I haven't run for about 20 years after a motor cycle accident damaged my knee.
I didn't get the knee treated, instead preferring to see if I could fix it myself. And while the knee has gotten better, proper function has been elusive. For example, I haven't been able to run without any knee or hip pain for that entire time.
I've experimented in the past, but my solution for one problem has always uprooted another problem.
It wasn't until recently that I started running again (more like hobble for a bit then walk for a bit) that I seemed to have gotten to the root of the problem and gotten closer to the optimal algorithms for that side of my leg while running. In the process one of the things that I uncovered was a seeming link between the portion of the gluteus maximus that attaches to the IT band and the sartorius.
The sartorius could be thought of as one of the long thigh muscles.
At its uppermost end it attaches to the front point of the hip crest (the ASIC or Anterior Superior Iliac Spine).
From there is runs downwards and rearwards along the inside of the thigh, angling behind the bulk of the rectus femoris and vastus medialis before bending forwards just below the bump of the knee to attach to the inside surface of the tibia along with two other "long thigh muscles", the gracilis and the semitendinosus.
At this shared insertion these three muscle tendons form a goose foot shaped structure called the pes anserinus (which is latin for goose foot).
These three muscles all attach to prominent "corner points" of the pelvis.
Where the sartorius attaches to the ASIC,
the gracilis attaches to the pubic symphysis (or pubic bone) while
the semitendinosus attaches to the ischial tuberosity or sitting bone (the bones on either side of and just rearwards of the anus that you can feel when sitting down.)
Where the three pes anserinus muscles run separate for most of their length before joining at the tibia, the corresponding structure that runs along the outside of the thigh, the IT band, is joined for most of its length.
The IT band runs down the outside of the hip and thigh from the iliac crest to the top of the tibia.
Two muscles that attach to it are the tensor fascia latae and the superficial fibers of the gluteus maximus.
One way to model or think of the IT band is as two separate tendons that are joined along their length. The front tendon is worked on by the tensor fascia latae. The rear tendon is worked on by the superficial fibers of the gluteus maximus.
These muscles also attach to prominent corner points of the pelvis.
Like the sartorius, the tensor fascia latae attaches to the ASICs and from there passes downwards and rearwards before attaching to the front edge of the IT band near the greater trochanter, the "bump" of the thigh bone that you can feel half a hand span below the crest of the hip.
The gluteus maximus attaches to the PSIC (the posterior superior iliac crest or the rear part of the iliac crest) and runs forwards and downwards to attach to the rear edge of the IT Band.
Trying to match strides while running so that my left knee and hip felt like my right, at some point I experienced some slight releases in my knee, like material tearing.
One thing that may happen when the brain uses other algorithms to run the body after an injury is that temporary connective tissue structures build up to support the new movement patterns. These could be thought of as scaffolding. Ideally they are temporary in nature.
My thoughts (and hopes) where that these little tears were just indications that connective tissue scaffolding was being disassembled.
Bear in mind, it's been 18 years or so since the accident, so that should have been more than enough time for any damaged tissues to heal.
I carried on running and my knee felt fine. However, later on, after a stretch and a relaxation the back of my knee started to tighten up.
This has been pretty much the case for most of my runs and I've found that by the next morning the tension usually released. When it didn't, I sometimes found that playing with heel and or outer foot stabilization sometimes helped.
See shin rotations and heel stability for a taste of both foot and heel stability.
Running again the next day, or I should say jogging for short distances then walking for longer distances before jogging again, I experienced a different sort of slight release in the knee.
This series of light tears (or what felt like it) was towards the front inside of my knee below the knee cap. So I stopped to walk.
There's not much in the way of muscle near the bottom of the front face of the knee. The only muscle I could think of that was close and that might be remotely helpful was the pes anserinus muscles (Sartorius, gracilis, semitendinosus).
I activated or tried to activate the pes anserinus muscles by creating a forwards and upwards pull on the inside of the top of the tibia. That seemed to help.
Because one of these three muscles, the sartorius, attaches to the ASIC, I thought it might be worth creating an upwards pull on my ASICs. The idea of this was to anchor the upper end of the sartorius so that it was then easier to create an upwards pull at the pes anserinus (at the inside of the top of the tibia).
That helped a little for the current run. And that was more or less what happened during the course of each subsequent run. What worked one day wouldn't necessarily work the next day so that I had to constantly explore muscle control options.
Generally while I was walking I would try various muscle control techiques to see what worked or helped while walking. Then I'd try it while jogging.
Whenever I lost technique or felt my knee beginning to give way then I began walking again.
