Improve Your Walking and Running with Pelvic Rotation
"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
Over the ten years of teaching Chi Running and Chi Walking and studying the movement of thousands of people, and in the practice of my own running and walking, I have become more and more aware of the crucial role the pelvis plays in efficient movement.
When the pelvis is being used as it should, the gains in efficiency, injury reduction, and speed, and I’ll use the word – power – is truly amazing. It is the kind of power that does not come from force, but from alignment and relaxation. It is a power that comes from allowing your body to do what it is meant to do.
Decades of improper movement, poor posture, and social attitudes about the pelvic area have created pelvises that are not stable enough and not mobile enough. The pelvis has two huge roles that seem incompatible, but are part of the wonder of the human body. The first is to create stability for the whole body during movement. The pelvis joins your legs to your torso. It is what makes your body one whole unit. The second function is to allow movement. When the pelvis is first stable and secondly mobile, it rotates correctly and freely, and the human body moves in a very strong and graceful way.
In a previous article, Focus on the Pelvis, we looked at how pain or soreness in the back, hips, IT band, and feet can all be addressed by holding the pelvis level and engaging the core muscles while walking and running. Keeping your pelvis level and stable limits the front-to-back and side-to-side motion of the pelvis. This in turn gives your entire body a strong foundation during movement, and drastically reduces the possibility of any injuries in your lower back, hips, knees and ankles. Here, the leveling of the pelvis is a stabilizing force.
The next step, once you've learned how to level your pelvis, is to learn to move that level pelvis as you walk and run. This happens by allowing your pelvis to rotate in the direction your rear leg swings. This rotation is crucial to injury prevention and efficiency. By allowing your whole lower body to rotate around the vertical axis, you can gain from 1 to 4 inches with each stride. Any amount that your pelvis rotates along with that leg as it swings behind you will add inches to your stride and ease the amount of work done at the hip joint. A longer rearward stride (without the heel striking that comes from overstriding) can reduce the amount of impact to your knees, hips and lower back. In addition, rotating your pelvis around the vertical axis allows you to tap into a very powerful set of core muscles deep within the abdomen - the iliopsoas. This big muscle elongates at the back of your stride. Then, as your foot leaves the ground, it naturally recoils from its stretched position which returns your leg to the support phase of your stride without engaging your quadriceps.
Here's an image to help you get a sense of what I'm talking about. Picture a chandelier hanging in a hotel lobby. Most chandeliers are suspended by a cable hanging from a single point on the ceiling. If you could grab the chandelier and spin it, the entire light fixture (including the cable) would move as a single unit. Now imagine that your pelvis is like that chandelier and that your upper body is stationary like the ceiling. Then imagine that your entire lower body is "suspended" from a single point along your spine. That specific place on your spine is right at the point where the upper spine (Thoracic area) meets the lower spine (Lumbar area). In Chi Running terminology, we say that this is the dividing point between your upper body and your lower body. In fact, I go one step farther and tell runners to imagine that their legs begin at this juncture point (T12/L1). If your entire lower body rotates from this point, while your upper body remains "fixed," your running will be much more efficient and easier on your body. On the other hand, if your pelvis doesn't move when you walk or run, it means that all of the swinging motion of your legs originates at your hip joints. Over time this can create overuse injuries in the hip area such as hip bursitis, hamstring pulls, IT Band inflammation and hyper-extension of the hip flexors, especially when you try to run or walk faster with a bigger leg swing.
Try this exercise.
1. Stand with your right foot slightly in front of the left, both feet flat on the ground and your weight shifted a little bit more to the front foot. Both knees should be soft, not locked. Hold your arms at your sides with your elbows bent as though your forearms were resting on the arms of a big chair.
2. Level your pelvis (see page 68 in the Chi Running book)
3. Holding your pelvis level, rotate it clockwise and then counter-clockwise.
4. Keep your upper body motionless and your shoulders still while you're rotating your hips. Imagine your shoulders are two headlights and the beams are always pointed straight ahead (shoulders still).
5. After doing this for 30 seconds, switch legs so that the left foot is in front, and rotate your pelvis some more.
Adding this exercise to the body looseners you do before your run or walk can help you feel your spine twisting at the T12/L1 junction and create more range of motion in your lower body without over-stressing your hip joints.
The key phrase to remember here is this: every time your leg swings out behind you, allow your hip to go back with it … read the illustration below.
The Pool Running Drill
Here's a fun exercise to give you a sense of what it feels like to rotate your pelvis. Think back to a summer long ago when you were a kid playing with your friends at your local swimming pool. Remember getting out of the pool at the shallow end and racing your friends to be first in line for the diving board or slide? What did you do? If you were like me, you ran to the diving board but was always foiled by the lifeguard yelling…. “Hey you, WALK!” So what you did was try to walk as fast as you possibly could without actually breaking into a run.
So here's what to do: A friend can help or just use your imagination. Go outside and find a spot about 25 yards away that you can run to. Then tell your friend to play the part of the lifeguard and, at some point after you begin running, have them yell, “Hey you, WALK!” At which point you should drop into the fastest walk you can possibly do. Hopefully, one of the first things you'll notice is that your pelvis is rotating and moving with your legs as they swing.
We have discovered that it is easier to learn pelvic rotation while walking than while running. Once you can feel this sensation in your walking you’ll be able to integrate it into your running. While running you want to allow your hips to rotate as fully as they do during this exercise. For some advanced work get a Chubby Checkers record and do the twist!
By developing the ability to rotate your level pelvis around the vertical axis of your spine, you can open up a new avenue of Chi Walking and Chi Running for yourself that will give you a longer, smoother, more fluid stride.
Give it a try and don’t forget to stop by the Chi Running and Chi Walking forums if you have any questions.
Resources to help you master the Chi Running basics:
- Chi Running Book: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless Injury-Free Running
- Chi Running DVD: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless Injury-Free Running