Leg swing is one of my favorite Pod metrics. Perhaps this is because I am a physical therapist by training and/or because this was a key gait metric of interest in my lab throughout the course of my PhD work. The Pod’s leg swing metric tells you how much your knee flexes during the swing phase of your gait cycle. As Dr. Steve Suydam discusses in his previous post, a higher leg swing is more bioenergetically efficient and is commonly observed in faster runners. And what runner doesn’t want to run faster?!
Interestingly, most of our leg swing during walking and running comes “for free” with a good push-off force before the foot leaves the ground. When we look up the mechanical chain, a high leg swing can actually reflect good use of our butt muscles!
Our butt (glute) muscles are, simply put, the strongest and most powerful muscles in the human body and are critically important to our movement patterns as human beings. Yet many of us have jobs that demand we use our glute muscles as seat cushions and not the upright movement patterns they were evolved to produce. We sit on these muscles for hours on end each day with our hips in a flexed position. These prolonged seated postures can cause excessive tightness of hip flexor muscles (in the front of the hip) and weakness of the glute muscles.
If you’re thinking that all this could affect your running mechanics, you are right! Tight hip flexors and weak glute muscles can compromise your ability to effectively and efficiently push off the ground to advance your body forward. This could land you with a low leg swing metric on your Pod run data and potentially increase your risk for a laundry list of running-related injuries.
Not to worry. I have some tips that can help you use your glutes and achieve that high leg swing!
#1. STRENGTHEN AND LENGTHEN YOUR HIPS
The goal here is to lengthen in the front, strengthen in the back!
- Hip flexor stretch – When the hip flexors are too tight, the leg cannot get far enough behind you during push-off and the glutes can’t do their job. Stretching these muscles can be just as important as strengthening the glutes themselves!
- Glute strengthening – In addition to other glute strengthening like lunges and squats (see Post#2), it can be important to isolate the glute muscles, in part to retrain the brain to use them in this position. I use a few stretchy theraband exercises in my repertoire, usually right before I go for a run to “turn on” the glutes.
- Move often during the day – Walking itself will help to stretch your hip flexors and activate your glute muscles. Take “walking meetings,” go the restroom a floor above you, get a standing desk, treadmill desk, use apps on your phone to remind you to get up and move around…whatever your method of choosing, move! And move often.
#2. STRENGTHEN AND LOOSEN YOUR ANKLE
The ankle? That’s right! Ankle dorsiflexion (the motion of flexing your ankle up towards your head) and hip extension are intricately linked during walking and running. In short, if you don’t have enough ankle dorsiflexion, your heel will rise off the ground prematurely and your glutes will not be able to do their job. This could also cause for a “bouncy” run as more of the push-off force is directed upward instead of forward. Bottom line: Ankle dorsiflexion range of motion and all-around calf strength are really important!
- Foam roll the calves – Take that new Christmas foam roller straight to the calves! I find that doing this before a calf stretch helps the muscles to relax so that I can go deeper into the stretch.
- Stretch the calves
- Strengthen calves – The calf muscles work in synergy with the glutes to push off the ground, so it’s important that they are strong too! My favorite calf strengthening exercise is single calf raises off the edge of a stair. See Post#2 for details.
#3. ENGAGE YOUR BUTT WHILE YOU RUN.
Practice engaging your butt muscles, using them to push off the ground when your leg is behind you (i.e. “squeeze” your butt!). If your butt and your abs are sore the next day, you’re probably doing something right! With enough regular practice, that neuromuscular activation pattern will become entrenched in your brain. Soon you will be using these muscles without thinking about it and watching your Pod’s leg swing metric increase!
On my runs, I typically have 95-100% high leg swing. Maybe this is because I had the opportunity to work with a few very skilled physical therapists early on who drilled “use your butt” into my brain. Still, I work on these stretches and exercises almost everyday for maintenance and improvement!
Run stronger, run faster. Use your butt!