Running is simplicity in the most refined form: no gear, no team, no arena – just you and your legs. Perhaps this is why it’s the world’s favourite cardio exercise. There are many good reasons to run: for fitness, health or the simple joy of using what nature gave you.
However, runners – athletes and amateurs alike – are some of the most injury prone sportspeople around. There is a subtle note of irony in the fact that so many people run to improve their health yet approximately 3/4 of all runners receive at least one running-related injury per year. A 2015 Aalborg University, Denmark study translates the figure into the risk of injury per hour. In professional track and field athletes, the injury rate has been found to vary between 7.1 per 1000 hours for professionals and 30.1 per 1000 hours for novice runners.
The reason that runners are so injury prone has to do with the nature of running. Each stride is essentially a mini trauma that affects the whole body, so the key to preventing injury is to minimise the impact of each stride. Professional athletes, it is said, run like they are simply “floating above the ground”. This is a great analogy for what to aim for when running. To help achieve this, we’ve outlined the five areas most important to focus on while running. Nail these and you can keep your running injuries to a minimum and keep yourself moving.
Landing on the toe
Back in our Savannah days when long-distance running was a regular occurrence as we hunted gazelles and so on, running didn’t involve shoes. And when we ran barefoot, landing on the heel was extremely uncommon. Try it in bare feet – it’s painful. Scientists have concluded that runners traditionally landed on the forefoot so that the foot and ankle absorbed much of the shock. Due to the ubiquity of cushioned running shoes, the vast majority of people nowadays land on their heel, a spot which is not well protected against repetitive stress injuries. A 2012 Harvard study found there to be a 2:1 greater risk of injury running with the heel first method. So stay on your toes, if you can!
Getting the right shoes
It’s a commonly held belief that running with more cushioned shoes will help reduce the overall risk of injury. Recent research shows the opposite. As mentioned, with traditional cushioned running shoes we are more likely to land on our heel, doubling the risk of injury. With the recent boom in popularity of minimalist shoes, a 2012 University of Exeter study looked into the impact that shoes have on running. Because people running in minimalist shoes are more likely to be fore-foot strikers when they run, the risk of injury is greatly reduced. Dr Hannah Rice, lead researcher said: “Our research tells us that becoming accustomed to running with a forefoot strike in shoes that lack cushioning promotes a landing with the lowest loading rates, and this may be beneficial in reducing the risk of injury”.
Because impact is when injuries occur, it follows that softer impact helps reduce injury. A 2016 Harvard study looked at how subtle differences between a hard and a soft strike are a strong determinant of injury likelihood. The strength of a strike is measured by the vertical loading rate – essentially, the duration between a foot’s contact with the floor to its full impact. The difference between an injury causing strike and a healthy strike was barely 50 milliseconds but this fraction of a second made a big difference. It allows the body to spread the shock properly and softens the impact a dramatically. Lead researcher Dr Irene Davis said it was akin to the injured runner group jumping from a height stiff legged. A great way to tell if you are a soft or hard lander is to take out those earbuds and listen to the sound of each step. The louder the step, generally speaking, the higher the vertical loading rate. Jogging as quietly as a panther will do wonders for your stride.
Complementary strength training
Having stronger muscles in our body reduces the damage of impact and improves overall form, making it essential for injury prevention. A common pitfall for novice runners is weak muscles in the leg that force the more dominant muscles to overcompensate. In a strong runner, there is a whole chain of muscles and stabilisers working in unison to reduce tension and keep the body stable. If there is a weak link in the chain, excess pressure is placed on the weaker points, increasing the risk of injury. Doing some strength training at the gym or picking up a yoga class will reduce injury risk, but also do wonders for your overall form and efficiency when running.
Over-striding is the mechanism in which the foot lands extended well ahead of the knee. This places a significantly larger amount of tension on muscles tendons and ligaments in the leg, potentially leading to torn muscles. A 2016 University of California study cited over-striding as one of the key sources of running-related injury. There are a couple of ways to fix this habit if you spot this in your own running. First, minimise your stride distance when running. As you slowly increase your stride again, make sure that each foot lands only when the leg is almost vertical behind it. Another great tip is to practice running on an incline to get a feel for the correct form, as it is hard to overstrike when climbing uphill.
Getting this simple stuff right will make running injuries far less likely. A little attention in the right areas and you can save yourself the pain and hassle of getting hurt.