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What are Energy Leaks?

by | January 3, 2020

What is the Kinetic Chain?

The foot bone is connected to the knee bone. Et cetera. Et cetera. Energy leaks are linked to the development of power through the kinetic chain. There are also muscles and connective tissue, known as fascia that are interwoven with the bones which travel up and down from head to toe to connect areas of the body. Energy travels all through these interconnected regions, usually from bottom to top, through a kinetic chain.

Think of sports involving rotation like golf, softball and soccer.  Energy originates by firm contact with the ground, develops through the legs, is harnessed in the hips and typically explodes out the other side. This is the concept of energy or power traveling through the kinetic chain. Regardless if the action is swinging a bat or throwing a punch, proper flow of energy through these areas allows optimal contact. The same is true of the system for runners.

What are energy leaks?

Any loss of force transfer through the kinetic chain can be considered an energy leak. An energy leak is “when all of the energy generated to perform a certain task or movement does not go specifically into that task or movement”, according to Gray Cook in his book, Athletic Body in Balance. This power leak can occur in any point in the kinetic chain. It may occur where the body interacts with the ground or within a joint due to lack of muscular strength and/or coordination. Lack of stability in the joint means that the produced energy cannot be efficiently transferred to the next point in the kinetic chain. It may lead to excess and unnecessary movement that occurs within the joint or within the person’s center of mass. To the untrained eye, energy leaks are not obvious unfortunately.

Sand kicking up behind a runner is a perfect example of an energy leak. Most people know how hard it is to run or walk in sand. That is because the force you generate will move the sand as well as yourself.

How do Power Leaks Affect Performance?

Because energy leaks deal with a lack of proper transfer of energy, the generated energy is not being used to accomplish the task. This will result in decreased power, strength, speed or agility for the effort that’s been used. It means that people do not perform at their highest level and also become more tired in the process than if the movements were more efficient.

Can energy leaks lead to injury?

Efficiency of movement is not only going to be critical for an athlete to perform at a high level, but also will help the athlete to prevent injury. Power dissipated by an unstable joint is capable of causing microtrauma that may eventually become an injury. The body is extremely proficient at compensating in order to accomplish tasks but performing these tasks may eventually lead to breakdown of the body. Despite that fact that energy leaks may lead to injury, runners and other athletes can still perform at a high level with energy leaks.

Runners & Power Leaks

In running, contact between the stance leg and the ground can be considered the initiation of the kinetic chain. This is where a proper running shoe definitely comes into play. The runner pulls themselves forward over the ground and propels themselves onto the next foot. The power and direction of that interaction between the foot in the ground determines the runner’s speed. Any forces that are not driving the person forward is wasted energy, including up and down or side-to-side movement.

These energy leaks have the tendency to occur in areas that can have excess movement. The knees usually are not a source of energy leaks as they are typically stable because they really only hinge back-and-forth while running. But the joints above and below the knee can be problematic. The way that the foot and ankle interact with the running shoe in the ground can lead to all types of excess movement. Meanwhile structures around the hip can have issues with weakness or tightness that can lead to problems. Either of the hip or the foot/ankle can alter the movement of the knee, causing the knee to cave in.

What are the common energy leaks in runners?

Specific issues that are common energy leaks in runners are loss of great toe extension, loss of ankle flexibility, loss of hip extension, loss of strength in the foot and ankle, and loss of balance or proprioception.

Your big toe should be able to lift off the ground by at least 40° for you to be able to walk correctly and near 60° for optimal running. If your toe does not have this range of motion, then your body will get the range of motion it needs from somewhere else. People that turn their toes out while running come off the inside of the great toe and often have calluses located in that area. This makes the foot lose its ability to springboard the body forward. Other people might turn their heel out and come off the outside of the foot, creating a tripping hazard. Some people avoid pushing off of their toe and either lift their foot off of the ground to early or just shorten their stride. Both of these also cause someone to lose power as they push off.

Similar types of compensations can happen when people lose flexibility at the ankle or the hip. Loss of flexibility at the ankle can lead to people lifting their heel too early, shortening their step length and pronating the foot.

People that lose the ability to extend the hip often use their low back while pushing off. This easily leads to low back pain as a person is repeatedly extending their low back while running.

Some of these can manifest with a person bouncing up and down too much while running. Problems with strength in the hip can sometimes lead to people running with one foot directly in front of the other or even having their foot move across the center line of the body, in a crossover gait. Energy can also be wasted if the arms are swinging too much side to side instead of forward and backwards.

How do you fix Energy Leaks?

Fixing energy leaks starts with finding them. A qualified coach can help with aspects of running form. Other runners may need to use a more comprehensive tool like the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA) to find areas of restricted movement or poor muscular control. 

Issues involving flexibility might involve stretching tight muscles but can also involve strengthening weak muscles using corrective exercises. Graston Technique and other myofascial release techniques can be used to help when a movement is restricted in a joint. Training can also target an individual’s specific movement faults and weaknesses in the hips in order to address energy leaks. Glute weakness is often an issue, so glute activation exercises like the clamshell or the glute bridge can be helpful. Specific activation and proper strength in the stabilizing musculature can help with efficient movement and plugging energy leaks. Training to ensure that the body can withstand side-to-side movement is crucial to avoid functional problems.

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