01 Sep Optimising Your Running Technique to Reduce those Frustrating Injuries
Running is just running right? I put on a pair of shoes, some running shorts and a shirt and off I go, there’s no need to think about it, how I do it, or anything like that? As much as I’d love to say that you’d be correct, unfortunately it’s probably not right. Those runners you’ve had since 2017 – maybe they aren’t the best tool for the job. You haven’t run since 2019 in the pre-covid times – maybe you shouldn’t be going out trying to break world records. Running is one of the easiest and most accessible forms of exercise, there’s no subscription fees, I don’t need to travel anywhere to do it, I just get changed and off I go. But it also has a lot of technique components, and a lot of other factors – particularly footwear, that can both help boost your performance, as well as reduce your risk of getting injured.
Having treated many runners, triathletes, ultra-runners, track and field athletes, there are so many different styles of running out there. It can depend on a lot of things, for example I’d never suggest Usain Bolt and a marathoner have the same running style. So let’s do a deep dive into running technique together, the pros and cons of each style along with my personal thoughts on which one is best. Then we’ll delve into a few other questions while we are here.
Stages of the Running Cycle
Just accelerate walking and you get running, if only that were actually true. There’s a lot that changes between walking and running, the biggest of which is that running involves a flight phase, whereas when walking you always have at least one foot on the ground.
Proper running form depends on a lot of factors including – the speed you are running, the gradient of the terrain, your running cadence, musculoskeletal factors such as joint and muscular flexibility/mobility. All of this plays a role in how you move and load while running so keep in mind that everyone is a little different, there is far from a textbook perfect running form so don’t think you should be copying the fastest guys out there at your local parkrun.
Initial Ground Contact
Probably the most self explanatory phase but the one that can change the most from person to person and also from the speed at which you are running. The initial contact obviously occurs when you first hit the ground, this could be further delineated into a heel strike, a midfoot strike, or a forefoot strike dependent upon which part of your foot makes the first contact. In beginner runners I would probably say that heel striking is the most common. Not many beginners are forefoot running unless they are doing sprints on flat ground or doing some serious hill work. Midfoot strike is probably the second most common and is pretty well shown in the picture above. It can take some concentration and training to get this pattern down pat hence why it doesn’t seem to be as common as heel striking.
When analysing a clients running technique, to see where they are making initial contact a side view is the best option. This allows you to slow the video right down and get a good look of where their foot strike is occurring and whether they are overstriding (something we’ll cover a little later on).
Mid stance is a pretty important phase even though it seems pretty boring. All of your weight is being placed through one leg doing a pretty high intensity movement while it is then creating momentum to push you forwards into the next step. Muscular strength through the hip and pelvis, core, and legs is really important here. Without adequate strength and control to manage this load and position a few things can break down – this is usually where knee or hip pain starts to kick in if your glutes and core aren’t strong enough.
When analysing running technique via video analysis this will usually be one of the first few stages I’ll look at from both front on as well as side on, it’s a really telling picture of how strong someone is as a runner.
Toe off is pretty commonly done well amongst clients. It is essentially the last point of contact before you initiate the swing phase of running. You are wanting to see nice unrestricted hip extension through here, and most importantly you are wanting the last point of contact to be the big toe. It is the strongest of the muscles in the toes so allows for the most propulsive force to push you forwards. Across the board, pretty much everyone is able to do this pretty well. More often than not, in cases where people can’t, they’ve been put in the wrong shoes. A salesman has probably sold someone a pair of “motion control shoes” when they really weren’t needed. This can stop some people from being able to pronate and get across their foot to push off their big toe. You should always be aware that just because a shoe is a motion control shoe doesn’t make it better, everyone’s foot is a slightly different anatomical structure and the way it behaves under load is different. I think most people should be buying neutral shoes and working on a strengthening program unless they either have a naturally very flat foot, or have a significant amount of pronation when put under load.
Swinging the leg is generally done pretty well, the most common mistakes that people tend to make are the bend the knee a really long way, or they start to cross the leg across the body and creates a situation where the foot will land more towards the middle of the body rather than in a straight line in front of your hip. As long as you aren’t trying to swing your leg as far out in front of body as possible you are probably doing it right. The perception that you have to be “striding out” is pretty outdated these days. The trend has become more of a higher cadence style of running with a shorter swing phase, this allows you to maximise momentum and has been found to be a more economical style of running.
