower abdomen, attached to our vertebral bones running over the inner surface of our pelvis, finally attaching to the inside of our upper thigh bones. These muscles in conjunction with our groin muscles, when contracting, pull our thigh towards our chest in effect lifting the knee.

How do we strengthen these muscles? The best way to strengthen this group of muscles is to simply practice running faster. Jogging or shuffle pace running does not stress or force your body to recruit and use these muscles enough. They will not function long in a race if all you train at is a shuffle pace.

Another method to increase strength and endurance in the power stroke swing phase muscles is lifting weights in a direction that requires you to pull your thigh towards your chest while lifting a resistance. Low weight high repetition will do the trick.

Another way is to put on ankle weights but don't run with them, just lift one knee up and gently down for 30 repetitions, then switch and do it for the other leg. Do three sets of 30 for each leg every other day. Also, paint cans weighted down work well to strengthen your power stroke. Take one can at the bottom of a step. You stand one step up, loop your foot through the paint can handle and lift up, then return it down slowly. Do repeats just like with the ankle weights.

Another great way to strengthen you power stroke swing phase muscles would be for someone to invent a reverse step climber. It wouldn't be hard. You would strap your shoes to the lever arms but instead of pushing down, you would pull up on the step climber lever arm, working your hip flexors and groin muscles. Every runner would have to have one.

The best and most effective way to turn your power stroke stroke phase muscles into tireless super charged "groins of steel," is through hill repeats. Find a hill 200 to 300 yards long and charge up it. Walk back down and repeat several times. Hills build your power stroke swing phase muscles and everything else included. Training with hill repeats will allow you, once sufficiently trained and rested, to hold a faster pace for a longer period of time in your next race.

In summary, running speed is initiated and controlled by the power swing phase leg. To maintain a fast, even rhythm for as long as you can in a race, your power stroke swing phase muscles must be firm and in peak operating condition. By strengthening and training your power stroke swing phase muscles to have greater endurance, you can hold your pace longer, therefore slowing down less, resulting in faster times. The faster you can power stroke and swing your leg through the air - the faster you will run.