We may be all born to run, but are we all born to run well, fleet of foot and without injury? Running is an immensely popular fitness activity and for good reason. It offers efficient exercise and it can usually be done anywhere or anytime, with only the most basic of equipment. But this simplicity may lead many to believe that running doesn’t require the preparation that is part and parcel of other sports or activities. After all, one wouldn’t pick up a tennis racket and presume to play in Wimbledon, yet many runners begin training for half-marathons, marathons and ultras without specifically training the running “skills” that help avoid injury and improve efficiency.
Of course, a lot of attention has been devoted to the role running shoes have in the prevention of injury. Yet despite all the advances in running shoe technology over the past 30 years the rate of injury among runners remains quite high. Even barefoot running, once eagerly embraced by many as the answer to injury woes, hasn’t delivered on its early hype. The barefoot backlash has been highlighted by a group of disgruntled runners recently settling a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the running shoe company Vibram over marketing claims that its once popular sock-like 5-finger shoe prevented running injury.
Now with the confirmation that no one shoe type prevents injury, what should the stylishly appointed runner wear on their feet? Well just like a golfer can choose a club to suit a particular shot, so to can the runner choose a shoe to match a run; a lightweight shoe for speed/track workouts, a maximalist (highly cushioned) shoe for recovery or long runs, and a regular running shoe for any run in between.
So what are these essential running skills that every runner should practice? First, as the impact of running sends a force of 3 to 5 times bodyweight through the joints with every step, the muscles of the legs, hips and back should be strengthened to help absorb some of that impact. Research suggests that the muscles of the outer hip and quad are of particular importance.
Although the characteristics of a runner’s stride are like snowflakes, no one stride is the same, a unifying factor seems to stand out in terms of injury prevention. That seemingly critical factor is stride rate or the number of strides a runner takes per minute. Regardless of what part of the runner’s foot that strikes the ground first, where the foot lands in relation to the runner’s body seems to be more important. A high stride rate correlates with a shorter stride length and less chance that the runner “overstrides”. Overstriding or excessive stride length causes the leg to act like a brake and increases the impact force each time the foot strikes the ground.
In fact, a just-published review article in the journal Sports Health concluded, “An increased stride rate (reduced stride length) appears to reduce the magnitude of several key biomechanical factors associated with running injuries.”
While making this change takes time and focused effort, research suggests that making the investment in changing stride rate is more important than concentrating on forefoot, midfoot or heel striking. Making those changes may help reduce the risk of injury more than buying into the latest running shoe fad.