While not really a phase of the running cycle I feel this justifies its own section because it’s still pretty important. Without swinging our arms we lose a lot of momentum. But swinging our arms is only just part of it, we kinda still have to do it well. I’m sure everybody has seen a runner out there that swings their arms across their body. Do we really think this is an efficient way to move our arms to keep momentum moving forwards? Of course it isn’t, by having an arm swing that goes across our body it moves our momentum into a rotational movement going across ourselves, this doesn’t make sense if we want to keep our momentum going straight forwards. Ideally we would want our arm swing to go straight back and forth like train tracks. Try to keep your arms and shoulders nice and relaxed and your elbows around about that 90deg bend or maybe a little less. If you tense up you’ll restrict your breathing a touch and probably make yourself feel a bit rigid and unnatural.
Three Distinct Ground Strike Patterns
So we’ve covered the basics of the stages of the running cycle, but usually the biggest question around proper running form is about the foot strike. This usually sets up a lot of the rest of the cycle so it’s a pretty important phase.
Heel striking, as mentioned above is probably the most common style amongst beginner runners. They are usually of the mindset of striding out is effective running. I’m personally not a big fan of heel striking, I feel it takes away a lot of momentum by introducing a braking force because of the position you are put in as well as it translating a lot of force through bony and joint structures. Heel striking is pretty well defined as the heel making initial contact with the ground, to do this you usually need to have a pretty straight knee, dorsiflexed at the ankle and the foot landing a fair way in front of your body.
Heel striking and overstriding pretty commonly go hand in hand. In order to land with the heel first you can’t land with the foot underneath your knee which pretty much always occurs with a midfoot strike. Overstriding is one of the more common factors that relates to injury, particularly if we are talking about presentations like stress fractures or other bone stress injuries such as shin splints.
Midfoot striking is usually where I find most people are the happiest, and it’s the running style that I opt for unless I am really wanting to push my pace then I may trend a little more towards a forefoot strike. There’s two pretty well established measures for defining a midfoot strike, usually it will occur with the foot contact occurring just about directly below the knee, and within about the length of your foot in front of your hip joint. If you are striking the ground here you will almost certainly be a midfoot striker. Why do I like it? I like it because it allows me to keep my cadence up, there isn’t the “bone shock” forces that occur with heel striking, and doesn’t have the high muscular and tendon load that forefoot running requires. It has taken me time and training to become consistent with this running technique but I’ve relatively got it down pat as a go to running form for me now.
Forefoot striking is pretty well the go to for most tack athletes – think 100m, 200m, and 400m runners, I’d say that some 800m runners may be forefoot strikers but not all and it would be trending away past the 1500m distance. Forefoot striking is great for maximising the capacity of your muscles and tendons, in particular your calf and Achilles tendon. This sounds pretty fantastic right? It does, until you ask your body to do it for 5km, 10km, or more, then the load starts to accumulate and can easily result in tendon concerns such as Achilles tendinopathy. If you are wanting to utilise it to finish the last few hundred metres of a race go for it, the extra speed you can gain from utilising the spring like mechanics of a tendon will definitely serve you its intended purpose.
If you are potentially considering transitioning to this style for longer distances I would really want to be looking at developing some fantastically strong calves and a really efficient Achilles tendon. Looking at activities like weighted calf raises and skipping would be great avenues to help develop this.
Which one is best?
I may be slightly biased as a midfoot striker but I personally think its the best spot to sit in. It’s a really nice happy medium between heel striking and forefoot striking. You don’t have the high muscular or joint and bone loading extremes of the other two while being able to maintain a high cadence and push your performance.
I really wouldn’t be recommending anyone transition towards a hell strike, I think it’s quite an inefficient way to run with the significant braking forces on each step, the high bone and joint load forces, and for me it feels quite unnatural.
As I mentioned above, forefoot striking certainly has its place. Be it at the end of a race, or tactically to push the pace midrace if you are at the very top of the race pushing for a podium and you feel good are two places you could use it. I think for longer distance races such as parkrun or higher it’s potentially a little too long of a race for most people to be able to sustain. You have to do some serious strength training in conjunction with a slow transition towards that strike pattern to minimise your risk of injury during the changeover.
Common Running Injuries
I reckon just about everyone has experienced some level of shin splints in their lives. It’s one of the more common running injuries going around. Fortunately there’s some pretty good treatments out there. The best, and the least favourite of any runner is rest. Ultimately shin splints is a reactive process due to the load being placed through the bone, have a short rest from running and it will go a long way to helping clear it up. Other things to work on in your time off is calf strengthening and calf stretches. Improving the strength of your calf will help offload some of the bony load going through the shin. Working on your calf mobility will help your ankle dorsiflexion (ability for your knee to go over your toes) which can help reduce load and stress to the shin as well.
