The steps of the dance: 3. Swing Phase

SWING PHASE

The goal of early swing is to get airborne and accelerate the leg forwards on a trajectory that will allow it to overtake the torso by mid-swing. While it is essential that the foot should accelerate in early swing, it should be borne in mind that it must decelerate in late swing if it is to have zero horizontal velocity relative to the ground at foot-strike. It might seem at first sight that the need to match an energy consumptive acceleration with a deceleration that will also consume energy should encourage us to be conservative in the generation of acceleration. However, this would be a very misleading conclusion. Our ability to generate adequate forward acceleration of the foot in early swing determines our ability to maintain a particular target speed.

The crucial role of acceleration of the leg in early swing
To understand why forward acceleration of the leg in early swing is crucial, we need to return to basic biomechanical principles. In the earlier posts in this series in which we considered the implications of Newtonian physics we reached the conclusion that cadence should be high and time on stance should be short. Except at very slow speeds, cadence should be near the limit determined by the optimum speed of contraction of muscles. Observation of elite runners suggests the optimum is a cadence in the range 180-200 strides per minute. Elite athletes employ a cadence in this range for all except very slow paces.

Furthermore, time on stance should be as short as can be tolerated, after allowing for the fact that ground reaction forces and risk of tissue damage increase dramatically as time on stance becomes very short. Elite athletes tend to spend only about 50-100 milliseconds on stance, with the longer times being applicable in long events where protection of muscles from damage due to repetitive impacts in important. Apart from these relatively small variations, cadence and time on stance are fairly consistent over a range of paces extending from 1500K pace to marathon pace. Therefore, over this range of paces, the major variable that increases as pace increases is stride length.

As shown on the calculations page accessed via the side bar, the work that must be done against gravity (per unit of time) is determined by cadence, time on stance and body weight. The energy required to lift the body is not directly influenced by stride length. However, increase in stride length must be matched by an increase in the amount of acceleration required to bring the foot forward fast enough to support the body at foot fall. Thus, it is ability to accelerate the leg in early swing phase (and then decelerate it again in late swing phase), that is the main determinant of our ability to maintain a high pace. So how should we do this?

Breaking contact with the ground
In late stance the elastic recoil of quadriceps, augmented by concentric contraction, has imparted an upward impulse to raise the centre of gravity and hip extension has preloaded the hip flexors (e.g. psoas). As the body rises, an active contraction of hamstrings lifts the foot from the ground. Contraction of the hamstring alone, when the hip is already extended, will produce flexion at the knee, pulling the foot up wards behind the line from foot to hip. While this is the path of the foot observed in many athletes, if the main goal is to accelerate the leg forwards, the hamstring contraction should be accompanied by hip flexion.

Accelerating the leg
Fortunately, the preloading of the hip extensors (i.e stretching associated by eccentric contraction) during hip extension in late stance can be utilized to facilitate a powerful recoil associated with concentric contraction of the hip flexors that accelerates the leg forwards.

Deceleration of the leg
However, the price paid for this powerful forward acceleration is the need for a powerful deceleration in late swing, provided by an eccentric contraction of the hip extensors. This is stressful for the hamstrings, and suggest that exercises such as hip swings might play a useful role in conditioning the body during training.

As the hip extensors decelerate the leg, the lower leg and foot should be allowed to swing down to that the knee is only mildly flexed, in preparation for footfall. The combination of contraction of hip extensors and relaxed un-flexing of the knee present a challenge. Because the hamstrings cross both hip and knee joint, pure hamstring contraction to decelerate the leg would prevent the relaxed swinging of the knee. Therefore it is essential to use gluteus maximus to assist in the deceleration of the leg. In addition, some contraction of the quadriceps might also be used to un-flex the knee, but this should be done very sparingly, as vigorous contraction of quadriceps at this stage is likely to result in over-striding.

In summary

Contraction of the hamstrings will help break contact with the ground as the body rises under the influence of the upwards impulse generated by recoil and quadriceps contraction in late stance. However, the ability to accelerate the leg forwards in early swing phase (and then decelerate it again in late swing phase), is the main determinant of our ability to maintain a high pace. Rapid forward acceleration of the leg in early swing might be achieved by employing the preloading of the hip flexors (e.g. psoas) that occurred during late stance to facilitate a powerful contraction of the hip flexors. However, this must be matched by a deceleration produced by contraction of hamstrings and gluteus maximus in late swing, allowing the foot to drop to the ground with the knee slightly flexed and travelling with approximately zero horizontal velocity relative to the ground.

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