Continuing with another bout of running I got the sense that my inner knee needed some stress relief. It felt like I needed to rotate my thigh and shin outwards slightly.
What felt "right" was using my gluteus maximus to create the outward rotation. At the time it felt like I was mainly using the superficial portion of this muscle to create the rotation. This is the portion that attaches to the tibia via the IT band.
What I later found was that the deeper fibers of that muscle where also activating, particularly at heel strike. But because the muscle had a slight stretch at the moment of activation it was harder to feel the activation.
While the muscles that I used to create the external rotation was important, what was also important was the amount of rotation.
If you try the shin rotation exercises in shin rotations and heel stability you may notice that while rotating your shins outwards you may find more tension along the outside of the knee along with greater pressure along the outer edge of the foot.
While rotating your shins inwards you may find more tension along the inner knee and greater pressure along the inner edge of the foot.
Then there's a middle or neutral position where the inside and outside of both the knee and the foot feel roughly equal in tension and pressure.
While running I found that having my shin just slightly externally rotated during heel strike felt most comfortable on my knee.
The amount of external rotation used seemed to naturally cause me to land on the outside of my heel and also seemed to take some pressure off of my inner knee, placing it more on the outside of the knee.
Note that at this point I was still also aware of using my sartorius.
Now I've had trouble with my left side gluteus maximus muscle for a while.
Doing Pigeon Pose Glute Stretch with the shoulder on my front foot side pressing towards my front foot, when pressing the edge of the foot strongly into the floor with right leg forwards I can feel the gluteus maximus activating. With my left leg forward, not so much.
One of the other sensations that I experienced while comparing my left and right legs in pigeon pose was that I could "feel" my right hip bone, my good side, particularly at the ASIC and PSIC. My left side, not so much.
This seeming failure of my gluteus maximus to function also had a noticeable affect when I first experimented with a heel strike while barefoot running .
I experimented briefly withbarefoot heel strike running about a year ago.
Walking I found I didn't have any problem with a barefoot heel strike. When running I found that my left knee tended to cave inwards. And it seemed to be due to a failure of my gluteus maximus.
It would function if I payed attention to alignment, but I couldn't keep it up for long. But when I could maintain it, using a heel strike while running barefoot felt fine.
When the knee is straight the shin cannot rotate relative to the thigh.
Because of the way the sartorius passes behind the knee before attaching to the inside of the top of the tibia, when the knee is straight the sartorius creates a forward pull on the back of the inside of the knee causing external rotation.
When the knee is bent the sartorius, along with the other pes anserinus muscles, can rotate the shin inwards relative to the thigh.
Now in my more recent bout of running I find that I can run without my knee caving in.
Adding the two experiences together it seemed that the gluteus maximus (particularly the part attaching to the tibia) needed the sartorius to give it something to work against.
It may also have needed a stabilized heel, something else that I was trying to create while running.
After some more runs, the feeling I had, was that the inside of my knee was "gapping" or hinging open slightly and adding tension to the sartorius seemed to help to prevent this.
This was provided I had enough external rotation and that I didn't lose this external rotation during the heel strike.
When the knee is slightly bent during the heel strike portion of the stride while running or (as in my case, jogging), the sartorius can create an internal rotation force on the tibia, assuming the hip bone is stable and assuming the knee is only slightly bent.
To prevent gapping, the sartorius may also create an upwards pull on the inside of the top of the tibia helping to prevent the inside of the tibia from spreading apart from the inside of the femur.
For the sartorius to be able to carry out this function, the shin needs to have an external rotation force acting on it to counteract the internal rotation that the sartorius tends to create.
While lying in bed I found that my knee seemed to become lose in certain positions, likewise while sitting. Here again it felt like the inside of the knee was the part that was lose.
Straightening the problem knee while sitting so that my foot lifted, I then turned my leg externally so that the inside of the knee was turned uppermost. I then tried to activate the sartorius by creating a tightening force on the inside of the knee. Basically, I tried pulling the inside of the top of the tibia towards the groins.
Comparing sides I found that the good side naturally had this pull as if the sartorius (and perhaps gracilis) where activating automatically. I just needed to train the other side to do the same.
I mentioned earlier that I tried anchoring the upper end of the sartorius, and form my earlier runs that helped. Later on I found that I also needed to play with "taking out the slack" from the sartorius. To do this I played with activating the inner thigh muscles (the adductors) as well as the vastus medials muscle.
For the IT Band, taking out the slack is relatively simple. Activate the vastus lateralis since the IT band runs over this lateral thigh muscle.
For the rectus femoris, slack can be taken out by activating the vastus intermedius (over which it runs.)
With the sartorius, the answer might not be so simple.