Pretty common particularly in females simply due to the way they are born with a greater angle from their hips to their knees. This places an increased amount of stress to the patellofemoral joint (fancy word for kneecap). Typically there is either a running technique concern such as crossing over the midline on landing. Or there is a strength issue such as a glute weakness causing an increase in rotation at the knee joint which results in a reduced area of force for the patella to distribute around. Beginning a strengthening program focusing on the glutes, core and quads is often the best pathway for solution and trying to get a front view of your running to ensure you have proper running form.
Ever added in a bunch of sprints or decided you wanted to take up skipping out of nowhere because an influencer on Instagram told you that you should and then developed this unbearable Achilles pain in the morning? If so, then you’ve more than likely experienced Achilles tendinopathy. It’s no fun, I get it, I had it when I was younger. Achilles tendinopathies start after a sudden increase in load to the area – skipping would be a prime example. Your Achilles may look a little swollen, that’s ok, there’s no structural injury it’s just the tendons way of trying to deal with it. Take away the load that is causing the issues, work on a little calf strength and slowly add in some explosive activities such as skipping, hopping on the spot, hopping forwards. Always make sure you are monitoring your symptoms during and within the next 24hrs after you do your activity.
The bane of some peoples loves, the dreaded plantar fasciitis. Affecting typically your more middle aged runner, it sucks on those first few steps in the mornings. Ensure you have really good calf mobility so get stuck into those stretches and then work yourself through a calf and foot strengthening program. Orthotics can be helpful in the short term along with some foam rolling with a trigger point ball or an ice water bottle as well. Ultimately get strong and flexible around that heel!
Hill sprints can be a real pain in the ass, literally and metaphorically. Adding in hill sprints is a great way to work on your running fitness. But adding in a bunch of them all at once and having never done hills before? Maybe not the best approach. Hamstring tendons hate compression, and hill sprints give it to them in abundance. Take a little bit of time off, just run on flats and you may have to drop your pace a touch. Work on your mobility around your hip flexors, quads, glutes, and hamstrings and work on that hamstring and glute strength. Slowly introduce positions where you are working in hip flexion and then after that slowly add back in some hill work.
Do different running styles potentially correlate with certain injuries?
Heel striking runners tend to suffer from more of the common running injuries like shin splints, knee pain, hip pain, or back pain. This is due to the increased bone and joint forces associated with this running technique. Whereas forefoot strike runners will tend to suffer a greater incidence of forefoot bone stress issues, Achilles concerns, and calf muscle complaints because this is where a significant portion of the load is transferred to.
Midfoot strike runners could go either way, myself personally I have had a few issues over the last 12 months with some slight ITB issues, a bit of a hip issue and a short term stint of shin splints – all of them were building my distance too quickly, do as I say not as I do right? I find it will typically depend upon the types of distances and speeds you are working at that may determine whether you trend more towards the heel strike concerns or the forefoot strike issues. Your history of strength training could also help determine which way you go, if you have really strong calves, you’ll probably be less likely to get Achilles or calf issues, but that may not completely eliminate your risk for a bit of knee joint pain just due to the repetitiveness of running.
Should I change my running technique if I keep getting the same injury?
Unless you are a heavy heel striker with a big history of bone stress injuries I try to avoid making sweeping changes to running technique just for the sake of it. Ultimately though, if you are consistently getting the same niggles even after you have added in a strengthening and rehab program, ensuring you have proper running form and technique is probably your next best step. What you look to change is ultimately up to you and your physio. If you are heel striking and been suffering from on and off shin splints maybe you transition towards a midfoot strike. If you are a forefoot striker and been getting consistent Achilles tendon problems maybe you trend more towards a midfoot strike. Make sure whatever you change is gradual and you change little things at a time. Trying to change too much at once can be disastrous as there’s quite a lot to think about.
Does running distance make a difference to injury rates?
Yes and no. It does if you build up too quickly, but if you are already handling a lot of k’s per week it isn’t too much of an issue to stay there and gradually build if needed. Too often I hear stories (particularly in January and February) of people starting running and progressing way too quickly and getting injured. This usually results in people being disheartened, frustrated, and sometimes they give up. Nobody wants that! Slowly build to help minimise your risk of injury, it’s not as fun, it won’t look as good on social media, but you’ll thank me for it in the long run (pun intended).
