How to run injury free – Part 2

In March 2017 I attended a half day Running Workshop at the Drummond Clinic in Maidenhead. I can 100% recommend this place if you need physiotherapy – they have fixed me a couple of times and I have learnt so much here about injury-proofing my body.

The clinic does free workshops for runners and triathletes regularly.  This one ran by Alex Drummond was a very hands-on workshop aimed at runners who were keen to perfect their running technique to be able to enjoy the benefits of running efficiently. Our small group spent a good couple of hours running together on the quieter streets of Maidenhead, with plenty of stops to perform drills and to learn more about the right running techniques on both flat and hilly terrain. In addition, we all got videod and got individual feedback about our running form at the start and at the very end of the session which I found really helpful.

The first thing that I learnt is that no matter which school of running we swear by – whether the Pose Method, the Chi Method or the Alexander Method, they all share a number of things in common. One example is that they all suggest that running with a heel strike is inefficient because landing on the heel transmits a significant amount of unnecessary shock through the feet, ankles, knees, hips and pelvis and back  (nonetheless it is perfect for walking), and that running with a mid to forefoot landing is using our natural suspension systems.

So the key question we sought the answer for was ‘what techniques do we need to adopt to run efficiently?’ instead of ‘which school of running should we follow.’  By the end of the workshop, we all learnt that the bottom line is that minimising wasted energy is the key to efficient running and staying injury free.

Here are a couple of key takeaways from this workshop which I’m sure you will appreciate if you are someone who is looking to improve your running technique. This is Part 2 of my running injury prevention series on my blog – if you missed Part 1, you can catch up by clicking here.

Our group (me in yellow)

Balance between Stride Length and Stride Frequency

Short quick strides equal to greater running efficiency. The reason is that long, easy strides would require more vertical displacement (moving up and down during running) and would result in a large loading to the quadriceps muscles, increasing fatigue and overload. This may leave you stiff after running and may lead to some form of stress injury.

Stride rate to run efficiently is reported to be between 180-182 SPM. It doesn’t matter whether you are a tall person a short person – the same stride length applies to minimise contact with the ground in order to utilise the stored energy for running.

The key to running with higher cadence is to shorten the stride length. If your cadence is increased, but your stride length stays the same (long), the energy expenditure goes up and your breathing rate increases to feed your body with more oxygen to dissipate the accumulating lactic acid. It is no surprise that this intensity cannot be sustained for long!

It is therefore recommended that you first find your own natural running cadence and then gradually increase this rate to the optimal 180-182 spm. To do this, you can use a metronome app on your mobile phone to monitor turn over of your footstrike. As you increase your turn over keep the movements quick and light and make sure the push over is less powerful than normal. Remember that if you increase turnover by 20% you will run faster even with a stride length that is 15% shorter than normal!

Placement of Foot at Impact

This is critical for efficient running technique.  You may have noticed that a lot of people land with their foot out in front of their body – here the ability to be pulled forward is lost until the body moves over the foot which makes this method very inefficient.

Deceleration/braking occurs requiring significant energy to reaccelerate on every stride. Energy from momentum is lost in the process and requires more energy to reaccelerate back up to speed. In other words, energy cost of balance is increased and the impact stress on to your body is significantly increased as well.

Efficient runners land with their foot almost below their hips allowing a more quicker and horizontal (forward) push off rather than increasing the vertical displacement. Here momentum is carried through to the next stride efficiently and braking is minimised.

There is a reduction of energy cost in having to reaccelerate. The minimised contact time between feet and the ground allows maximum return from elastic recoil. Elastic recoil is a ‘superpower’ for runners – it occurs when you convert energy temporarily stored in your tendons and fascia into a free push. It is ‘free’ because it’s fueled by the impact force of each foot strike. The recoil generated by your Achilles tendons, plantar fascia and the fascia associated with your muscles provides up to 50 percent of the propulsive force for each stride! Requires very little energy for balance (watch the arms!).

Types of Foot Strike

 There are three main types of foot strike:-

  • Heel strike – weight coming on the heel first.
  • Flatfoot strike – heel and forefoot land together.
  • Forefoot strike – forefoot hits the ground first bearing all of your weight. This is the ideal strike for running.

Forefoot strike maximises the natural shock absorbing system, just as the elastic tissues in the feet and calfs provide propulsion they also absorb impact stress, allowing the heels to become weighted minimises this function.

The heel is made of bone and is made for support and not cushioning! When a runner contacts the ground with the heel the natural shock absorption system is bypassed and compensations must be made. Impact stress is passed from the heel through the ankle into the tibia potentially causing shin splints and stress fractures. The stress continues into the knee which has minimal shock absorbing capabilities and then up the femur to the hips, pelvis and low back potentially causing a multitude of aches, pains & injuries. None of these structures were designed to take this amount of impact stress!

