Is your running style a problem?

We all get frustrated when an injury means we can’t run to get relief from the daily grind. When you pick up a running injury, your approach might be to ignore it and keep doing what you love regardless of the pain, or you may decide to take a complete rest, but find the injury just reoccurs when you start up again, leaving you feeling a bit like a stop-starting yo- yo. The best of course would be if you could avoid those injuries in the first place. But how?

For runners, there’s a lot of information out there suggesting how to change your running style/technique or your training programme to avoid injury. But what changes should you consider making? And what is the ‘best running technique’? Here are a few of the techniques and elements of running style you’ll come across if you spend any time googling ‘running style’.

Running cadence

According to some running coaches, higher running cadence (that is a higher stride rate) reduces running injury risk. This is because a low cadence (which is essentially a longer slower stride) can increase heel strike and braking, meaning your legs need to absorb greater impact.

Some researchers have suggested that an optimal running cadence is 180 strides per minute, as this ensures that your foot lands under your hip rather than ahead of you, avoiding over-extension of your knee and excessive ankle dorsiflexion.

Not everyone will run at 180 strides a minute, but it has been shown that cadence of less than 175 strides a minute could contribute to injuries, such as pain at the front of your knee. Shubert et al. (2014) has noted that with increased stride rate and reduced stride length you do reduce load on your hip and knee joints because of the angles of your leg and ankle when your foot strikes the ground.

Also, your gluteals are more likely to be activated before your foot hits the ground, reducing the peak muscle forces through your calf and quadriceps. This means the leg behaves more like a spring because of the reduced time the foot is in contact with the ground, the position of your leg, and the fact that your leg doesn’t have as much work to do in moving your centre of mass up and down with each stride.

So, experimenting with your cadence is, in our opinion, something worth trying if you have persistent injuries and do have quite a long, slow stride. Introduce it gently though – you don’t want to suddenly run 10km at a whole new cadence.

Running softly

This is exactly what it sounds like – working to reduce the impact and sound you make as you run. The running softly technique essentially involves striking the ground with your midfoot first, rather than your heel or your toe first, and picking up your leg rather than pushing off against the ground for each new stride.

For some people, this can involve quite a dramatic change to their running style, for others it’s more subtle. But many people who don’t run like this normally end up over-exaggerating the movements, which makes for an inefficient running pattern and overloads certain structures. It can actually increase your risk of some injuries, such as an Achilles tendinopathy, because your style loses its natural flow, becoming more of a stop/start exercise which reduces the elastic recoil that helps your joints absorb the energy from impact.

A loud running gait isn’t always a bad running gait, and nor is a heel strike or a forefoot landing if you have the capacity to manage the load that comes with it. If you don’t, then it may be something to think about.

Running posture

As with most things in life, with posture we are subjected to an ideal – ‘the perfect posture’. This has been demonstrated by leading musculoskeletal researcher Peter O’Sullivan and his team to be a myth. There is no evidence that one optimal posture exists or that we should avoid certain postures. This applies to running posture as well. There is no perfect running posture, although certain things may help you run more efficiently:

  • Run tall with open chest and shoulders
  • Lean slightly forward
  • Avoid excessive bending from your trunk
  • Relax your shoulders
  • Swing your arms backwards

The aim of these pointers is to avoid having a rigid body posture when you run, rather than being guides for an ideal running posture. Even when it comes to these pointers, don’t try to make a dramatic change to how you currently run. Your posture is likely a result of how your body is set up and functions. Changing it could cause injury rather than solve anything.

Training schedules and recovery time

Managing your training schedule well goes a long way in keeping you free of running injuries. There’s plenty of research that’s been done around how long our soft tissues need to recover, and how to build strength and flexibility while minimising the risk of injury.

How much can your body take without getting injured? Specialist running physiotherapist, Tom Goom has suggested that managing the load that exercise puts on your body is like a see-saw: on one side you have training load (such as volume, intensity, frequency and type; as well as work habits) and on the other side you have your tissue load capacity (your strength, control, flexibility, tissue sensitivity, biomechanics, running gait and previous injuries). You can’t focus on one side and ignore the other if you’re going to be well balanced and injury free.

Typically, you pick up injuries when there’s rapid change in your training that doesn’t take into consideration how much your tissues can take. This causes irritation to your soft tissues or stress reactions in bone. Injuries such as:

  • Stress fractures
  • Muscle pain
  • Plantar fasciopathy
  • Iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome
  • Tendinopathy in your Achilles, hamstring and gluteal muscles
  • Patellofemoral pain (in the front of the knee)

Therefore, when you increase your training – whether that is running or gym work – you need to do it gradually and ensure you have rest days. A few simple principles, which, if followed, can follow to help with injury prevention are:

  • Don’t increase your overall running distance or your weight training for the week by more than 10%
  • Avoid a stop-start, ‘boom or bust’ training cycle
  • Have only one goal for each run, such as running further but at a slower pace
  • Give your body 24 hours’ rest between a strength and conditioning session and a run session to allow your body to make a full recovery
  • Build in 2 rest days a week when you don’t run or go to the gym

When planning your training and recovery, consider other activities in your work and home life that you need to complete too. They will be loading your body as well and you will need adequate recovery from them too.

Stress, nutrition and sleep

Stress has also been shown to be a risk factor for injury, so try not to put too much pressure on yourself to perform at a certain level. Give yourself those all-important breaks during the week. Even if you do use running as a stress-reliever.

Also, it’s important to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night to allow for physical and psychological recovery. And make sure that you’re getting adequate nutrition to complement your training demands. If you aren’t sure whether you’re getting your nutrition correct, discuss this with a nutritionist.

In conclusion: staying injury free as a runner is about more than running style

In our physio practice, we don’t believe in the ‘perfect’ or the ‘best running technique’, and we only analyse our patients’ gaits when we have a good clinical reason to do so.

Although running technique can contribute to injuries, remember that your running style might not be the problem. However if you think it is, we’d be happy to analyse your gait if you’d like to try and make a change. Whatever you do, don’t make any change to your technique too drastic or do it too quickly. Your body’s been running one way for a long time; it will need time to ease into new patterns.

If you do have the perfect running technique, would that be enough to help keep you pounding the roads injury-free? Almost certainly not. Good sleep, recovery time, nutrition and stress all play a role in your risk of injury. Just like most aspects of health and wellbeing, preventing running injuries requires a holistic approach.