The Kinetic Chain And Its Role In Your Running
The topic idea for today popped into my head a little bit ago after responding to a listener email where they mentioned the phrase, “kinetic chain” as part of their running question. And it reminded me that this concept of the kinetic chain has been something I have been meaning to get to for some time, so I figured, hey, let’s just sit down and get this done.
Back in 1955, there was this orthopedic surgeon Art Steindler and as part of his work, he published this paper describing this concept of the kinetic chain. Now, he wrote more than what we will be discussing today, but the basic premise of his published findings is as follows:
Individual joints and muscles don’t work individually, but rather they work together as a group for any significant movement you’ll ever make. Like a chain, your bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons, are all connected and work together. In other words, the human body works as one system through the work of many systems.
For the purpose of this show, what I really want to get across is the fundamental concept that when running, or during most cross-training activities, we aren’t exercising our muscles in isolation. Everything is connected and as individuals, we have our own fingerprint, if you will, on what that means for us. So while our muscles and joints all operate basically the same, we still have differences between us, ever so slightly. We may have a leg that is shorter than another, we each have a different gait that can impact how our foot strikes compared to another, we may have a weakness in one area, that per the kinetic chain principle causes other areas to have to compensate. and thus, all these slight variations are what differentiates us to some degree, but ultimately (outside of genetics as well) makes us uniquely us.
I think most of us are aware that our muscles generally don’t work in isolation, especially when running or playing golf, or tennis, or riding a bike. And, if you have looked at how the fitness industry has changed (especially when it comes to formal programs you now see in gyms, the switch in how workouts are done, in a lot of cases have switched from traditional bodybuilding style exercises, that are designed for muscle isolation, to more functional movements designed to work a lot of muscles together.
I remember back in the ’90s, and early 2000s, working out with weights traditionally meant you were trying to isolate muscles because bodybuilding (particularly increasing muscle mass and size) was the predominant outcome many wanted to achieve. That is not to say that bodybuilding is not a goal still for many, but one thing that has been shown is that isolated muscle size and strength does not always translate well to functional strength (or strength that helps facilitate real-world use or movement. Like scaling an obstacle at a Tough Mudder is jumping over an 8-foot wall, or running up a steep hill on a rocky trail. In fact, if you have ever seen the show American Ninja Warrior, while those participants are certainly lean and muscular, they aren’t the massive bodybuilders you seen in bodybuilding competitions. So while bodybuilding (at least at an amateur level) is great for building up muscle size for more the body composition aspects or for looks, and can be a great thing, total body functional strength, is more applicable in our day to day lives and will help, put off the effects of lost strength and mobility as we age.
So if we take this principle of the kinetic chain, to running, and we understand that running is a complex movement. Not in that it is a hard movement to master, but rather complex in the sense of a lot of bones, muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments are involved, not just in our legs, but throughout our whole body, then we want to look at improving our functional movement and functional strength, but also be aware that we have to look at our training holistically so that we aren’t building up strength in some areas and as a result creating weaknesses, that our body has to compensate for elsewhere.
So how does weakness develop in some areas and not others?
Well, there are lots of ways, but a simple example is when we tweak something during a run, or pain starts to develop, let’s say your hip. Hip flexor pain is a very common pain you may experience if you just started running, or suddenly increased your distance, or just started doing speed workouts and started a little too aggressively. Usually, hip flexor pain is felt in the upper groin region, where the thigh meets the pelvis.
So, let’s say you start to notice this type of pain or tightness out on a run, and as a result, you start to favor your opposite leg to help relieve the tightness. This is an example of compensation. You are compensating and thus pushing some of the workloads to another area of your body.
And, to complicate matters a bit, when it comes to injury, pain, or weaknesses, the root cause may not even be in the area giving you the problem! A common saying you may have heard is that most knee issues or IT issues originate in the hips due to weak hip strength or imbalances, or poor range of motion or flexibility. And in most cases, that would be true.
