Suppleness: compliant or yielding; characterized by mental responsiveness and adaptability. So how does this relate to running? … Vibration! We know from research that vibration is culprit when it comes to many running induced injuries. For many years we believed that it was impact forces that were responsible but we have found this not to be the case, as these forces do not change greatly regardless of running form.
Over the years of watching, I’ve noticed a few things about elite distance runners; most of them appear to be very relaxed during their effort and nothing is forced. Upon closer exam we see that this relaxation originates from the foot as the first domino establishing the tone for what happens up the biomechanical chain.
As the foot makes ground contact it is met with an equal, opposing force. So here’s the deal; the foot needs to maintain suppleness in order for the rest of the body to experience the same. Just watch runners sometime and you can clearly see the result of a rigid foot hitting the ground versus a supple foot. When the over rigid foot hits the ground, the vibration increases and you can see the strain all the way up the chain to the face.
Here’s the challenge though: finding the right amount of suppleness and tension without getting sloppy or too rigid. If the body is held in a proper posture the appropriate tension will develop on it’s own. In an effort to become suppler, many runners relax the body too much creating excessive joint collapse. When this happens the hips get sloppy and the arm swing starts crossing the midline (the core lets go). The other end of this is the foot that hits the ground too rigid creating increased vibration and thus excessive tension up the chain. These are the folks who seem to be plagued with overuse injuries.
The supple-footed runner is quiet, relaxed, deliberate, and has flow … she is a Ninja runner! The toes should be completely relaxed and not clawing at the ground or pulling up against the toe box; the foot strike isn’t forced but is allowed to happen; arm swing works with and not against the hips; the glutes and core initiate stabilization and thus the proper tension through the foot, knee, hips, and shoulders. The Ninja runner makes it look effortless.
Try this on your next run: let your foot fall below you with the toes and all muscle groups relaxed (think soft) except the glutes and the core, keep them engaged. Allow the foot to strike softly and then let the tension develop. Maintain a slight forward fall so momentum can carry you while maintaining a tall posture through the core (keep the rib cage separated from the pelvis via the transverse abdominal).
This is a skill and like all skills, it takes time, patience, and deliberate practice. You may need to slow your cadence down a bit to get the feel but keep in mind that Ninja runners maintain a higher cadence 174-190 spm so bring it back up once you get the feeling.
I promise that if you work on developing the supple foot, you’ll end your runs feeling less beat up and you’ll have better race experiences. You’ll become the Ninja runner!