Things I love about running – item #422

One of the reasons that running has become so adhered to my personality is that for all its monotonous appearance, it is one of the most complex things that the body can do. Throughout my adult life I have been relearning how to run (I think we unlearn the skill through childhood). And bit by bit, my form has become more evenly balanced and more symmetrical. But at the age of 46, I am still learning quite big things about quite big muscles.

When I went to Boston earlier this year on an Arts Council trip, I spent some time with Dr Irene Davis, one of the world’s most renowned experts in the biomechanics of running, and among other things, she let me sit in on a patient appraisal. The patient had recently done an Iron Man but had been left with a nagging bit of ITB pain. His initial consultation lasted three hours in which he was carefully assessed by Irene and another physical therapist. Their conclusions drawn, he had some imbalances, but the main thing was that he wasn’t firing his glutes when running.

The tripartite gluteal muscles are the largest muscle group in the body, and our biggest muscle, the ‘gluteus maximus’, is what gives our bums their shape. This is a lot of muscle to be doing nothing while running. If you are not using it you may as well stick ten kilos of sand in a backpack and carry that, too.  Irene’s aim was to retrain this runner focussing on a number of things, but mainly to get his ass working.  She said that in some extreme circumstances, she had even grabbed a butt and said something like ‘come on, squeeze there!’ in order to help runners understand what they needed to do. (There is nothing like haptic feedback for learning new motor skills).

biomechanics assessment 
from the Spaulding National Running Center.


I learned so many things about running and runners in the short time that I spent with Irene at the Spaulding National Running Center (some are in my book and some are in article due out in the Telegraph in a fortnight). But having ‘active glutes’ left me scratching my head. I tried to feel if I had? I tried squeezing my butt cheeks together when I ran like I was holding a coin up there or something, but that just felt impossibly peculiar (and must have looked even stranger as I tried to run with semi-locking knees). Then, today, the penny dropped (not literally because I never actually tried that).  I didn’t need someone highly trained to lean over a treadmill at a clinic and grab my ass, I could grab my own.  So here, in the old fishing village of Aldeburgh, on a rainy and windy August day, I did just that.  Checking that I had no audience, I put one hand on a cheek and could feel that sure enough, my glutes were not firing. All was soft as a favoured pillow.

The look out in Aldeburgh, the view from my window

I tried tensing the muscles again, but this didn’t work and messed up my form too much. So I started pushing off a bit more from my glutes, and it was really easy to feel the difference. I felt my pelvis straighten (lifting my tendency to anterior pelvic tilt). I felt stronger at toe-off. My centre of gravity felt like it moved forward.  It seemed to fix things with my form that usually require focus and concentration.  That’s it!

It’s early days, yet – so I don’t know what difference it will make. And all changes to form have to be done slowly. But as I returned to the Centre of town I toned down the butt feeling though was able to continue firing the muscle group. I urge you to give it a go.

I am just so amazed that something so seemingly simple as running can still be offering up new things to try after thousands and thousands and thousands of miles have gone by under foot.

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