In many cases, due to this kinetic chain principle, in order to resolve issues in one area, you probably need to start looking in the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, or tendons in the area up or below your trouble area. For example, for years I had tight calves. I would stretch and stretch and stretch and stretch my calves. I would roll, I would do strength exercises and so on, and yet, they never really got that much better. It wasn’t until I had a massage therapist tell me that my hamstrings were too tight and that by fixing those, my calves would start to get better. And you know what… She was right. The problem was, I actually like stretching my calves… For me, I don’t mind calf stretches. But I have always hated hamstring stretches. I don’t know why. Maybe because I let them get so tight, it just really was uncomfortable, and as I got older my beer gut always seemed to cut off my breathing when I did them, some of you may know what I am talking about… I used to hate tying my shoes for the same reason…..
Anyways, let me give you one more example that is easier shown in person, but I’ll do my best to describe and hopefully you can visualize it.
When we run or walk, we bend our knee, thus creating a kinetic reaction upwards and downwards to our hips, as well as our lower back but also down to our ankles, depending on how we are moving at that particular moment.
Using the hip example again, as we stride forward in addition to our knee bending, our hips while visually remaining somewhat stationary, are not. Our hip flexors and other muscles are driving forward and back providing a lot of the core strength when we run. So for many runners, including myself from time to time, we tend to ignore this area. When we run, we tend to focus on our feet, calves, knees, and hamstrings. But the reality is, our hips are driving most of this. So weak hip strength or imbalanced hip strength (which can be caused by uneven running surfaces, or compensation in our running due to other issues we may be doing intentionally or unknown even to us) is a weakness for many runners.
Another thing I have noticed over the years is our tendency to go to the shoes as the root of the problem or the magic wand that will fix all our running woes. I am sure I have mentioned it in the past but shoes are an important tool, but in most cases, shoes aren’t your issue. Often a shoe change works because it does what? It takes impact off one area, but then does what? It helps you compensate to somewhere else along the kinetic chain. So looking at your shoes may be a good start because technically, you “ARE” looking down the kinetic chain to the very bottom of your foot, but many other things can come into play elsewhere, but you only looked down the chain, not up.
Shoes can certainly help too. For example, some people who have flat feet, also tend to over-pronate when they run. Without the right shoe to help stabilize that pronation, you could develop pain in the outside of your ankle due to the added stress on your feet as your feet turn inwards. And, over-pronation can cause your knees to be knock-kneed or turn slightly, which can also lead to knee issues or issues with the ligaments, and tissues near the calf. So shoes ARE important and you should be fitted for the right type of show, just understand, they are only one piece of the puzzle. And if you switch shoe type, you should do so with a slow transition.
Let me drop in a quick story, I just thought of… There used to be this older lady who ran on the Olentangy trail, where I frequently run here in Columbus. I don’t know, never officiallly met her, other than the casual runner’s waive from seeing each other so much cross paths. For years, I saw her running just about every Saturday morning and every Wednesday night along the trail.
And for years, she had the most God-awful running form you probably have ever seen. Her form looked like that famous grainy Bigfoot video all hunched over, arms completely down by her sides, but you know what? It worked for her. I have seen her run half marathons, marathons and she would be out on the trail for hours. I never say her injured. Maybe she had some issues every now and then but if she did, she was not out more than a week or two because she was a regular.
It isn’t that running form isn’t important. It is. But if your kinetic chain is optimized. If your body is balanced, your functional strength and mobility is sound, you will be OK. It is when those small changes occur, whether intentional or not, and our functional movement is thrown out of whack, that we kick off this unfortunate chain of events that through lots of repetition (through all the steps we take when we run), that it pops up and bites us. But if we can have the self-awareness and through a little bit of knowledge or assistance, we can actually strengthen ourselves functionally up and down this chain, then we optimizing our movement. And when we combine that with proper training including recovery, strength training, mobility, and flexibility? We not only reduce the risk of injury, but we actually improve our running performance. We run stronger, faster, further, whatever it is you want to do. And that is why I wanted to cover this topic.
Just a quick word of caution. Changing things comes at a risk. This includes form changes, shoe changes, as well as training changes. To attack weaknesses in your running, it should be done in a very methodical and slow manner. Even when I coach runners, I see resistance to this slow, methodical approach. I feel the same resistance. It comes down to a balancing act. There will be days you push too hard or could have pushed more. But awareness and constant adjustment is the key to managing the imbalances in our own running.
I hope you found this episode helpful at least framing the idea and giving you some ideas on next steps to improve your running.
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