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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

A Movement Based Classification for Six Types of Runners

When you spend decades observing runners at different levels all around the world, certain trends become clear to describe how these runners move.  We often see foostrikes classified as pronated or supinated, but rarely do we see classifications of running styles as a whole.  Below we provide six categories in which to classify movement dysfunction in runners.  The first two categories describe limitations at the most basic levels of movement.  Running mechanics may be “flawed” because the body has underlying mobility or stability limitations that prevent it from running “correctly.”  The next three categories describe dynamic limitations related to neuromuscular coordination.  In these categories, the body might be free of fundamental mobility and stability limitations, but the brain’s perception of threat to the body’s anatomy and/or physiology encourages an inefficient default setting in the body’s internal computing.  The final category relates to conditioning or fitness level.  

This classification does not replace individualized assessment; in fact, individualized assessment is what allows for typing.  A typology helps explain what type of corrective strategy is most appropriate.  Coaches and clinicians have their choice of favored techniques to accomplish the objective but we can take things a step further by placing each runner into the proper context.  A runner can fall into multiple categories simultaneously and can change categories over time.

1) Mobility limited  The mobility-limited runner is one who lacks mobility at the most basic levels such as while lying down.  This runner brings mobility limitations to all activities, including how he/she gets up from a chair or bends to pick something up from the floor.  He or she employs suboptimal and potentially injurious running mechanics because mobility limitations prevent the body from doing otherwise.  Some runners may become energy efficient with these mechanics, but such mechanics may also create injury if the limitations create mechanical strain (Note, we are leaving pain out of the discussion because it is the province of the medical professional to determine whether pain is causing the bad movements or whether the bad movements are causing the pain….you can’t make that conclusion superficially!).  Accurately identifying a runner as mobility-limited can help accelerate the corrective process by letting us reach the cause of locomotive dysfunction; the cause might not be a form issue, but instead a function issue.  It doesn’t mean you can’t address both simultaneously, but you’re asking for frustration if you address one without the other.   

2) Stability limited  The stability-limited runner has mobility but can't control it.  Some runners in this category have mobility limitations in the big toes, ankles, hips, and thoracic spine, but create multidirectional mobility through inefficient sources like the knee and low back (both of which are designed as stabilizers and function most effectively in that role).  Movements in these runners tend to be chaotic in all settings.  When assessing these runners, it is important not to mistake instability as a pure strength deficit.  There are plenty of strong folks who are woefully unstable, particularly while running.  The stability deficit is often a product of poor timing and ineffective deceleration skills.

3) Faux stability through a heel strike  These runners create "faux stability" with an over-stride and striking with the heel first ahead of the body’s center of gravity.  The body needs stability to transfer energy during the foot-to-ground contact phase.  Some people can create stability through a quick tap of the ground with their midfoot or forefoot, while others stabilize with a heavier heel strike.  If you want to light a small candle in your home, you use a match, not a blow torch, the latter of which is too much for the delicate job at hand.  Most of us can balance on two feet better than on one foot; most can balance better while lying on the ground than while standing.  Somehow, the heel striker's brain has gotten information that a heel strike provides requisite stability while running.  Until we provide the brain information that a different footstrike provides a satisfactory level of safety to the body, the heavier footstrike will persist.

4) Neurological immobility: Limited length  This runner might have more than adequate range of motion on a fundamental level such as while lying on the ground, in kneeling stances, or while on two feet, but can’t access that mobility in the dynamic setting of running.  This runner might feel the same underlying threat from foot-to-ground contact as the “faux-stability” runner but deals with the threat in a completely different way.  Instead of increasing the length of the stride and tempering the insult to the body with a heel strike, these runners temper the insult to the body by shortening the stride excessively.  This stride doesn’t always require modification, especially if a runner is injury free and is performing successfully.  However, if a runner does undertake stride modifications, it is critical for the modifications to address the underlying cause, which may have little to do with flexibility and everything to do with the brain’s perception of threat to the body. 

5) Neurological immobility: Excessive rotation or lateral movement  Neurological immobility may also result in a runner seeking mobility through excess rotation or by moving laterally as he/she tries to move forward.  This runner might have less of a threat avoidance mechanism than those in the previous two categories, but the basic premise behind the dysfunction remains the same: the body will find a way to “Go!” but there may be consequences for HOW the body resorts to accomplishing the objective.

6) Sprinters  Probably the rarest of the six categories.  These runners move well, demonstrate effective mechanics at shorter distances, but fall apart as the distance increases (think of the 400m/800m specialist who races longer than 3k).  The best correction in this category is to improve conditioning.  Movement that deteriorates may have little to do with movement quality and everything to do with the runner’s fitness level, both in general terms and specific to the particular event. 

Summary

Classifying runners helps us as coaches design the proper corrective strategy for the particular runner by anticipating what his or her needs will be as the correction process evolves.  Nevertheless, this document will continue to evolve as we endlessly seek to refine observations.  The more effectively coaches and clinicians identify patterns of movement and behavior, the more the athlete will acquire the movement skills needed for performance.  It all comes down to context.  The quicker we can place each bit of information into the appropriate context, the greater the success of our corrective interventions and the healthier our athletes will be in the long term. 

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