Running Tips – Getting The Mechanics Right

Running is something that many people start out doing either to get fit or to lose weight. All too often though, this form of exercise loses its shine when injuries start to occur and the going gets tough. For some, the problem is that they just don’t like running, and for them cycling or swimming or a team sport might be more fun. But for those who enjoy running, but hate the stabbing hip pains and shin splints during and after every workout, it might be time to get clued up on some running tips to make sure you are doing it correctly. After all, despite all the great shoes on the market, perhaps the single most important factor in avoiding injuries is your running technique.

Over the years, we have been spoilt somewhat by the vast array of specialist running shoes available, with bouncy midsoles and spongy soft cushioning in the heels, and ones for runners with high arches, or pairs for overpronators. Recently, there has been a noticable shift towards minimalist shoes and the so-called ‘barefoot running shoes’ such as the Vibram Five Fingers. To a degree, these are a move in the right direction as they remove the mindset that we can just thump our heels into the ground and the padding will protect us. That we can run in a completely unnatural and abnormal way, but somehow we’ll come out at the end, fresher and fitter for the experience. Well, unfortunately, our bodies will not tolerate that for too long before screaming out for a little more respect, whether it’s the burning ache of shin splints, or hip problems or even lower back pain – the weakest link will scream first. And the cure is to listen and adapt.

I’m not one for cures though because it means getting injured first and then an enforced break from running while the healing process takes effect. It’s much better to aim for prevention, and with a simple set of running tips, it is easy to modify form and technique to decrease the risk of injury. Barefoot running is one important factor to think about. You don’t need to do a lot of this, but it will train you to run properly and land on your forefoot rather than your heel. Remember, your heels are primarily for balance and have very little protection from impacts. So doing a little barefoot running on softer terrain, preferably grass, is a nice start.

If it’s impossible or you just don’t fancy the idea of barefoot running, there are several solutions. You get to keep your usual running shoes, and it is worth taking some time to go back to basics. There are some excellent technique methods available now to help you, including triathlon coach Ken Mierke’s Evolution running, the POSE running method by Dr Nicholas Romanov, and Chi running developed by Danny Dreyer. They all have their own individual twist on running technique, but importantly they also have many similarities, which are natural facets of barefoot running.

The Running Tips

1. Forefoot Strike

The first aim should be to eliminate the habit of heel striking when you run. Always try to land on the springy forefoot, which has natural shock-absorbing ability. During running, it is easy to land with a force equivalent to 4 times your body weight, and dropping that force through your heels will cause shocks that bounce off your shins, and continue up your legs. Simply changing from heel strike to forefoot strike can help significantly with problems such as shin splints, knee problems and hip pain.

2. Shorter Stride Length

Most heel strikers have an elongated stride pattern, and their front foot lands in a position extended in front of the rest of the body. This leads to several problems: first, it obligates you to land on your heel. Second, because you are heel striking, you are more prone to injuries. Lastly, this is a seriously inefficient way of running from a speed and energy point of view. By shortening your stride length, you can correct all three of these.

3. Land Under Your Center of Mass

By shortening your stride length, your objective is to land the front foot underneath your hip, under your center of mass. This enables you easily to relax your lower leg (rather than dorsiflexing at the ankle) allowing for forefoot landing. The result is far less strain on all parts of your leg.

4. Increase Cadence

You might think that you slow yourself down considerably by shortening your stride length, but actually what you are doing is to take off the brakes. If you extend your front foot beyond your center of mass, when it lands, you then have a ‘time gap’ during which your body has to pivot at the hip to catch up, before springing off again. This acts as a brake and will slow you down. By removing that inefficiency, you can actually increase speed. It is also important to keep a steady turnover rate (or cadence) when you run – whatever speed you run. The optimal is roughly 180 steps per minute, and the aim here is to use elastic recoil of the springy tendons and muscles in your feet and calves to assist propulsion. Ideally you want your feet in contact with the ground for a very short period of time, to minimize the dissipation of energy that could otherwise be used for efficiently moving you forwards.

5. Let Gravity Pull You Along

A slight forward lean is acceptable practice when using these running tips to become a more efficient runner. This doesn’t mean doubling over by bending from the waist. You need to keep your body in line, but with a very slight forward lean, so that gravity can help you – almost by falling into each stride.

6. Hips – Not Hamstrings

Propulsion should be generated by large muscle groups, not small ones. So don’t expect your calves or your hamstrings to do all the work of propelling you along. They will fatigue quickly. It is much better to use what Ken Mierke calls the ‘foot-drag movement’, keeping the entire leg fixed at the knee, and pivoting from the hip instead, so you open up the stride at the back. You should also feel your glutes actively helping to push you forward using this technique.

The best advice is to start your running from basics again. Begin correcting your running form slowly by incorporating these techniques into shorter runs until you feel comfortable with them. Then start to increase the distances. When I first made these changes, they knocked considerable time off my laps, and those legs aches and pains became a thing of the past, and recovery after runs was also much quicker. With these running tips for beginners and more seasoned runners, hopefully you will ditch those irritating injuries and have more fun running too.

Ironman

Neil (nickname Ironman) is an avid runner and sports fan, who writes about all things triathlon-related, especially running and cycling. He also writes about sports injuries and regaining fitness - mainly from personal experience rather than academic knowledge - although he does study that too!

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