Over the past year I’ve been privately coaching a wide range of athletes – everyone from those just starting to run for the first time, to those seeking to improve race times or get ready for a competitive cross country season.
Through all if it, I’ve been asked a lot about running form. It seems to me that many people harbor the belief that there is “one perfect running form” and all other forms will lead to injury.
While I am in no way the ultimate expert on the topic, I have learned a lot through my own experience with injuries, which has involved working with some of the top doctors and therapists to understand how the body moves with regards to running, and using this understanding to both rehab and prevent different injuries. I have also communicated many of these learnings to teammates, friends and clients, often with a great deal of success.
I would like to share my experience and observation:
1. Injuries happen because of a lack of strength.
2. There is no perfect running form.
3. There is no such thing are running injury free without body maintenance.
Point #1: Strength:
Running involves you to essentially jump from one step to the next. Each time you jump, your body must transfer stored energy into forward motion. This results in propulsion. Then you must land, single-leggedly upon impact. This requires your body to stabilize, and then continue to transfer the momentum forward.
While core work is a key aspect of training, I find that glute strength is just as important. The glutes are your motor. Proper glute engagement creates hip extension and propulsion forward. It also stabilizes the pelvis and prevents inward rotation of the femur. When glutes don’t fire properly, there is an overemphasis on the lower leg muscles creating propulsion and stability….this can lead to overuse injuries in those small muscles that shouldn’t have to do such a big job. Inactive glutes also compromise the knees (physics lesson: the knee is the fulcrum point in the hip-to-foot lever that is your leg). Tight and painful IT bands are often a result of inactive and overly tight (see point #3) glutes.
Exercises to include:
– Single Leg Squats: if your knee insists on falling in, it’s usually because your glutes aren’t firing.
– Runner’s Touch:
This is a great example shown by a PT clinic I used to work with in Portland:
Side plank with leg lifts
Point #2: Running Form vs. Running Efficiently
If you are truly interested in learning “the ultimate perfect running form” do yourself a favor and look up as many scientific papers on the topic, assess the methods used in the experiments and compare the conclusions. I personally have found that it’s pretty inconclusive. And, like many impacts on the human body – it’s completely individual (although if you’re looking for a great overview on this topic, this is an excellent book written by the man who made my orthotics: http://www.humanlocomotion.org/)
What I’ve found to be more effective than worrying about running like a Kenyan is focusing on running efficiently. Go sprint up a hill. It forces you to move your mass as efficiently as possible. You have to use your arms. You have to take smaller, quicker steps and you have to drive your feet downwards in order to maximize the energy that is returned back to you. Run up a short, steep hill (15-30 sec interval) and notice what has to change in order for you to run faster. Take note and apply to flat land acceleration. Also keep in mind that going out for an easy jog is completely different than trying to race a mile as fast as possible. An easy jog doesn’t require moving as efficiently as possible, but when you start running at different paces, especially faster paces, you notice how efficiency affects your ability to run fast. If you’re only going to jog a few days per week you probably don’t need to worry too much about running form – I would emphasize focusing on increasing your ability to do single leg squats, lunges and balance work instead.
Point #3: Maintenance
You wouldn’t expect a car to run perfectly forever without any maintenance. Yet I still
get asked all the time by clients how they can achieve a perfect running form that will allow them to forever run injury free. Guess what: you can’t. The body breaks down. If you are pushing it to the point of fatigue on a regular basis then it will break down. It will get tight in places. Fascia will get bound up and impede muscles from working effectively. The best way to prevent this: getting regular body treatment. Massage, ART, Graston are examples of treatment I get on a regular basis. I also do a lot of self-treatment: trigger point therapy, Active Isolated Stretching, Yoga (although to be 100%
honest, I hate yoga terribly – I have a 30 minute stretching focused yoga video that I do – I get in and I get out…it’s ok, you can judge me if you want, although it’s not very zen to judge.) Injuries are inevitable to some degree if you’re pushing yourself, but they can be limited and many can be avoidable with being consistent in body treatment.
Recovery is just as important as body treatment. A fatigued body needs to recover before it can perform. Going hard every single day is only setting yourself up for injury and burnout. Take easy days where you run without looking at the watch in between hard efforts. I personally like to take 2-3 days easy before pushing myself again.
If you take only one thing away from this post, take this:
You will only perform to the level at which you are recovered.