Improve Your Running Efficiency: Why High Knees Are Out
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
All Runners can benefit from running more efficiently. Having an efficient stride means having to put less effort into going the same distance. This can make you a faster runner as well as help you to run further. But what actually helps your running efficiency?
You're trying to figure out what drills you can do, and your mind thinks back to those high school track days. You remember the sun gleaming off the empty bleachers, the high-pitched trill of coaches’ whistles, and the smell of overapplied cologne mixed with adolescent body odor. And you remember standing in a circle with your teammates warming up with high knees and butt kickers (along with static, cold stretches - eek! More on that another time).
Seems harmless enough, and it seems to make sense. You’re warming up your legs. You get your breathing going a bit. I have news for you, though. High knees and butt kickers are a waste of time. If you’re like most adult runners, you have a job. You have a family. You have a life outside of running. The efficiency of your time spent working out is just as important as the efficiency of your stride.
It’s time to quit the high knees and butt kickers… and here’s why.
Skip the Butt Kickers
When you run, your whole body is working together to propel you forward. Head, shoulders, knees, and toes. Maybe not your eyes, ears, mouth, and nose… but you get the picture.
If you’ve never done the butt kickers drill before, it’s exactly as it sounds. Run in place. Make sure your heel reaches your bum on the back kick. Repeat until you’re nice and warmed up.
Originally the thinking with butt kickers was that it helps to activate the hamstrings for a faster kick and leg turnover. You could push off harder and have a higher cadence. The activation of your hamstrings is the problem with butt kickers, though.
When you run, you don’t actually use your hamstrings actively. They’re passively activated by the surrounding muscles and have more of a supporting role to the stars of the show like the quads. Activating your hamstrings isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it won’t exactly help your running efficiency.
For a great article about passive vs active muscle activation while running, check out this article from The Science of Running.
High Knees Are Out, Too
A high knees drill is basically the same as the butt kickers, but with an overemphasis on the forward drive of the legs instead of the back kick. Run in place. Hold your hands at hip level. As you’re “running”, reach your knees high enough to tap your hands.
This drill is meant to teach you to “drive with your knees”. When you sprint, your knees do actually reach higher than when you’re out for a light jog. The problem with the high knees drill is that the lift of your knees is a passive motion when it comes to actual running.
Think of a rubber band. When you run, you use your quads to push your leg back and you stretch the rubber band. When released, your knee springs forward and up. When you run faster, the rubber band stretches further with your longer stride. Therefore, your knee springs up higher when the rubber band is released.
Doing a high knees drill doesn’t utilize this rubber band action at all. So much like butt kickers, it may warm your body up, because you are actually moving your body. But it’s not likely to do anything to actually help your running efficiency and form.
Long Distance Running Exercises that WILL Improve Your Efficiency
So, what can you do instead?
Here’s some good news. There are some running drills and exercises you can do that actually help your running efficiency and form. Replace your high knees and butt kickers with these exercises, and you’ll be well on your way to more efficient running.
The best way to describe exaggerated skips is to have you think of Mario. Or Luigi. Skip in a forward motion, one arm reaching for that coin that’s suspended in mid-air. Jump as high as you can, and as far forward as you can.
The benefit of exaggerated skipping is that it uses your entire body for the motion. You use your arms, your quads, your calves, and your core. The upward and forward motion of the skipping better mimics the act of running. It warms up the muscles that are actively used when you run.
Unlike with high knees, the exaggerated upward drive of the knee is necessary to complete the action. Try to get any height without a high knee in this drill. You barely leave the ground. If you’re Mario, you just missed that coin.
Strides are not just for sprinters and they’re not just a track workout! Strides can be built into the warm-up portion of your run, or into the middle of your run.
Find a nice straightaway about 100 yards long. Gradually increase your speed for 20 seconds until you’re almost at your top speed. Then walk or return to your normal warm-up speed. This acceleration will elongate your stride and emphasize the activation of all the muscles that help make you a more efficient runner.
Running strides warms up the rubber band motion of your knee drive and back kick. It also forces you to optimize your form because your body doesn’t want to waste any energy when it is running fast. It uses your entire body and all of your muscles from head to toe that are needed throughout your run.
If you’re warming up for a trail run, listen up!
Stand on one leg. Using your arms and your other leg to help your momentum, hop up and forward for 10 jumps. Turn around, and hop back on the opposite leg.
Much like the exaggerated skip, the single-leg hop also utilizes your entire body to propel itself upward and forward. You’ll find yourself activating your quads, your calves, your core, your shoulders, your ankles, and your feet.
The addition of the one-legged balance with this drill helps to activate all the little muscles and tendons of your feet, ankles, and calves that are activated to keep you balanced over varied terrain throughout your run on trail.
So, who are these drills meant for?
In a word: Everyone! Whether you’re training for a 5k or a 50k, everyone can benefit from becoming a more efficient runner. If you’re a strong, efficient runner, you’re more likely to run with proper form. Therefore, you’re less likely to get injured.
Being an efficient runner also means you’ll run faster, as you’ll get more power with each stride. You’ll also be able to run further with less effort.
Look for more running form guidelines? Check out our Perfect Your Running Form with These 11 Running Form Components post for more and our free pocket sized guide (included with newsletter sign up)!
If you want more daily tips, inspiration, and entertainment from me, come check me out on Instagram @brentsrunabout. I’d love to connect with you and hear what you’re up to with your running journey!
Jillian Beckham is a freelance copywriter at Beckham Copywriting. If you're interested in improving your online presence, saving time, and increasing revenue, contact her for a free 15-minute consultation to see how she can help you reach your business goals.