Have you ever hung out at the finish line of a marathon, or even a half marathon, 10K, or 5K, and made the comment, whether out loud or in your head- look at that guy’s (or gal’s) form?! There’s always someone else out there who runs (fill in the blank with your favorite word more colorful than “differently”) than you out there. The question is, what is the “normal” way to run? What is the “right” way to run? And most importantly, does it matter?
Always one to consult with the evidence, and the cutting edge, running researchers, I just got back from attending some sessions at the American Physical Therapy Association’s Combined Sections Meeting in Chicago that focused on answering exactly that question. The answer? Well, it’s never that simple or easy. Is there one exact right way? No. But there are a few things that the most recent running science research has taught us.
When running, gravity is pushing back down on your body at a force equal to 2.5x your body weight. So to young runners everywhere, leaping from step to step like the energizer bunny is wasting all of that excess vertical energy that could be saved for those pounding out those last horizontal miles at your target race pace! Your goal for vertical displacement during the running gait cycle should be 4-7 cm. Keep low, keep your head still, keep your arms moving straight ahead. I bet you’ve heard all this before.
While there is easy consensus with vertical displacement in the running community, there is great controversy over where your foot should land when your foot contacts the ground. Research says… it doesn’t matter, as long as that first impact is SOFT!! If you can hear your foot hit over the blare of your iPod, that’s a bad sign. If the jowls in your cheeks jiggle upon impact, also a bad sign. The solution? Work to lessen the impact by actually trying to land softer. Imagine with each step you will accidentally land on a puppy’s tail. Hear the poor puppy's yelp in your head? Prevent that yelp by landing softer. Your brain is a powerful tool. You actually will land softer by activating the muscles in your lower leg to better control your foot at impact. Secondly, flex your knee more by shortening your step. Keep your foot more under your body to prevent over-striding with each step. Also see the directions below for shortening your step length, and you’ll do just fine.
Next, a longer stride or step length is not better. A longer stride has a tendency to result in a straighter knee at impact, which means a harder impact, which increases the force that must be absorbed through your joints from your foot on up into your spine. This makes more work for your body, which not only increases the energy you use, making you less efficient (i.e. slow!), but also increases your injury risk exponentially. So, a shorter step length is generally better. Research led by Bryan Heiderscheit, PT, PhD, Associate Professor in the UW Madison Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation and Director or the UW Sports Medicine Runner’s Clinic has found that increasing your running cadence by 5% can reduce impact loading on joints, reducing injury risk and increasing running economy and efficiency. How do you accomplish this? Determine your current cadence by counting or using a metronome to calculate the steps per minute, and then attempt to increase your current cadence by 3-5% by counting, using a metronome, or downloading songs onto your iPod using your goal cadence. You might find some value in some treadmill running when testing and early on in training your target cadence. Stick with your goal cadence with constant reminders for 4-6 weeks, then add some reminder songs to your iPod mix, and you will be set!
Finally, how do you maintain this new and improved form in those last tough miles when fatigue overtakes your body and form flies right out the window? And, more importantly, how do you get faster overall? The answer is one and the same. Improve strength and tensile stiffness, which improves running economy, which is research speak for improving speed. Which muscles should you strengthen specifically? In addition to the transversus abdominus and abdominal obliques, gluteus medius and maximus are kings here, along with a few scapular stabilizing muscles including middle and lower trapezius and rhomboid. Don’t look for these muscles' little pictures on the side of some Total Gym or piece of steel in your local fitness center. No, these muscles need some special attention first by seeing if they are even being activated with exercise with the assistance of a knowledgeable sports physical therapist or licensed athletic trainer (a personal trainer may not know how to evaluate if the muscles are active to begin with). I always check the activation of these muscles even if I am assessing a varsity high school or Division I scholarship athlete, as my money is on the activation of these muscles in general will be poor. No one ever works on these muscles. But research shows that once activated, and then strengthened with isolated, targeted exercises, these muscles have the ability to prevent injuries that tend to plague runners the most, from the dreaded runner’s butt, to anterior knee/patellofemoral problems, hip pain, low back pain, SI joint pain and instability, chronic ankle pain and instability, ankle tendonitis, etc. They also can help you maintain your stellar form and running efficiency, which means you just might maintain your Boston qualifying race-pace all the way through to mile 26.
Should you change your running form? I’m married to a guy whose full-time job at work is continuous improvement. You know what my answer will be. The best place to start is to find your one most obvious flaw, and start there. If you try to change everything, it might seem overwhelming and downright confusing. Just two degrees of change at a time can make a big difference if you keep moving in that direction. In eight weeks, you can address something else if you feel you have something else to modify as well. Just time your changes well, as you never want to try to change your form when your peak race is just over the horizon.
If this all does seem overwhelming, then get yourself some help from a licensed physical therapist or licensed athletic trainer who has experience in working with runners and who runs themselves. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. You don’t have to hire your own running coach or drive down to the UW Madison Running Research Lab. Stop by MotionWorks Physical Therapy for a Runner’s Evaluation and get some expert analysis of your running form, training program, injury history, video running gait analysis, musculoskeletal assessment, and specific and individualized guidance on what to do and where to start. As you work on your training modifications, call or email your questions for free. Check back with us if you need some extra attention on your form, training program, or advancement of your individualized exercise program, and then again for a post-assessment if you like, or not. It's your choice. It's that easy.