The importance of controlling lateral movement for sport

In our previous strength based blog we looked at how you can structure your workout to incorporate flexibility, strength and skill work. A strong athlete isn’t one who just has strong muscles, but also the skill to use them efficiently to do whatever movements their sport requires. The more specialist the movement or sport, the more niche these movements become.

There are some basic movements that transcend nearly all sports, since they link to the very fundamentals of how we move. Movements like, running, jumping and throwing, may all differ between the distance you’re covering, the type of sport you’re doing etc. but they all have similar basic demands on the body.

In this blog, we’re going to focus on the importance of ‘lateral movement’ and it’s important in helping improve movement efficiency and avoid injuries.

The three planes of motion

There are three planes of motion that we can move through, sagittal, frontal, transverse. In simple terms, forwards/back, sideways and twisting. In many sports, including triathlon, we are aiming to travel in a straight line through the sagittal plane, producing forwards movement. Every joint involved in swimming, biking and running is trying to help us do this.

Fatigue & poor form

As we’ve already talked about in previous blogs, much of our ability to produce efficient movement comes from how skilful we are at that movement, as well as our ability to maintain a required effort. Poorer movement skill and/or fatigue can lead to our movements being less precise, this faulty loading costs extra energy and places extra strain on our bodies. The outcome, reduced efficiency meaning that we must either slow down to maintain effort, or increase effort to maintain speed.

We can see examples of this caused by fatigue when we look at runners towards the end of a long race, if you look at their body position and form compared to when they started it’s visually more laboured. Biomechanical data such as; heart rate, cadence, ground reaction forces (which some watches now measure), are also useful for spotting signs of reduced performance through fatigue.

Training to reduce unnecessary movement

We know that training will improve our endurance and ability to perform certain movements, but what about the movements we’re trying to limit? To produce effective forward movement, we want to reduce the amount of unnecessary lateral or sideways movement since this not only reduces performance, but also puts extra strain on our bodies.

In Swimming, we see this as people “fish tail” through the water, in cycling this can be seen in excess upper body movements such as wiggling. In running however, while the movements are a little subtler, it’s arguably more important to correct since the ground reaction forces in running mean that the consequence of too much lateral movement puts a lot of additional stress on our body.

Lateral movement and running

lateral sling
Efficient running is about maintaining a stable pelvis, so that the legs can move underneath it and torso rotate above it. Think of it as the foundation of our movement and if that foundation is not solid, the movements we produce from it will be weaker. The core muscles in our trunk; rectus abdominals (6-pack), obliques and muscles around our spine all work to control our spine a little like guy ropes on a tent. They stabilise our movement as well as producing the rotation we need for sport. These muscles work with others in the hips and legs to control our pelvis movements.

When we walk, run leap and for most throwing movements our limbs work ‘contralaterally’, i.e. left arm works with right leg and vice versa. This creates a criss-cross pattern of strength and muscle relationship across the body, and with the ability to rotate is the reason we can do most of the exclusive movements we can do as humans, including walk on two legs. In particular for, walking and running there’s an important strength relationship between the obliques on one side of the body and the gluteus medius and adductors on the opposite side of the body, this is our lateral sling.

When we stand normally, our weight is distributed evenly over each leg and up through our body. When we walk or run, as we spend time on one leg and then switch, this weight transfer requires good strength and timing of the lateral sling to keep our pelvis optimally aligned. The faster we move, the more force we create and the larger the impact forces we experience as our foot hits the ground. Training these muscles to not only be strong, but work together is important. We know that reduced alignments in joints cost performance which goes hand in hand with increased injury risk, since poor alignment contributes to injury.

run form comparison
In running, the example image on the right in green shows optimal alignment during the foot strike. Note how the pelvis is stable, allowing the spine to be neutral so that proper rotation can occur. Below the hips, the upper leg is well positioned under the body with correct knee alignment over the foot. Compare that to the left image, highlighted in red, you can see what happens when we cannot hold that hip position. The drop in the left side of the pelvis distorts the whole upper body position, making rotation more difficult, which will shorten the stride length. The knee moves in towards the centre line of the body, to try and stabilise as much as possible, however this puts a less favourable angle through the knee as it’s then twisted in relation to the foot position on the floor.

This loss in form is less efficient, so once an athlete is running in this position they’re expending more energy to maintain speed, or if already working to a threshold pace then they’d end up slowing down.

Lateral strength & stability training

Introducing some lateral strength and stability work into training will help running form so that you can hold optimal alignment for longer. We can do this in a few different ways to fully integrate this into our normal running movement.

  • Isolated strength work; focusing on the specific muscles in the core and glutes, so strengthen them. Side planks & tube walking are good for this.
  • side plankcrab walking

  • Integration strength exercises: using these muscles in larger movements so that they learn to work better. Performing these in a gym allows you to spot position and technique in a mirror. Lateral lunge to balance is a great exercise for this.
  • lateral lunge to balance

  • Integration into run drills: Part of warming up for a track session, or any run really, can be drills aimed at improving run form and muscle function. Side steps, ice skaters, leaps, hopping, are all examples of movements where we’re practicing taking off and landing on one foot.

The importance of lateral stability

Lateral stability is important in almost every sport. Controlling our core muscles will give us a stronger foundation for all movements and while core exercises are a common part of many workouts, knowing how to purposefully train them to complement the sport you’re training for is an important step in making your straining specific to the requirements of that sport. Take time to look at your posture when you run, use the mirror near a treadmill or better yet, get someone to video you running, preferably outside and have a look at the footage slowed down. If in doubt you can always seek the advice of a run coach or a running centre that offer video analysis of your running. This can be a particularly good option for anyone whose bee plagued with running injuries.

Coach Phil

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