Vertical oscillation running is an aspect of the running stride and your running technique that can affect your running gait efficiency and speed.
But, what is vertical oscillation when running? What is a good vertical oscillation running? How can you improve your running vertical oscillation?
In this article, we will discuss what vertical oscillation with running refers to, why vertical oscillation running matters, what is a good vertical oscillation for runners, and tips to improve vertical oscillation running.
We will cover the following:
- What Is Vertical Oscillation Running?
- What Is a Good Vertical Oscillation Running?
- Why Is High Vertical Oscillation Running Bad?
- How to Improve Vertical Oscillation Running
Let’s get started!
What Is Vertical Oscillation Running?
While many runners have heard about some of the key aspects of the running stride, such as cadence and stride length, vertical oscillation running is a more obtuse subject in terms of running biomechanics.
Although it is true there are aspects of a runner’s biomechanics that are more crucial to fine-tune when aiming to improve running economy, reduce the risk of injuries, and support better performance (such as stride length/overstriding), there isn’t necessarily a hierarchy in terms of which are the most important to consider when trying to improve your running form.
All of this is to say that even though vertical oscillation running is not commonly discussed, it does not mean that a runner’s vertical oscillation doesn’t impact his or her running economy, efficiency, and potential performance.
That said, if you are a beginner runner and have a lot of aspects of your running form and running gait cycle that could use improvement, you might want to focus on some of the “lower hanging fruit“ before worrying too much about vertical oscillation running.
However, in many cases, when you start trying to improve other biomechanical factors of your running stride, you may notice a self-correction and improvement in vertical oscillation running.Vertical Oscillation (VO), also referred to as Vertical Bounce, is a measure that quantifies the distance your body travels up and down during each stride when you run. It is measured in centimeters.
When you watch some people run, they seem to be bounding with a lot of up and down motion, whereas other runners tend to stay more steady in the highest point and lowest point of the gait cycle.
If you were to observe each of these runners from the side, the top of the head of the runner with a lot of vertical oscillation would bob up and down a lot with every stride while the runner with very little vertical oscillation would exhibit only a small amount of difference in peak height and lowest height of the top of the head across the entire gait cycle.
If you picture the graph of a sine wave with its up-and-down undulations across the x-axis, vertical oscillation running would be traced in a similar undulating pattern with the average height of the top of the runner’s body as the mean or “x-axis.”
High vertical oscillation running would be displayed as a greater amplitude or distance between the apex and nadir of the sine wave oscillations.
Low vertical oscillation running would have just a very small wave up and down hovering right around the axis.
Vertical oscillation running is one of the metrics that falls under the larger umbrella of your dynamics while running.
What Is a Good Vertical Oscillation Running?
It’s not possible to fully eliminate all vertical oscillation while running because running involves a weight-bearing stance phase as well as an airborne flight phase.
Within the stance phase, when you load the quadriceps of the supporting leg in midstance, the knee is bent somewhat to protect the joint and allow your center of mass to travel from behind to in front of your body to continue forward motion.
If we had no vertical oscillation running, then we would have to run with completely straight knees and not enter the flight phase when both feet are off of the ground.
That said, the goal should be to minimize excessive vertical oscillation since the entire purpose of running is to maximize the horizontal distance traveled as quickly as possible.
Excessive vertical oscillation is wasted energy going into up-and-down motion, which does not contribute to horizontal or forward progression.
Most running coaches and biomechanists suggest that a good vertical oscillation running is about 5 to 10 cm.
Why Is High Vertical Oscillation Running Bad?
So, if good vertical oscillation running is around the 5 to 10 cm range, why is it bad if a runner’s vertical oscillation is more than 10 cm?
Basically, too much vertical displacement while running is inefficient and will reduce your running economy.
Again, the vertical oscillation is not directly contributing to forward motion, so extra energy is being expended, bouncing up and down that is not getting translated to forward motion.
A high VO will therefore reduce your running economy because the oxygen cost of running is higher, yet you are not able to run faster and cover more distance in less time since the bouncing while running is not advancing your forward progress.
Moreover, when vertical oscillation running is very high, the runner is at an increased risk of injury because their center of mass is traveling up and down quite a lot.
The higher the body gets from the ground, the greater the impact forces of landing because the acceleration due to gravity will increase if your body is “falling” from a higher height.