If you are just back into running or just beginning structuring in probably two rest days per week and gradually building up your distance on your run days before reducing to just the 1 day off per week is probably the best path. Alternately, you could add in a double run day, a run in the morning and then a run in the afternoon. A lot of pro’s and high level runners do this to help build their running distance. Running places a large toll on the body from a muscular, bone, tendon, and nervous system perspective. It’s repetitive, I have my entire body weight being supported through one leg as it lands from being in the air putting more than my entire body weight through it on the initial impact. Running isn’t “easy” by any means. Your best bet to reduce your injury risk if you are starting out is two things – gradually build up your running time per week – the 10% rule isn’t a bad place to start looking for ways to do this, and secondly do a strengthening program! This is so often forgotten by runners it isn’t funny. Strengthening not only reduces your risk of injury but it will help improve your performance – don’t let it go by the wayside!
As runners who already have a decent running base and distance to build upon gradually building on this week after week with structured and planned deload weeks is your best avenue. Maintaining your strength program (assuming you have one!) is also essential.
Top Technique Tips
Keep a higher cadence
This would be my number one tip. Keeping a higher cadence allows you to transition away from heel striking and more towards a midfoot strike which reduces those bone and joint loads that can over time cause issues. Most distance runners tend to prefer this pattern and it’s for good reason, they are able to run for longer than those typically running with a heel strike.
If you are a heel striker – think shorter, faster steps
Shorter faster steps is one of my go to cues to help correct running form. It can help alleviate a lot of issues like overstriding, crossing over the midline, improve arm swing, among others. Even just increasing your step rate 5-10% can help alleviate and fix a lot of running form concerns.
Keep a slight lean forwards
Momentum is a whole thing, it would make no sense to be standing dead straight upright and want your momentum to be going forwards. You want your body to have a lean forwards to help keep your momentum going where you want it to go.
There’s a limit to how far you should go though, you don’t want to be the Hunchback of Notre Dame out there. Think more that you are leaning forwards from the hips rather than bending at the torso. This will help keep your torso nice and straight and your rib cage open to allow your breathing to be optimised.
Relax your hands and arms
There’s no need to hold your arms tense when you run, keep them nice and relaxed and don’t let those shoulders ride up on you. I find sometimes I do it and I just have to shake it out and I’m ok. Keeping rigid through your arms doesn’t serve really any purpose other than using energy and making it more uncomfortable to run for long distances.
Does my cadence matter?
I would say it does. I remember coming back from a running physio course I did years and thinking everybody had to run at 180 steps per minute (classic new grad taking everything as gospel). My mind has changed a little, I still don’t think 180 steps per minute is a bad marker to aim for, but for going on a recovery run, sometimes it can feel a little too awkward at those slower speeds. When I pick up the pace for a race or for an interval session, I’m definitely going 180 steps or more per minute. In my mind this helps me not stride out too much when I pick up the pace and maintain my proper running form and maintain my running technique.
If you are running at around the 160 steps per minute, or god fordbid even lower, I would definitely be suggesting you try and pick those number up. I great number I find people can aim for is around the 170 mark, it’s usually where I sit on my recovery and slower runs.
How do I maximise my recovery?
This is the most important part of starting any fitness related journey, maximising recovery is where you make your improvements. Training is all about stressing the body, during exercise the muscles and bones are “broken down” in a sense, when you recover is when they rebuild to be stronger. There’s a few key factors at play here but number one is most definitely sleep. Getting a good nights sleep that is consistent in both hours of sleep as well as what time you go to bed and get up helps your body out so much. Aiming for 8hrs is fantastic if you can achieve it consistently.
I would say number two on my list would be nutrition. Your body might be a Ferrari but if you are only putting in the bare minimum fuel you wouldn’t expect much from it. So feed your body well and allow it to perform when you ask, as well as have the nutrients in back up supply for you to recover. Try having something ready made for after your run, it could be a smoothie, yoghurt and oats, a sandwich and a banana, anything with a good source of carbohydrates (ps they aren’t the devil, you’ll need them, trust me).
Hydration is number three, particularly in Australia and in summer you’ll want to keep on top of it. Most days I try to aim for around 3litres or maybe a touch more if I’ve been for a run. If I haven’t I’ll still try to aim for 3litres. Coupled with this is making sure you get enough electrolytes, if you just hydrate with water you may essentially “dilute” your electrolyte stores. Salt gets a bad wrap but it’s a pretty important substance for keeping cramps at bay.
Lastly, I would put general body maintenance in here. Utilising things like foam rolling, trigger point release work, strengthening programs, massage, all of these things can help keep your body running well. It’s like getting your Ferrari serviced, keep on top of your servicing and you shouldn’t have any big issues popping up all the time.
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