When discussing how to run faster, aside from cardiovascular conditioning, the most common aspects are stride rate/length and foot strike type. While these issues can affect running speed and efficiency, there is one area that is almost never discussed that has a much larger influence over running speed than the aforementioned variables.
Disregarding the cardiovascular component, rotation of the hips (pelvis) in the transverse plane (think: spinning around in circles) is the key to running faster and more efficiently. The rotational concept of locomotion was introduced in the early 1900’s by Dr. Robert Lovett and modified further by Dr. Gracovetsky and Dr. Dalton. The catalyst for Dr. Gracovetsky’s Spinal Engine model was derived from watching an individual with no legs “walk” via rotation of the pelvis.
Dr. Gracovetsky developed the Spinal Engine model that consists of two primary aspects:
- Spinal Rotation
- Coupled Motion
When running, the spine rotates (i.e., twists) in opposing directions. This is represented by the hips and torso rotating in opposite directions (counter rotation). Rotating in this plane of motion is termed, transverse rotation. Spinal counter-rotation stabilizes the body and assists in locomotion. While all runners counter-rotate their spine to some degree while running, most do not have the proper degree of hip rotation and thus, hip extension.
To visualize spinal rotation, think about grabbing a vertical metal coil with both hands and twisting the coil in opposite directions. When released, the coil will spring back to the original position. As you can see, releasing the spring creates energy that is used to rotate the hips that in turn, propels the runner forward.
Coupled motion pertains to how and where power is initiated – in other words, the chain of events that causes a runner to propel themselves forward. Regarding hip rotation, the following is the proper sequence:
- Spine counter rotates
- Spine springs back and counter-rotates in opposing direction.
- Hips (pelvis) rotate in the transverse plane
- Hip extension (leg extends behind the hips)
- Foot pushes off the ground
Ask any qualified running or strength coach what muscle is primarily responsible for producing power when running and the answer will typically be the glutes (i.e., the butt). Not to get too detailed but it is important to note that the glutes are made up of three different muscles. However when discussing running performance, more often than not it is the gluteus maximus (Gmax) that is being referenced – the largest and most powerful of the three gluteal muscles.
The primary role of the GMax is to extend the hip. In running terms, this equates to the leg driving rearward and behind the body. However, if there is minimal transverse hip rotation, the role of the GMax is minimized. In other words, the primary role of the GMax and is to push down and rearwards in a downward diagonal motion to move the body slightly upwards and forward. Many runners lack proper hip extension/rotation and therefore their speed, efficiency and GMax activation are greatly reduced.
In summary, if you want to get faster and more efficient, focus on transverse hip rotation to activate the GMax.
WHAT ABOUT THE LEGS?
Perhaps the best analogy to “running with the hips,” is to relate it to throwing a baseball. When throwing a baseball, the power comes primarily from hip and torso rotation, while the arm represents the final portion of the throw and acts as a sling to throw the ball. The same mechanical theory exists for golf and any other sport that uses torso rotation to generate power.
In respect to strength training, muscles are often designated into two categories: Primary and secondary movers. Primary mover muscles are those that provide the majority of the strength required to move a body part whereas secondary movers assist the primary mover. For example, during a push-up, the chest muscle (pectoralis major) is the primary mover while the shoulders (deltoids) and triceps are considered secondary movers.
Relating this to running, the muscles involved with hip and spinal counter rotation and the primary movers while the legs are the secondary movers. When the hips and spine are underactive, the legs become the primary movers and as a result, less power is generated and the chance for injury increases as the legs are being tasked with two jobs – acting as both the primary and secondary mover.
HOW DO I ROTATE MY HIPS PROPERLY?
Like most things related to physical training, the proper degree of hip (pelvic) rotation exists on a bell curve. Meaning, too little or too much hip rotation is considered inefficient.
Due to counter rotation of the spine, the hips and torso (shoulders) rotate in opposite directions. While not always the case, the degree of rotation of the shoulders often results in the hips rotating to the same degree. Therefore by focusing on rotating the shoulders more in the transverse plane, this can often result in greater hip rotation.
Conversely, by focusing on pushing back with the drive leg(s) and extending the leg behind the body, this will often cue the hips to rotate.
It is likely that when learning how to rotate the hips, an individual will over rotate the hips. This is normal and expected. Initially, the most important thing to learn is how to cue the hips to rotate. Once they learn how to rotate the hips via counter-rotation of the spine, they can optimize the degree of rotation for their ideal running stride.
- Gracovetsky S. “Is the lumbodorsal fascia necessary?” J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2008 Jul;12(3):194-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2008.03.006. Epub 2008 May 16.
- Roberts TJ, Azizi E. “Flexible mechanisms: the diverse roles of biological springs in vertebrate movement.”J Exp Biol. 2011 Feb 1;214(Pt 3):353-61. doi: 10.1242/jeb.038588.