Studies have found that up to 80% of runners get injured at least once in their lifetime. Reduce your risk of injuries by fine-tuning your running gait.
Have you been injured or know someone nursing a running injury? Surveys done on beginner to elite runners have concluded that up to 80% of all runners get injured at least once, so it’s not if, but when you will get injured. This sucks, but the good news is you can reduce injury risks with the correct running gait. Find out how.
The biomechanics of running
Forces on our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones cause injuries, so let’s start by understanding these forces. Basic physics tells us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, according to Newton’s third law; and energy cannot be created or destroyed. At SSTAR.fitness, we analyse the biomechanics of our runners – how the forces of physics meet the biology of the human body. When we run, our feet come into contact with the ground, creating a ground reaction force that comes right back up our legs. Our shoes absorb most of this force, so the thicker, more cushioned the shoes, the less impact of the force we feel. Our tendons and muscles absorb and release the rest of the force. Tendons act like coiled springs and muscles like elastic bands to help propel us forward.
Diversify to lower the risk
However, when these forces are overly concentrated in one small area, and tendons or muscles cannot cope, it could result in muscle strains, sprains to ligament tears, tendonitis, swelling, bursitis and a host of other issues. Just like investing your money, the solution is to diversify – spread these impact forces out, so that no peak impact force will cause problems. Do this by adopting the correct running gait. At SSTAR.fitness, we teach runners the biomechanically efficient way to run, which also helps reduce injury risk. Here is our 5-step approach.
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A good posture is the foundation of the human gait, regardless of whether one is walking or running. To get this right, break it down into various components. Start by standing tall and not slouching, and keep your shoulders pulled back and not rounded. Centre your head and keep it balanced, without having the neck extended forward. Many people walk around all day with an extended ‘text neck’ feeling fine, thinking this bad posture is normal. To improve this condition, learn to strengthen the neck muscles at the back of your head, and stretch the muscles in front of the neck.
Your hips have to be parallel to the ground in what I call ‘neutral position’. Excessive forward tilt of the hips would force the buttocks to extend backward, putting a strain on the lower back. A backward hip tilt because of weak stomach muscles is also not ideal.
2. Forward lean from the ankle
After getting the posture right, we shift our attention to the actual setup for a good running gait. Start by a forward lean from the ankles and not from the waist. Some runners run too upright and others lean forward but do it wrongly by bending at their waist. The ideal forward lean is to keep your back straight, and maintain a good posture and lean from the ankle.
The correct posture combined with an ankle lean, will shift your centre of mass to the front, ahead of your body and let gravity help pull you forward. You will have a sense of falling forward with each step. String together a series of steps in a smooth forward motion and running becomes a process of ’’falling forward’’. Gravity becomes your friend. Make use of it.
3. Ankle Lift
The correct leg movement for distance running is an ankle lift, where the heel moving off the ground tracks a straight line directly under the hip. This straight, up and down movement helps ensure the foot lands directly under the hip. Combined with the ankle lean, it dissipates the ground impact forces, across all three joints – the ankle, knee, and hip. Doing this reduces the peak reaction force at any one joint, lowering the risk of injuries.
The number of steps a runner takes per minute is called cadence, and also known as leg turnover. Running speed is a combination of stride length and cadence. Many runners mistakenly increase their speed by taking bigger strides, which is actually less efficient. A better way for distance runners to go faster is to increase cadence while maintaining an efficient running form. The rule of thumb is a cadence of between 170 to 180 steps per minute. Taller runners have lower cadence, and when running faster, our cadence will increase.
The result of these four steps is a smooth, mid-foot landing, with most of the ground reaction forces absorbed by the ankle, knee and hip joints.
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5. Upper body action
The final step is to focus on the upper body, namely the arm swing and shoulders. Your arms should swing along the same plane and direction of travel, i.e. forward and backward, instead of side to side. Many runners, especially when tired are guilty of swinging the arms across the body’s centre line, which adds to inefficient body, hip and shoulder rotation. SSTAR.fitness offers regular drills that help correct this habit.
Combining these five steps into a smooth, seamless series of repeated movements will require some practice, which you can enhance with running drills. At SSTAR.fitness, we focus only on drills relevant to distance runners, so join us to find out what drills are not relevant, and which ones are. For free trials, email email@example.com.
About the author
Andrew Cheong is the founder and Head Coach of SSTAR.fitness, an endurance sports coaching service. Since 2010, Andrew has been dedicated to coaching runners of all abilities, for races ranging from 5km to the Marathon and beyond. He has a Diploma in Sports Science, is a certified Distance Running Coach by the Road Running Clubs of America, a qualified FISAF personal trainer, an IAAF Track and Field Certified and a Mental Toughness Coach. Andrew has completed more than 30 marathons and Ironman races. He and his wife were the first Singaporean couple to be awarded the Abbott Six Star World Marathon Major recipient in 2017.