This is one of the most frequently asked questions runners ask. To be honest, this is not surprising – the statistics speak for themselves:-
- According to Newton Running, between 50-70% of all runners will at some point in their running careers sustain a running related injury.
- In Chris McDougall’s popular book ‘Born to Run’, we learn that 80% of new runners get injured in their first year of running.
- Research conducted by wellbeing and health provider Benenden suggests that football is the sport most likely causing injuries, closely followed by running, rugby, cycling and swimming.
I don’t know about you, but I find it quite shocking that running is more likely to cause injuries than rugby for example! Since running injuries are one of my main interests to explore on this blog, in the hope of finding a long-term solution, a few weeks ago I decided to attend a free running webinar by Jeff Gaudette. Jeff is the creator of the ‘Improve Running Form’ course and he is the head coach at one of my favourite websites, Runners Connect. In this article, I would like to share what I have learnt at Jeff’s webinar.
The biggest issue: tackling the symptoms, overlooking the cause
The traditional approach when we get injured is to treat the source of the injury. I am sure that you are familiar with the ‘RICE’ method which consists of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation of the injured area. This method focusses on eliminating the symptoms (the pain). The disappearance of the pain is typically the end of the injury rehab process, where you return to running. However, the issue with this approach is the fact that it fails to fix the root cause that caused the injury itself in the first place.
Let me tell you a secret – the solution lies in looking at your running form and technique. Read on to find out why.
Your body is too smart: and it’s not always good news
Firstly, the human body is extremely smart. If something does not work or fire properly, your body will always ‘compensate’ to get the job done. For example, if your glute muscles are weak, and do not fire correctly, your legs will not stop working; instead, your brain will instruct other muscles to fire more forcefully to make up for the lack of power. This re-routing occurs sub-consciously, without you even realising it. On one hand, it is amazing how the body adapts so that you can carry on running, however, when the body makes long-term compensation by placing additional stress on other muscle groups which were clearly not designed to handle the extra workload, that is when it becomes a problem.
Before I became a serious runner, I thought that running was just a matter of putting one foot in front of another, so not exactly rocket science, however, as illustrated above, there is much more to running! Below are a couple of examples where bad running form and technique can result in injury.
Most common running injuries and likely culprits
Calf strain/Achilles tendon/plantar fascia issues
The glutes are one of the strongest muscles in the body. They generate power for running as the gluteus maximus drives your leg down and back. When the glutes are not activating (which often results in poor running form), this power needs to be generated elsewhere. So the body shifts the power to different muscles such as the calves which are not as fatigue resistant and strong as the glutes. Therefore you are likely to end up with calf strain/Achilles tendon/plantar fascia issues because the added stress is more than these muscles were designed to handle.
Shin splints and stress fractures
Overstriding occurs when your foot lands too far out in front of your hips (your centre of mass). This adds a significant amount of stress to muscles, bones and ligaments in the lower leg. To tackle this issue, stretching and rehab are helpful but if you do not fix overstriding, your shin splints are guaranteed to come back, no matter how strong you are!
Runners knee and ITB issues
During the stance phase of the stride, your body is only supported by one leg. So when your right leg is planted, your entire left side is stacked over your left leg. If your right hip muscles are not firing correctly, for example because of a weakness/bad neural patterns, the pelvis and upper body will tilt downwards on the left side, causing an excessive hip drop (knee valgus). This results in increased stress on the knees, causing ‘runners knee’ and ITB issues which are likely to persist until the excessive hip drop is fixed.
Look at your running form and technique!
The above examples highlight that minor flaws in your running form can result in injuries far down the line. If you can fix the first kink in the kinetic chain, you can start to overcome your recurring injury and niggles.
However, improving your running form and technique is not something that is going to happen overnight!
Rome was not built in a day: stages of adaptation
There are various different stages adaptations can happen:-
1. Unconscious incompetence
At this stage, you are not aware of any issues you might be having, but you suspect that you are doing something wrong as you keep getting consistent niggles or have recurring injuries. Having a running gait analysis whereby you are videod whilst you are running can shed more light on any flaws during stance phase (whilst your foot is in contact with the ground) and the swing phase (whilst your foot is not in contact with the ground). A lot of sports physiotherapy clinics now offer a biomechanical assessment – I had one done not so long ago and I have to say it was one the best investments I have made as a runner.
What happens during the stance phase is especially important as this is when your foot and leg bears your body weight, whereas the swing phase is rather passive and unconsciously controlled. By having a running gait analysis, your physiotherapist can help work out a plan to address your flaws.
Changes do not happen in isolation, though. For example, if you change your posture, it will also affect your cadence, foot strike, stride length, hip flexion and almost everything in the biomechanical chain.
