Run easy for injury prevention

In the first of a two-part mini series, I look at why making a few changes to your running can make a huge difference to staying fit and healthy…and keep you running!

It’s safe to say that staying free of injury is a pre-occupation of anyone who has a passion for physical activity. Moreover, those whose career depends on the well-being of their bodies will have at least a minor obsession with preventing and avoiding injury at all costs. While this is a sensible approach, it can lead people to discard certain activities for fear of getting injured. And that’s just a damn shame!

How bad can it be?

Studies show that between 50 and 80 percent of runners are injured every year. That’s an awful lot of injuries.

Some of these are acute injuries which are difficult to prevent – twisted ankles from uneven ground and such. Have a look the section ‘Watch my step’ for some simple ways to maintain concentration and hopefully prevent too many of these. But more relevant to us are overuse injuries – those that build up over time.

Many of these overuse injuries can be prevented. Think about the term: overuse refers to trying to do something but not having the structural stamina or support to do so healthily over a period of time or repetitions. Tennis elbow, repetitive strain injuries, stress fractures and the like are examples of these.

So how do they occur? Well, as the Mayo Clinic suggests, they can happen in two ways: Training or Technique errors.

Injury from training errors

Training errors relate mainly to our over-enthusiasm or competitiveness. They usually occur when we try to do too much too soon. A little knowledge about how to begin training or stepping up existing training can help us stay injury free.

In his audiobook Chi Running, Danny Dreyer refers to a concept called gradual progress. This offers an approach which values slow, incremental improvements of distance, speed and stamina that you bring in almost invisibly to your training.

For example, if your cadence (foot strike) is below the recommended 85-90 steps per minute, an approach is to increase this by one foot strike per week. Such small changes your body doesn’t notice but you will in your results as in a matter of weeks running becomes easier and faster (or further!).

If you are aiming for particular goals, such as a 10km race or half marathon, it is important to create an intelligent plan for your training, so as to avoid potential overuse injuries. Many running magazines have features on how to create this, but there’s nothing better than visiting a local running club and getting the advice of some professionals.

Injury from technique errors

Technique is a massive factor in any physical activity. Good technique increases the efficiency of an action and this translates not only to better results but also less impact on the body. And less impact through an efficient action means lifelong easy running!

I will focus in this article on the feet as there is plenty to say there. But technique is a huge topic and one I’ll no doubt return to. In the meantime Danny Dreyer’s 10-point guide to running technique is well worth a look for a more general approach.

Map the ground

Firstly, how you contact the ground. In her yoga technique, Nicky Knoff refers to ‘foundations’ as the first place of focus. These foundations are the points of contact with the ground and these are often neglected in running. We think about the action above the feet as more important, but how we contact the ground is crucial to setting up our skeleton to efficiently process the load it is bearing.

One way I like to address this potential problem is to begin warming up barefoot, or at least massaging my feet before I run. Bringing some sensation to the feet beforehand means we can have a better kinaesthetic awareness of our feet while we’re running. Next I think to spread my feet on every step, so my little toe and big toe both hit the ground and encourage the rest of the foot to too.

Finally I consciously place some focus in my feet on each step, trying to sense the ground as if I would use the information to create a detailed map of it. Actually, I use this focus to trust my body to make the relevant unconscious adjustments to my alignment that help keep me safe and well. This practice is easier to do running off-road, where an awareness of the floor is that much more vital.

Running on air

In the centre of the foot, under the arch of your foot, there is a pocket of air. When your feet are together, your midline runs through this point so, when I teach I often refer to the idea of ‘running on air’. I use it to offer folk a sense of ease and lightness in their locomotion, but there is a manner of truth in it. And we can use this in our running too.

There are many schools of thought on where the running stride should land. The forefoot – like a sprinter – the mid-foot, or the heel. When we’re walking it is the heel, as the leg swings in front and we move our weight forward to meet it. But when we’re running, I would always aim for the mid-foot.

With a mid-foot strike, the weight of your body land directly over the top of the foot, so the whole skeleton shares the load. Too far in front and the joints of the leg have to brace against this, too far behind and, well, you’ll be falling over! The forefoot strike suggests that the stride is too big for distance running and your calves and quads will be loaded with too much work. With a mid-foot strike we share the work, and most questions of efficiency are answered through that approach.

Keep up a good rhythm

Finally, returning to cadence as one area of common error, the overall tendency is for too low a cadence. The lower this is the bigger the stride is likely to be and the heavier the impact or ‘loading’ on the landing leg. Over time, this inevitably leads to wear and tear in your joints and you’ll glower at anyone who mentions the old adage, ‘it’s a marathon not a sprint’. But it’s true, run long distance with a sprinter’s stride and you’ll only get so far.

The advice is 85-90 strikes per foot per minute. At first this might feel like you’re suddenly running with your feet tripping you up, but by applying a steady increase week on week you’ll find that your stride simply gets easier and every step is less effort. Getting a electronic metronome can be no end of help with staying focussed on this aspect of the technique, and advice on how to buy one can be found in this Running Metronome article.

So thankfully this technique aspect is easily addressed. And if you needed further proof, research from the University of Wisconsin has noted that, “subtle increases in step rate can substantially reduce the loading to the hip and knee joints during running and may prove beneficial in the prevention and treatment of common running-related injuries.”

A focus on injury prevention may not immediately have you running fast times, but it’ll certainly keep you running for longer and more consistently. Patience is a key, as with most things in life that require work and dedication. Addressing errors in technique and approaches to training will, over time, lead to better results too, which is something we will look at in the next article: ‘Run easy for faster times’

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