Some slack may be removed from the sartorius by activation of the vastus medialis. However, it seems that it is more prone to activation if the inner thigh as a whole is relatively active. And so to take out the slack from the sartorius it may help to activate the adductors as well as the vastus medialis muscle.
For me it still helped to use gluteus maximus to externally rotate the thigh just enough. Then I found that inflating the inner thigh also helped.
But of course, on the days that followed I still had problems.
Going even deeper, I knew that activating the tibialis anterior can be helpful with alleviating IT band knee pain, particularly while squatting. I then learned (or re-learned) that the peroneus longus muscle also has IT band connections.
Where the tibialis anterior attaches more to the front fibers of the IT band (which relates to the tensor fascia latae) the peroneus longus attaches more to the rear fibers (which relate to the gluteus maximus).
And so I played with activating both the tibialis anterior and the peroneus longus to anchor my IT band to see if that helped my superficial gluteus maximus.
Note that both of these muscles can be activate by the simple expedient of stabilizing the heel. (For some tips on heel stabilization read Shin rotations and Heel Stability)
Playing with peroneus longus and tibialis anterior activation also helped when dealing with after run knee tightness.
My jogging stride is, currently, fairly short, and I found that stabilizing the heel on heel strike is quite helpful. No pain, no "tearing" and relatively comfortable running.
An interesting thing is that about a year ago I finally read about how the IT band may be designed as an energy storage device, basically an elastic, for more efficient running.
For a regular elastic band to store energy you have to pull create two fixed endpoints.
By stiffening the heel prior to impact, could actually help to anchor the bottom end of the IT band, creating one fixed endpoint. Body weight pressing down via the lumbar spine into the back of the pelvis could help to create the other fixed end point.
So in my recent runs I experimented with barefoot heel strike jogging for short distances. It actually felt quite comfortable. Putting shoes back on I worked at creating a solid heel strike despite my relatively soft trainers.
If you've ever watched pole vaulters or high jumpers, my running felt like the way their run ups looked.
Each stride I tried to come down on a stiffened heel.
I still wasn't running super fast or going long distances, but my stride felt noticeably easier and my running lighter.
A year ago when I tried this technique my knee tended to cave inwards, and even then I realized the problem was with the superficial glutes. Maybe sartorius needed to be active so that my glutes could work.
Now while I stiffen my heel during heel strike, currently it feels better to keep my forefoot relatively relaxed, or rather to do it's own thing during heel strike. But, now that my sartorius and glute max are working together I have began to play with varying shin rotation during or after heel strike to see how best to utilize my forefoot. A slight inwards rotation seems to allow me to press off strongly with the inner edge of my forefoot at the tail end of my stride.
On a later run I played with shin rotation relative to the thigh.
I found that externally rotating my shin relative to my foot by using my peroneus longus muscle first and then varying the amount of rotation of my thigh relative to my pelvis (I tried a little bit more outward rotation then a little bit more inward rotation) seemed to help. Later on I focused on simply stiffening the outer edge of my foot and heel.
Note that the heel bone (calcaneus) could be thought of as part of the outer foot since the outer two toes (the littlest ones) all end up at the heel bone while the inner three toes (the biggest ones) terminate at the ankle bone (talus).
One problem I had with this technique is that running up hill it caused some snapping sounds to emanate from my knee.
It wasn't until after a couple of runs that I realized it happened while I was running up hill. Modifying my foot action I found that stiffening just the heel and relaxing my forefoot seemed to not cause any problems while running up hill.
If experimenting with stiffening the outer foot (or "externally rotating the shin relative to the foot") be aware that you may have to switch this activation off when going up hill.
I did try increasing the forward tilt of my pelvis while running down hill in the spirt of "varying techniques to suit the terrain." Following the same line of thought, the pelvis could be tilted backwards while running up hill.
The reason for this is to maintain length in the sartorius and other hip flexors.
What I then found, running up hill with the pelvis tilted backwards, was that it helped to land with my foot ahead of my center. Running on flat land I could land my heel beneath or even slightly behind my center of gravity.
Landing with the foot ahead of my center of gravity could allow me to still land with a stiff heel and outer foot.
Trying a few movements from Tai Ji I found that one transition gave my knee some problems. And the problem seemed to relate to the problems I've been having while running.
I found that my knee tended to cave in when doing a transition from a Warrior 1 like stance in one direction, changing direction 180 degrees so that the problem leg was forwards with knee bent and from there standing on the front leg with knee still bent.
The problem occurred on the bent leg while trying to reach with the empty leg while keeping my upper body relatively upright.
During the sequence of posture changes I wasn't preparing my leg for bearing all of my weight.
