I have been running with relative consistency for the last 17+ years, a little over half of my trips around the sun, but it is fairly recently that I started asking myself this question: Do I ever practice how I run? To me, it is something routine and, dare I say, "natural" at this point in time but this question really struck me a few years ago after running a track workout and noticing all of the different "styles" of other recreational runners. Quite honestly, I am not sure how so many of them appeared to be running pain free with their unique versions. My answer back then was essentially 'no' but after so many years of running, I knew my typical style at the time and that I was symmetrical for the most part. Thankfully I had dealt with few injuries as well so I never really felt the need to analyze and practice my running technique and skill.
Now that I have had several years to ponder this question and work with many injured runners, I am fully convinced that running is a modern day skill requiring practice and is not as "natural" of a movement pattern as it used to be when humans were running in the savannas of Africa. We all grow up running (and are usually told to stop running in the house!) but add modern lifestyles to the equation and most of us stop running consistently so that motor pattern is not repeatedly reinforced. Take into account a plethora of other factors like strength, balance, everyday shoe choices, genetics, work requirements, mode of transportation, training schedules, etc. and performance of that motor pattern can, and most likely, will change over time. This is not unique to running. Take any skill, swimming, hitting a baseball, or shooting a basketball just to name a few, and I think we can all agree that the same holds true. Mindful repetition and practice of a skill dramatically improves the consistency and performance of that skill so why would it be any different for running? I highlight 'mindful' because repetition itself does not necessarily mean that someone is actively engaged in practicing a given skill. In the case of running, anyone can go run mile after mile without actually practicing.
This becomes a potential issue when you start talking about injuries. It is commonly reported that 80% of runners in a year will sustain an injury. My question now is how many of those injured runners actually practiced how they ran? I believe that the majority would say no. That being said, I cannot assume that that is the primary factor in each of those cases but I would have to argue that it is a significant factor for many runners. Running has become a modern day skill and should be treated as such. Introduce the idea of practicing it in a mindful manner and I believe that the percentage of injured runners would drop and performance would improve.
So if you ask me the same question today, my answer is most definitely yes! Mindful practice of how I run along with the rest of my training has corresponded to 2+ years of being injury free and a steady improvement in performance. Granted, I am only an experiment of one and correlation does not equal causation but I do not think it to be coincidence that practicing how I run and not simply running a lot has led to successful and injury free running! Now I pose the same question to you:
Knowledge = Power; Share The Power:
Some of you may not be lucky enough to experience the invasion of the "polar vortex". I, for one, think this is what winter should be like and is reminiscent of winters past. You may think winter is too cold to begin with, let alone this particular winter, to get out there and log some miles on the roads and trails. I admit it's not for everyone but I find cold weather running rather invigorating. (I also despise treadmills so that limits my options anyway.)
When you're talking about single digits, teens and into the 20's for air temperature, as it has been for my recent runs, speed work and interval training are not easy to do. Running faster especially if there is any kind of wind automatically makes it feel colder so it usually isn't the most enjoyable thing to begin with. Physiologically it is generally more difficult because your body uses more energy (read: oxygen) to maintain its core temperature and muscle efficiency decreases. (1) For most people this means more work for the same results in warmer temps.
So what is a runner to do?
Instead of hammering out intervals, winter can be a great time to focus on the fundamentals of your technique as it can have a dramatic effect on your performance. After that initial shock of the cold air, I like to start at the top and analyze all the way to the bottom:
For me that means using my ears and listening to my cadence first. If you missed my post about the importance of your auditory organs as a runner you can read that here. Your cadence should sound relatively symmetrical regardless of foot strike preference. (That's another topic for the future.)
How's your head position? Straight and stable? Good.
What about your shoulders? Are they back and relaxed allowing you to maintain an upright posture and promote good lung function or are they tense and shrugged up to your ears? No bueno if it is the latter.
How are your hands? Clenched like a death grip and creating tension throughout your whole upper body or gently flexed like you're holding an egg?
What are your arms doing? Are your elbows comfortably bent? Is your arm swing compact and moving forward and back for the most part rather than side to side? Is one arm doing something the other arm isn't?? This is often a place where energy is wasted as the arms can do interesting things and take away your forward momentum.
Onto the lower body. Are you getting hip drive with every step? Is one knee clipping your leg with each swing...maybe both? Are your feet clipping your legs...maybe one more than the other? Hint: this will waste energy and efficiency also.
What's going on when your foot hits the ground? Does it feel like (sound like) you're landing relatively symmetrical each step? Are you transitioning all the way through the big toe so that you have maximal forward propulsion every step? Do you find you push off more to the inside of your foot? This is another example where energy can be lost and decrease performance.
There you have it...a quick checklist of things to dial in on as you rack up your mileage so that you come out of winter as an efficient runner ready to dominate your goals and races. This is by no means an exhaustive list as each component could be broken down further if need be and usually requires another pair of eyes for observation and analysis. In most cases everything will probably check out and you can be on your merry way to enjoying some cold weather runs. If something is off or you're dealing with a nagging injury that won't go away no matter what you do, consider consulting with a physical therapist knowledgeable in running injury and performance.
Happy running, embrace the polar vortex and see you out on the trails!
1. Nimmo, M. Exercise in the cold. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2004 Oct; 22(10) pp:898-916.
Dr. Greg Cecere
Your personal physical therapist, movement educator and knowledge dispenser.
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The contents of this blog is meant for educational purposes only. Momentum Physical Therapy of New Paltz and Dr. Greg Cecere are not responsible for any harm or injury that may occur due to any information on this blog as it is by no means a substitute for a thorough evaluation by a medical professional.