The other thing to note is that you can’t just change everything at once! You need to have a plan in place which addresses the biomechanical chain in the right way and builds a connection between what you feel when running and what your body is actually capable of doing. Specifically, it is well documented in behavioural research that changes to running form cannot happen through consciously forced technique changes. Instead, they need to be learnt over time through an unconscious evolution.
2. Conscious incompetence
After you have established what areas you need to work on, and understand a bit more about your biomechanics, in this stage you begin to implement the foundations of the physical work to improve your form, for example by working on your strength and flexibility.
Working on these two areas is paramount and the first stop to improving your running form. No matter how aware you are of your flaws and how well you understand biomechanics, if you do not have adequate strength and flexibility to actually execute good form, all your conscious attempts to change will fail. For example, a weak lower back or tight hip flexors can inhibit correct posture and running form.
Best strengthening exercises for runners
Here are a couple of exercises that ideally every runner should be incorporating into their training 3 times a week, aiming for 10-12 reps (or holding for 60 seconds on static exercises). These power moves will help you develop strong foundations for your running, especially in your core, glutes, and quads.
- Plank (and its many variations)
- Side plank (can add knee to chest raises for more challenge)
- Supine plank
- Donkey kicks aka quadrupled hip extension
- Fire hydrants
- Clamshells with band
- Side lying leg raises and circles
- Single or double legged glute bridge
- Side to side steps with band
- Marching in one spot with band around the feet
- One legged (pistol) squats (use a chair or TRX to assist, especially if you have had knee issues in the past)
Stretching for runners
To work on your flexibility, you should use the so-called ‘active isolated stretching’ technique. The theory behind this is that if you stretch a muscle for too long and too hard, the ‘myotatic reflex’ kicks in which causes the muscle to automatically and ballistically recoil in an attempt to prevent tearing. However, with the ‘active isolated stretching’ technique, you will only hold a stretch for a second or two, before this reflex kicks in. You will then relax the muscle and repeat about 10 times for each body part. The benefits of doing this form of stretching is that your muscles should exhibit a greater range of motion over the course of reps. The stretches you should do include single leg pelvic tilts, straight leg hamstring, gastrocnemius (calf), hip adductor and the quads.
Here is a great full body ‘active isolated stretching’ sequence demo on www.smartstretch.com:-
3. Conscious competence
During this stage, you now run with an awareness of what you are doing is better. There are of course times when you still need to think about your running form, it is not yet coming completely naturally. At this stage, you can add form drills and mental cues to mentally engage and actively improve your form.
These are an excellent way to learn and develop efficient movement patterns that your body will then be able to automatically select as an economical way to perform when you are running. Drills also improve proprioception, i.e. your awareness or connection between what your body is doing and what your mind is telling it to do.
There are various great running drills on YouTube which you can incorporate into your training. Here are a few examples:-
- High knee skips
- Butt kickers
- Ankle drill
- High knee running
- Foreleg extension marching
- Straight leg bounds
- High knee bounce skips
- Ankle bounce
- A skips
- B skips
- Walk through lunges
- Bounds or skips for distance
These allow you to engage in quick reminders for short periods during your run, so you can transition the feeling of good form through drills, strength, and flexibility to the run itself.
For example (these will make more sense as I go into more detail about running form in Part 2 of this article): ‘hold your hips high’; ‘drive forward from the glutes’; ‘hot coals’; ‘head balloon’; ‘wheels’; ‘relaxed shoulders’; ‘arms pumping’; ‘soft feet’ etc.
4. Unconscious competence
At this point, you have started to move towards a stage where you can run with more efficient form without thinking much about it, but you need to maintain your learning and physical work for things to stick.
At this stage, you should continue to identify any potential issues you may still have, for example, by getting a fresh running gait analysis done. You can then begin correcting these through implementing different drills, cues, strength and flexibility work to make the changes to your form permanent.
- Start with an analysis of your running form and technique to identify your weaknesses.
- Begin to learn the basics (and later on, the more advanced concepts) of good running form and technique.
- Implement drills and mental cues to transition from the physical to the mental side of the brain.
- Regularly re-analyse and re-assess to maintain your proprioceptive awareness.
Keep your eyes peeled for the second part of this article in which I am going to go into more specific details on what good running form and technique is, based on a running workshop I attended at the Drummond Clinic in Maidenhead in March 2017.
What are your struggling the most with in your running? Do you have any persistent, recurring injuries?
If you have enjoyed this article, you may want to check out Jeff’s ‘Improve Running Form’ course and ‘Video gait Analysis’ programme. This course consists of lessons and guest lectures spread over a 6 week period, various drills and routines, some bonus features, and step by step guides. You can also upload your own video of running and get a personalised assessment and specific recommendations to improve your form and technique. This is not a free course. I am not affiliated with Jeff and not getting any commission or reward for shouting about this. I am just mentioning this because I love Jeff’s work and I think that he is a brilliant expert on all things running.