When impact forces increase when you run, the risk of injuries, particularly bone stress injuries and joint injuries, increases.
Therefore, a runner who has a high vertical oscillation or displays a very bouncy stride is at an increased risk of certain injuries and will be less efficient, particularly over long distances.
It’s natural to assume that because too much vertical oscillation is a bad thing, minimizing your vertical oscillation running as much as possible would be ideal.
Although it is true that if you display excessive vertical oscillation in your running stride that decreasing your vertical oscillation will improve your running economy and potentially decrease the risk of injuries, you can take it too far.
The 5 to 10-cm vertical oscillation measurement does seem to be the sweet spot.
Much below 5 cm of vertical oscillation while running can also be problematic.
If your vertical oscillation running is too low, it is indicative of a lack of that “flight“ phase in running. If you are not getting airborne, you are likely shuffling and almost walking rather than running.
With running, after the push-off on one foot, there is a brief period of time where your body is not in contact with the ground at all. The flight phase helps improve efficiency and running speed.
Thus, a very low vertical oscillation while running is a sign of poor power and likely a slow running speed.
Moreover, a low VO running is usually a sign that your ground contact time is much higher, which again means that your feet are in contact with the ground for a longer period of time before pushing off.
The more time your feet are on the ground, the less time you are actually traveling forward quickly. Therefore, an increase in your ground contact time will generally decrease your running speed.
Depending on your foot biomechanics, extended ground contact time can also potentially increase the risk of certain injuries, such as plantar fasciitis, because the small intrinsic muscles of the foot, as well as the plantar fascia, have to spend more time under tension supporting the arch of the foot under your weight.
Another reason for a low vertical oscillation while running is if your stride is very short. Although there are problems with overstriding, a very short, choppy stride is also not going to be efficient and can reduce your running speed.
In sum, there is a sweet spot for the best vertical oscillation running.
For most runners, this falls around the 5 to 10-cm vertical distance.
Above and below this vertical oscillation measurement running can compromise your efficiency and running economy, reduce your running speed, and potentially increase the risk of injuries.
How to Improve Vertical Oscillation Running
Like other aspects of running dynamics and biomechanics, it is potentially possible to improve your vertical oscillation running.
However, much like trying to travel to an unknown destination without a roadmap, it is important to understand why you have either too high of a vertical oscillation running or too low of a vertical oscillation running.
From there, you can evaluate the potential causes of excessive vertical oscillation running or insufficient vertical oscillation running to troubleshoot the root cause of your VO difficulties.
After that, you can start employing tips to improve your vertical oscillation running, either aiming to increase or decrease it if you are bouncing too much or too little when you run.
Here are the common reasons for excessive vertical oscillation running:
#1: Too Much Tension
If you are holding tension in your quads and calves when you run, your knees and ankles will remain quite extended. This will make your body stiffer, which will propel you up and down more, increasing VO running.
Allow your ankles and knees to go into flexion during the stance phase of running after your foot hits the ground. This will help absorb shock and will reduce the bouncing in your running stride.
#2: You Aren’t Leaning Forward
Although you do not want to be hunched over when you run, and it is ideal to have a pretty upright torso, there should be a slight forward lean in your torso coming from your hips.
If you push off from the ground with a lot of force and you are not demonstrating that forward tilt, your body will spring up higher, which will be evidenced by a higher VO running.
Try to have at least a 5 to 10° forward lean to your trunk when you run.
#3: Pushing Off Too Early
If you push off too early in the gait cycle before your foot has really rolled forward towards the toes, you will bounce up and down more.
Try correcting this by working on running strides. This will help you get more onto the balls of your feet when it is time to push off.
On the other end of the spectrum, here are some reasons for too low of a VO running:
#4: You Are Shuffling
If you are shuffling or dragging your feet when you run, you are not using your muscles properly at push-off to actually achieve an airborne phase in your stride.
Try picking your feet up more and using your calves to generate a propulsive force at push-off to lift your body off of the ground.
If your calves are weak, consider strength training exercises.
#5: Your Stride Is Too Short
Although most runners struggle with overstriding, if you have a short and choppy stride, your vertical oscillation may be too low.
Look into the flexibility and mobility in your hips, hamstrings, and hip flexors.
Curious to learn more about optimizing your biomechanics when running? Check out our guide to how to increase your running cadence here.