Spring! It’s the time of year when we leave the treadmills and spin bikes behind and start hitting the pavement. While some have been running all winter outdoors, most of you are coming out of hibernation.
Either way, this is a good time of year to prevent the onset of running injuries by making adjustments to your technique. Here are three key areas to focus on if you are experiencing discomfort, aches or pains in your knees, ankles, hips, or heels related to running.
Try to only focus on one key point at a time to avoid too many adjustments, too soon.
Foot contact during the running stride is a very important factor when dealing with a running injury. Typically, runners either make contact with the ground on their heels (heel-strikers), midfoot, or forefoot (balls of their feet). For novice runners, you might not recognize that how and where you place your foot on the ground has an impact on your body over time.
For instance, in runners who are predominately heel strikers, there is increased direct force transmitted through the heel, knee and hip during the stride, compared to individuals who land on the middle of their foot.
On the other hand, landing and staying on the balls of the feet while running can cause increased stress on the Achilles tendon over a long period of time. The happy medium of these two extremes is a midfoot strike.
As an example of the impact of repetitive heel striking, jump a couple of times in the air and see how you land. Naturally and instinctively, we land on the balls of our feet and slowly lower our heels to the ground. Our feet act as shock absorbers to slow down the body and provide cushioning through the landing.
Now try jumping and landing our your heels. Comfortable? Imagine landing this way over 10,000 times in a row. The cushioning from the running shoe will absorb some of that force; do this repetitively over time, and it could have significant consequences on your lower body.
By focusing on landing in the middle of your foot, with your foot directly under your body, results in less force to the joints and improved muscle activity in the hips (1). Over time, this can lead to less potential for injury and a more enjoyable running season.
Ever notice near the end of a longer run your shoulders start to slouch, breathing is more laborious and it’s just easier to hunch forward?
You’re not alone! Maintaining upright posture while running is important to improve breathing mechanics, optimize muscle activation and to prevent muscle imbalances.
Focus on these areas to help improve your alignment:
- Proper alignment involves standing up straight, looking forward/straight ahead (not at the ground), shoulders relaxed and pulled slightly back. Stretching your arms above your head prior to running allows you to set your posture. Try it during the run if you feel that you are slouching.
- Avoid hinging through your hips or leading with your chin. Start with a forward lean through the ankles and allow gravity to push you forward. Do this by standing up straight and allow your body to fall forward. Instinctively, your legs will catch you and you will more naturally achieve the forward lean position. When hip hinging happens, the glute muscles are not able to function optimally through the stride.
- Work your core! Cross training and doing various core strengthening exercises (ie: pilates) helps build the endurance in your spinal stabilizers, diaphragm and core – allowing you to run longer, in better alignment.
- When exhaustion sets in, posture starts to fail, so keep your runs shorter to avoid fatigue-induced injury/ poor postural control.
Studies have shown that increasing your stride rate helps to improve energy efficiency and muscle activation in the lower limb.
So does this means that I have to run faster to prevent injury?
No; actually, your stride rate is simply the number of steps you take in a minute. It doesn’t mean that you are going faster, simply that you are taking more steps per minute and shortening your stride.
Remember the point about midfoot contact? Shortening your stride with your foot landing under your body will start to increase your stride rate. To measure your stride rate, count the number of steps on one foot for one minute and double it.
Studies suggest that a subtle increase in stride rate of 5-10% can decrease the load placed on your knees and hip, therefore reducing the potential for injury (1,2,3).
For example, if you calculate your stride rate to be 150, and have been experiencing discomfort post run, try increasing your stride rate to 158 steps per minute. Then gradually increase it incrementally to a 10 % change. Keep in mind to maintain your posture and keep your foot landing under your body to enhance the midfoot contact.
To improve your stride rate, follow these tricks/tips:
- Music – find a fast beat that matches your intended step rate
- Download a metronome app
- Focus on taking smaller steps
- Increase your step rate gradually by 2-4 extra steps per minute per run
- Incorporate these changes early in your training program (not 2 weeks before a race!)
Try the above tips to improve your running efficiency and reduce the potential for injury. Remember to focus on only 1 of these 3 tips at a time.
If you have severe pain or injury, consult SEMI’s team of health professionals and fitness trainerswho can help you with your injury and take your running to the next level.