Running is an activity that everyone ‘can’ do, but not everyone can do efficiently or safely. It is often one of the first go-to activities for people wanting to shed a few pounds, get back in shape, or stay active and fit. Running can appear to be a simple activity, but can become more harmful than good when the body is not prepared for it. Regardless of the level of running you do, there are some key things to consider to keep it a healthy and sustainable activity or sport:
Running requires certain joints in the body to have sufficient ranges of motion, just to complete the required movement pattern. If you do not have the ROM required at these joints, you will not be able to run safely and efficiently. Some of the key joints that require ‘normal’ ROM are the thoracic spine, hips, knees, ankles, and big toe. What happens if we are missing mobility at one or more of these areas? The answer is that we will begin to compensate and send additional motion through another joint above or below. It might also mean that we begin to lose the ability to fully engage the muscles around the restricted joint, and must begin to use other muscles to get the job done. Either way, our running pattern will take a hit, and an overuse injury or pain is likely on its way.
A classic example is when people are missing hip extension (hint: sitting all day does not help this issue). Missing hip extension can greatly inhibit our glutes – the most important hip extensor muscles that are supposed to push us forward each stride we take.
2. Stride length:
The optimal cadence for most runners is around 180 rmp- or 3 steps per second (which may seem like a lot). Many people could benefit from shortening their stride length in order to run more efficiently and prevent injury. Changing running cadence can have a huge effect on reducing the energy absorption at joints, especially at the knee.
A good way to look at the running stride is by picturing a pendulum. A pendulum swings back and forth evenly on both sides, and our stride while running should do the same. Many people who are missing ROM tend to over stride in the front direction to make up for under striding in the back direction. This throws the pendulum off, and we lose the natural flow, efficiency, and elastic recoil effect of an even stride. Not to mention, we begin to alter our bio-mechanics and send more impact through unwanted areas. Moral of the story – shorten your stride, even out the pendulum.
Running requires more strength, stability, and control than people think. It simultaneously requires certain joints and muscles to become stable and controlled, while others generate force to move us forward. It requires our timing to be impeccable while all of this is happening from stride to stride. You can think of running as a series of single leg mini squats as we thrust our body forward through space. Can’t do one single leg squat without your knee caving in? You are likely in for a problem.
Glute strength, hip control, and core control (just to list a few) are key components of running efficiently and safely. Additional strengthening can not only improve our power and efficiency when running, but it can greatly reduce injury and pain when we fail to control our joints.
Running technique plays a major role in injury prevention. Running is a specific movement pattern that will improve with practice. Like any movement pattern that is used for the purposes of training or exercise, it must be mastered at low volumes and intensities first. Technique can also be affected by fatigue, footwear, mobility restrictions, speed, cadence etc. One phrase I picked up from Gray Cook, (a well known Physiotherapist), is ‘Try to run without making any noise – it’s a good way to practice.’ Without getting into the details, treat running as a ‘skill’ that can be improved with practice, coaching, and time.
5. Tissue Tolerance/Adaptation:
The human body and its tissues will adapt to the demands placed on it if it is allowed to recover properly. Running is a stressor to the body, and the training effects come from adapting and recovering from the stress. It is very important to plan and program, even when just starting out. A good way to transition into running is to start with walk/run intervals, and gradually phase the walking portions out. For example, 2 minutes of walking and 1 minute of running repeated for 20 minutes is a good start. Too many people do not give their bodies a chance to gradually build up tolerance and adapt. It is important to respect the process and build up a solid base without pushing beyond the body’s capacity to recover.
Running is a natural human activity that can be great for the body. It must be treated with respect and done right in order to prevent injury or pain. Enjoy the process.
There will be more detail to come in future posts.