The Wheel Concept in Running
Bicycles and cars roll right down the road, but what about runners? Given the analogies used in some of the chapters of the book, it probably won’t surprise you that the movement of the wheel is an ideal representation of the biomechanical essence of running. In chapter 13, we compared the torso of the body to the cab of a car, but we said virtually nothing about the wheels under the car. Here we go…
The 3 Key Points
The wheel is one of the most perfect appliances in existence. Despite its apparent simplicity, the wheel is a complex mechanism with three mechanical properties that have significant implications for human movement.
- First, the wheel is mechanically effective, in that it facilitates forward movement with minimal vertical oscillation.
- The second significant property is the relationship between the support point of the wheel and the body (General Center of Mass or GCM) it is moving. During the entire cycle of a wheel, the distance between the support and the body it is moving never changes. Similarly, the relative position of the two also remains constant.
- The final critical detail is that the point of support is constantly changing, no matter what the forward speed of the wheel might be. Further, the forward speed of the body being moved is exactly proportionate to the speed at which the support point is changed.
To give a visual representation of these mechanical properties, let’s simplify our car analogy a little bit and think of a person riding a unicycle. In this analogy, the “body” is both the frame and saddle of the unicycle and the rider perched on it. Underneath is a perfect moving circumference, the wheel. At any point in the rotation of the wheel only one point on the wheel is in contact with the ground. This is the support point, upon which rests all the weight of the body.
“Unicyclist riding.” The movement happens when the unicyclist leans towards desirable direction
Reflecting the first critical mechanical point, as the unicycle rolls down the road, the wheel is turning, changing support points, but there is no vertical oscillation. The rider’s head remains perfectly level. Why is this important?
As they say on TV, let’s go to the tape, specifically the broadcast of the 1981 New York City Marathon. As Tim Noakes explained in his 1991 book, “The Lore of Running”, the broadcast included a dramatic sequence of Alberto Salazar, then the world’s top marathoner, as he crossed the Queensborough Bridge. In the angle shown on TV, only Salazar’s head and shoulders were visible above the bridge wall and it was clear that his head was remaining absolutely parallel to the top of the wall. In other words, there was no vertical oscillation created by his stride, no energy wasted in lifting and lowering the body. The “Salazar Shuffle” was indeed an efficient means of forward locomotion.
The Wheel Concept
Going back to the unicycle, we note also that as the wheel rolls forward, neither the distance between the point of support and the rider nor their spatial relationship changes. The point of support is always directly beneath the saddle, the torso and ultimately the head of the rider. This relationship is the most efficient for retaining forward motion in the horizontal plane, minimizing any potential braking effects.
Going further, we can look at the rider’s feet as the pedaling motion goes through its cycle. Whenever a foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke, where is it? Directly beneath the rider’s torso, with the leg slightly bent. Remove the unicycle from your mental image and what do you have? A runner in the Running Pose, both legs bent, support on the ball of the foot with the body in a straight line above the point of support. Landing with all the weight of the body directly above the point of support on a leg, that is bent to minimize shock, substantially decreases the load on muscles, ligaments and joints and thus decreases the chance of sustaining injury.
Key to Faster Running
Now put the rider back on the unicycle to consider the final critical mechanical property of the wheel: the proportional relationship between the speed at which the point of support is changed and the speed with which the body moves forward. Very simply, the faster support is changed, the faster the body moves. The lesson here is that the faster a runner’s stride, i.e. the faster he changes support from one foot to the next, the faster his forward speed will be. Stride frequency, not length, is the key to faster running.
It is true that while the wheel constantly changes support from one point to the next, the human can’t duplicate this exact biomechanical efficiency, given only two feet to trade the support. However, we can approach the feeling of uninterrupted change of support. The faster we change support, the more we can visualize our legs as a wheel. We can indeed roll down the road, just as we suggested at the top of this chapter.
Confirmation of this comes from practical studies that demonstrate that elite runners have a faster stride rate than run-of-the-mill athletes at all distances. In his 1997 book Daniels’ Running Formula, the respected American coach Jack Daniels noted that there is data from his many years of practical observation that indicates elite runners tend to run with a stride frequency of not less than 180 strides per minute, which he links to good technique.
If you look at this statistic “backwards”, i.e. first noting that elite runners run with high stride rates, the critical importance of perfect form and efficiency becomes obvious. It is simply impossible to maintain such a high stride rate over any significant distance with poor form. There’s a common phrase race commentators use when the form of a competitive runner begins to deteriorate in the latter stages of a race and it couldn’t ring any truer. “It looks like the wheels have come off,” they say, and when you look at the runner, you know exactly what they mean. The form and efficiency are gone and the runner is now struggling to finish, no longer a contender for victory.
The meaning of the wheel concept is really very simple: to move with wheel-like efficiency, we must minimize bounce (vertical oscillation), land with support directly under the body and maintain a high stride rate. The Pose Method of Running is designed to accomplish all three of these goals.
Continuing Education Seminars
The wheel concept and other advanced concepts are part of the Pose Method® Running Technique Specialist Certification. This seminar offers 16 CE hours towards continuing education for Certified CrossFit Trainers and Physical Therapists. Athletes are encouraged to attend.
Understanding and learning of sports techniques is part of the Pose Method® Sports Techniques Specialist Certification. This seminar offers 24 CE hours towards continuing education for Physical Therapists. Click here for scheduled seminars.
File under: Running, Speed, Technique
Tagged with: 180, Alberto Salazar, cadence, COM, concept, GCM, human movement, Jack Daniels, New York City Marathon, Rodolfo Margaria, Salazar Shuffle, The Lore of Running, Tim Noakes, vertical oscillation, wheel
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