The Elephant in the Room

African Elephant
The movement of your pelvis when you run is like the movement of an elephant: very important even if it’s small compared to the legs.

Let’s talk, again, about pelvic stability. I’ve been reading and really enjoying Anatomy for Runners by Jay Dicharry, but rather than unnecessarily re-iterate all the valuable and insightful recommendations he gives (just go read the book!) I’m going to comment on my point of disagreement with him – namely pelvic or core stabilization — since that’s where I have something to contribute.

In his book Dicharry mentions that the pelvis moves 12-15 degrees in the transverse plane when running – which is to say if you were standing in the middle of a clock your pelvis would turn about 2-2.5 minutes. However the comment is almost an aside, while throughout the book he talks about how important it is for runners to work on their core stability.

2-2.5 minutes on the clock doesn’t sound like a very big movement, and if we accept that figure as true – I don’t measure it and I haven’t found other figures for it either, so we will – it couldn’t be big enough to matter, could it?

I have a story to tell you. Once upon a time there was an elephant and two squirrels who were friends. They liked to go for walks together holding hands, with the elephant in the middle and the squirrels on either side. The squirrels had a lot of energy and loved to bound this way and that, but the elephant was a deep thinker who liked to stop and ponder the things he saw. He might stand for a long time considering a tree or a cloud, while the squirrels holding onto his hands would jump this way and that. But the squirrels never got very far, no matter how much energy they expended, until the elephant took a step.

Your pelvis is your elephant. If it’s massive and it’s in the middle then a small movement isn’t so small, is it?

Take a look at this somewhat odd slow-motion video of clips from the 2008 Olympic men’s marathon. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind the making of this video, which I found on YouTube, or why we’re watching so much slow-mo of people pouring water on their heads, but it gives us a marvelous opportunity to watch the pelvises of some of the top male distance runners in the world move. Look at the way the hip shifts slightly to absorb impact and then drives powerfully backwards and downwards through late stance.

So if core stability exercises really do reduce the movement of the pelvis, which in my experience they can, what could be the benefit of reining in your elephant? It sure will make the squirrels waste a lot of energy and move more slowly down the road.

In our experience, optimizing rather than trying to stabilize the essential movements of the pelvis – in the transverse and also the frontal/coronal planes – meets the main movement goal for which core stability exercises are prescribed: it promotes the maintenance of a neutral spine (or rather, one which oscillates appropriately around neutral) and reduces harmful overstriding.

If you’re interested in more about this you might like to look at a controversial article that appeared in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapy in January 2010 by Eyal Lederman, DO, titled “The Myth of Core Stability.”

It’s not a perfect article and doesn’t directly address the needs of runners as opposed to people with chronic low back pain, but it is full of food for thought on the desirability and effectiveness of core strengthening exercise vs. sports-specific movement.

If you’re a health or fitness professional who works with runners, I feel the key for you is to think in terms of movements rather than muscles. Understand the movements runners need to make and help them make them, rather than trying to train muscles in a context and coordination that bears no resemblance to running.

And if you’re a runner wondering what to do for better form, I recommend you let your pelvis move, balanced by the movement of your upper body. Give your poor squirrels a break and make friends with your elephant.  With that kind of mass and power working for you, you’ll be much happier with your running.

2 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room”

  1. Jae,

    Got to agree with you, after listening to your talk in edinburgh and experiencing the movement of the pelvis & what I perceive to be good running form from myself, what you said in Edinburgh correlated with how I have felt the pelvis move when I am running at my best. I talked about it with one of my clients, and she understood, put into practice and came back stating she now felt much more fluid in her running.

    I think the pelivical movement is very important, but it doesn’t happen the instant you start running, you must be able to le the body relax & get into the movement of running, before the pelvis is able to go through this range of motion.

    • Very glad to hear it, Charlie. Yes, “fluid” is the word that always seems to come to mind for people when they let their pelvis move appropriately. It does tend to come when you’re warm but if it feels really stiff to start with you could probably use more pelvis movement in your life and not just in your running. After all, the pelvis has to move in walking as well!


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