Healthy Running Philosophy: How to be a Better Runner & Run Injury Free
One of the most common questions runners ask me is how they can improve and at the same time stay healthy. Although there is no proven way to do this, I feel that I’ve learned a lot through the years that can be passed on. I spent my years in college studying running injuries & running technique, and I also worked in a running store for nearly 2 decades where learning to help people not hurt was the name of the game. Through my studies and hands on experience, I’ve come to believe there are four major causes of running injuries:
- Repetitive Stress & Muscle Imbalances (Mostly caused by man-made surfaces)
- Poor Running Technique
- Poor Foot & Body Function & Strength
As a result, there are possible solutions for each one:
- Repetitive Stress & Muscle Imbalances
World renowned Exercise Scientist & 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon Champion Pete Pfitzinger wrote “Most running injuries occur because of the repetitive nature of the running stride…You can address…by correcting muscle imbalances…and by adjusting your running surface…”(1) Our bodies were not created to run repetitively on a uniform surface such as a road, track, or treadmill. Therefore, it is imperative that runners search out and run on variable, uneven surfaces such as trails, cobblestones, and grass as much as possible. This allows more intrinsic and stabilizing muscles to get involved, thereby balancing the muscle structure. A soft surface like a track will not reduce injury. In fact, track running actually encourages more injury because it is so extremely consistent. The more different each step is and the more the whole body gets involved, the more effective the surface is at preventing injury. My studies in college showed that trail runners were far less injured than road runners, but that most runners could reduce injury by running one-third of their mileage on variable terrain. The book Anatomy for Runners by Jay Dicharry is the comprehensive source on why muscle balance matters and how to avoid injury.
- Poor Running Technique
Since most runners have never been trained on HOW to run efficiently with low impact, most of them over-stride and run with inefficient, high impact running technique. Unfortunately, most shoes literally teach bad form as well, because most running shoes have elevated heels that are twice as heavy and twice as thick as the forefoot of the shoe. In any other sport, there is focus on performing the tasks of the sport correctly to reduce injury and improve performance—running should be no different. Become a student of good running form to learn how to protect your body. I highly recommend filming yourself as most people don’t run the way they think they run! Additionally, getting a pair of Zero Drop shoes—shoes without an elevated heel—will make it much easier to run with good technique. Any heel elevation, even 4mm, will cause a weight and height imbalance that will encourage an early, unnatural foot-strike. Although there is no ideal running form, there are a few things that nearly all elite runners and non-injured runners have in common:
1) Proud, Forward Momentum Posture: Hips & Chest are pushed forward without bending at the waist.
2) Compact Arms: Elbows shouldn’t swing forward past the hips unless sprinting—this will keep the body in proper position and prevent over-striding.
3) Soft Landing Under a Bent Knee: Don’t think about foot-strike, as it will take care of itself if the other points are done correctly. Most people will naturally land somewhere between a slight heel strike and the middle of the foot. Excessive heel striking or forefoot/toe striking is discouraged.
4) High Cadence: Nearly all elites have been observed to have around 180+ steps per minute. For most people, ultimately shooting for at least 170 steps per minute will drastically improve form, improve foot-strike, and reduce impact.
See here for more detail. I also recommend reading Programmed to Run by Dr. Tom Miller.
- Poor Foot Strength & Function
To improve performance and avoid injury from the ground up, both the foot and the core of the body need to be strong and in their natural position. The foot is the foundation of the body and it is therefore critical that the foot be strong & be allowed to function naturally—yet most Americans have weak feet that are inhibited by shoes that move their feet out of natural position and function by raising their heels and crowding their toes with pointy toe-boxes.
Keep your body in its natural position whenever possible. Your running shoes are important, but what you wear the rest of the day is equally important. If your shoes aren’t the same shape as your spread out foot in a sock, get new shoes. Shoes that will put your feet in their most natural, powerful position will not include tapered toe-boxes, elevated heels, or excessive “arch support”.
Tapered toe-boxes don’t allow the foot & toes to naturally absorb impact, stabilize the body, and push off the ground the way they are meant to. They also contribute to bunions, neuromas, Plantar Fasciosis, and other foot maladies.
Elevated heels shorten the calves and Achilles tendon and make the body column compensate, causing extra pressure on the lower back, hips, & knees. Therefore shoes should be flat, flexible, and shaped like healthy feet. Wearing footwear like this will allow your feet to function properly and become strong and dynamic. The stress on the feet from hard, consistent, man-mad surfaces can be reduced by having some cushioning in the shoe.
Excessive “arch support” and/or orthotics weaken the feet and create a vicious addiction cycle until the feet are strengthened and learn how to work without them again. Those addicted to supposed “arch support” need to strengthen their feet and slowly phase the orthotics or arch supports out over a period of a few months as their feet get stronger and become the support.
Additionally, most Americans sit all day at work and have weak core muscles. If you sit at work, consider using an exercise ball as a chair some of the time. Take walks at least every hour if possible. It is also critical to strengthen core muscles through Strength Training, Yoga, Pilates, Climbing, or other Cross Training Activities.
Combating over-training is one of the hardest things for a runner to do. For most of us, it is in our nature to push it. We get excited about a race or how our training is going and then we push it too hard. Unfortunately, the best solution to this one seems to be to stop being a runner! In all seriousness though, just remember that training smarter is better than training harder. It is proven that you will improve more from running a Lactate Threshold workout at 15k to Half Marathon pace and NOT by going faster. It is also proven that your v02Max workouts will give your body benefit at your 3k to 5k pace and you will get more benefit at that pace than by running harder. I recommend reading “Road Racing for Serious Runners” to better understand how to get faster by training smarter and not harder.
It is almost inevitable that a runner will get sick, experience a life event that disrupts running, or get injured in some form during training—often this will be non-running related. For this reason, I highly recommend planning a couple weeks of down time in to each training season. If and when you have to use this time, it doesn’t affect you as negatively because you’ve planned on it. If you don’t have to use it, you’re just that much further ahead.
Lastly, I read many years ago in Toby Tanser’s Book “Train Hard, Win Easy: The Kenyan Way” that many of the world’s greatest distance runners take 2 to 3 months off of training each year. I figured if they can, then maybe we should too! Since adopting this over a decade ago, I haven’t had a chronic or serious running injury. Something to think about at least, right?
There are probably a thousand other items that could be added in, but these are some of the big ones! At the end of the day, most runners can avoid injury by avoiding over-training, becoming a student of their running form, running on natural, variable surfaces, and by putting their body in its natural, most powerful state.
Golden graduated with a degree in Exercise Science and did his collegiate studies on running technique & running injuries. He grew up working in his family’s running store, was an All-American Cross-Country runner, and holds a world-best for a 12-year old in the marathon at 2:45:34.
(1) Road Racing for Serious Runners, Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas, pg. 70.