Developing Propulsion of Foot at Impact

Efficient runners develop forward propulsion with minimal vertical displacement by using the large muscle groups as these are able to do more work without fatiguing, unlike the smaller muscles.

There are 2 methods called toe off and pull through.

Toe Off

Action of quads to straighten the knee during toe off. Although this does create some forward propulsion, it also provides significant vertical movement. The quads are a relatively small endurance muscle group and therefore will fatigue quickly. Efficient runners use the quads for support and not propulsion when running on flat ground.

Another issue when looking at the sport of Triathlon / Duathlon is that the quads are one of the prime muscles used in cycling, so therefore, the utilising the quads heavily whilst running will significantly disadvantage this.

Pull Through

Many runners derive most of their propulsion by bending the knee at footstrike which places the responsibility of propulsion on the hamstrings (towards the end of a race or long training run have your hamstrings ever felt very fatigued?) Efficient runners utilise the recruitment of the hip muscles rather than those of the thigh, engaging greater muscle mass and reducing the relative intensity of work for each muscle.

The largest and most powerful muscle in your body is the Gluteus Maximus which is responsible for hip extension. Efficient running uses hip extension to gain most forward propulsion. The glutes and hamstrings are both hip extenders.

So the question is “What would be best; using hamstring only to create propulsion or combine the use of both the glutes and the hamstrings?” The answer is that both the glutes and hamstrings would be preferable to gain maximum propulsion. To engage these muscles well, the contact of foot to ground is vital to assist in moving your body over the foot efficiently.

Movement of Foot at Impact

By having a long forward stride, there may be a tendency for the foot to hover/pause as it approaches the ground. This is inefficient and will create breaking and therefore deceleration. Efficient running suggests that as the foot approaches the ground there is a pulling back of the foot toward the ground. This allows for less breaking and therefore less energy cost for each stride.

Limb Movement

The length of the leg during the swing phase is another important factor in running economy. The longer the leg, the more effort there is needed to swing it forward, therefore by shortening the leg during the recovery swing there is going to be less energy cost and increase the speed of leg movement. This can be achieved by bending the knee during the recovery swing. This is to be done with minimal hamstring activity and more by the momentum of the running action:

  • Drive the knee forward immediately after follow though
  • Foot lags behind knee on recovery
  • Relax thigh muscles – engage hip flexors

The arms have two main functions: they set the rhythm for leg turn over and they act as a balance mechanism for upper and lower body stability during running.

The arms should swing through a forward and backward movement, allowing just a slight cross over movement, this acts as a counter to the lower body and provides good balance. The amount the arms sling forward to be equaled to the back ward swing (approx 30 degrees). The shoulder arms and hands should be as relaxed as possible with the elbows at 90 degrees. When your upper body is too active, there is unwanted energy expenditure!

Uphill and downhill running

Running efficiently is most important when running up and down hill.

Running uphill

Most people that heel strike only really use their calf muscles during uphill running, thus putting a great load upon them at the hardest part of running. Efficient running utilises the calfs all of the time and employs a similar technique when running the hills as to running on the flats.

Most runners force themselves up hills. here there are two factors that we need to consider: forward propulsion and upward displacement.  Both of these must be considered as for forward propulsion the glutes and hamstrings push us forward and to climb the hill we need upward displacement which is generated from the quads and calfs.  Efficient running minimises again the high arcing motion (bounce) and utilises upward displacement efficiently to climb the slope by relying on the elastic recoil of the low leg and the high leg turn over along with a reduced stride length.

Running downhill

Top tips:-

  • Use gravity and don’t fight it!
  • Try to minimize vertical displacement
  • Utilise elastic recoil
  • Do short, quick strides
  • Avoid braking
  • Heel flick with momentum
  • Faster downhill running technique is easier than running downhill slowly.
  • Footstrike should contact the ground slightly behind the hip
  • Should have a slight forward lean of the whole body
  • Should have a fast foot turnover
  • The amount of force when running downhill should be the same as for running on the flat.

Bonus: Foamrolling techniques

At the beginning of the workshop, before heading out for our run, we all did some foamrolling to prepare our bodies for the day ahead. The foam roller is a very effective self-massage tool that you can use pre-run to increase mobility, and/or after your run to speed up recovery. It helps decrease muscle tension in chronically tight spots, so it can provide some of the benefits of deep-tissue massage. Here is a video link to the Drummond Clinic’s Vimeo channel. Each video goes through a dfferent rolling protocol, giving you guidance on the correct technique:

Well, this is all! Quite a lot to digest and remember but it is always good to have everything in one place so you can always refer back to your learnings later.

What areas of your running do you need to work on? Let me know in the comments.

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