I found that I had to set up my hip and knee prior to bending the knee and prior to shifting weight to it.
I'd experienced a similiar solution doing the seated pose janu sirsasana (shown below right).
Bending forwards with my problem knee bent, it felt uncomfortable, even if I did try "activating" the knee (making it feel strong!).
So I pointed the knee upwards first (still bent) so that I was in a posture like marichyasana A (below left). I activated the knee in this position, then kept it active as I moved the knee out to the side for janu sirsasana.
I found now that my knee was actually comfortable when I bent forwards.
While walking I tried to get my leg ready (in particular the knee and hip) just before each heel impact and that felt tentatively quite good.
I did this by creating just enough tension in my hip and knee to give both joints sensation.
Feeling inspired I also tried to stabilize my hip joint (a sort of "squeezing" of the hip joint) prior to heel strike and that also felt good.
But as with most of my problems, that was only part of the solution.
Trying Tai Ji the next day I found I still had a collapsing knee. Comparing sides my right hip (the good one) felt different than the left hip.
A long time ago I used to challenge myself standing up from a forward bend on one leg. (It's challenging if you keep pulling the lifted leg forwards).
One technique for making it easier was to spread the sitting bone of the supporting leg.
The sacrotuberous ligament attaches between the sacrum and the ischial spine, just above the sitting bone. Both the gluteus maximus and the hamstrings (in particular the long head of the biceps femorous) attach to it.
Spreading both sitting bones, with weight on both feet, creates an outwards pull on both sitting bones. It can also cause the pelvis to tilt forwards. This action pulls the ischial tuberosities away from the sacrum which in the process adds tension to the sacrotuberous ligaments. Because of the way that the SI joints are designed to move, this causes the ASICs to move inwards.
Spreading one sitting bone, in particular while on one leg, the work is in preventing a change in the left-to-right tilt of the pelvis.
Standing on the left leg, to add tension to the left sacrotuberous ligament, I had to work to prevent the right side of the pelvis from dropping while spreading the left sitting bone.
Adding tension to the sacrotuberous ligaments can provide an anchor for the fibers of the gluteus maximus and hamstrings (particularly the biceps femoris long head) that attach to it.
And actually, when got the idea of spreading the sitting bone while doing Tai Ji my first thought was that it was a way of activating the outer hamstrings. At the time I'd forgotten about the obturator internus and the sacrotuberous ligament.
Both the long head of the biceps femoris (as well as the short head) attach to the top of the fibula and have connections with the peroneus longus (just like the fibers of the IT Band).
Giving the sacrotuberous ligament extra tension gives fibers of both of these muscles a fixed anchor point meaning that either can easily activate when needed.
In a more upright position with the knee less severely bent, as in the heel strike phase while running or jogging or even walking, either set of muscles could activate to create an external rotation force at the top of the fibula.
At any rate, spreading the sitting bone just before the heel strike while running felt good.
To use obturator internus to create an outwards pull on the sitting bone while running I had to make some adjustments.
The obturator internus creates an external rotation force on the femur. But it needs enough length to do this and so to "spread the sitting bone" it helps to have the femur pointing forwards with neutral rotation.
Compared to when I first started this running experiment this meant that I was actually internally rotating my thigh slightly.
As with all of the previous experiments, I went by feel to determine the amount of thigh rotation that I needed.
The goal of adjusting thigh rotation was to find a position where my knee (and the rest of my body) felt comfortable.
The overal goal of all of the above experimentation was to run without inner knee pain. Or any knee pain for that matter. As of now I've been going for runs for about 3 weeks. I'm not getting as much "back of the knee" soreness the next day. And now I don't need as much of a walking warm up prior to running.
The necessary muscle control is becoming habitual.
Generally what I've found with "muscle control" is that after a little bit of practice whatever muscle control actions I've been working on become automatic or habitual. So now I don't have to consciously focus on externally or internally rotating my thigh. I don't have to work at creating an upwards pull at the bottom of the sartorius. My brain knows what needs to be done and takes care of it.
I do have to be aware though.
It's similiar to the overal awareness you can have when you've been driving for awhile. You use the brakes when you need to without thinking about how to do it.
I do still find that if my mind wonders, or I turn my head to look behind me, that can sometimes cause minor set backs.
But hopefully, the more I run, the better I'll get (or the better my brain will get) at handling these small perturbations without any negative side affects.
Interested in learning more about how to feel and control your leg muscles, Sensational Leg Anatomy includes a series of videos each teaching simple muscle control techniques. Each video focuses on a particular muscle or set of muscles and the whole series teaches you to feel and control the major muscles of the legs from the hip bones down to the toes.