Being a good runner doesn’t always come naturally. Just like with any other athletic activity, proper technique and training will improve your performance.
Many runners are preparing for the Feel the Heat, Move Your Feet 5k set for Aug. 5 at Denver’s City Park. Jessica Parton, a physical therapist at Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, will teach one of the many Be Colorado running clinics happening throughout the summer, but she’s got some knowledge to share beforehand.
Here’s a Q&A with Parton:
Q: What is the worst thing you see recreational runners do?
A: One of the most dangerous things I’ve seen recreational runners do is run, and only run. Similar to other sports, it’s important to include stretching and strength training in your routine.
It’s easy to get caught up in running endorphins and become overzealous with a running regimen. But placing excess demands on your body before it has a chance to adapt – by skipping stretching or neglecting strength training – can increase your risk for injury. A safe running routine should include a pre-run dynamic warm-up such as brisk walking or running drills, post-run stretching and strengthening exercises a couple times per week. Including these components in your running routine can help improve your movement patterns, increase running performance and prevent injury.
Q: Let’s talk about “heel striking.” Is that bad running form?
A: Foot strike has been a popular topic in recent years, with the forefoot and mid-foot strikes gaining acceptance as more natural ways of running. Some tribal runners, unaccustomed to shoes, run with those types of form. Those foot strikes are often touted as ways to run faster, avoid injury, save energy and reduce stress. At the same time, the heel strike gained stigma, but many who adopted a forefoot strike or the minimalist shoes haven’t seen improved times and continue to be injured.
The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all foot strike and most experts now agree that emphasis on foot strike is misplaced. Research has shown that forefoot runners and heel-strike runners can demonstrate the same running economy at various speeds. Furthermore, in biomechanical studies some heel-strikers can touch down with little to no force while some forefoot strikers pound the ground with a high amount of force.
Research now suggests that we should shift our focus up the kinetic chain to our hips and glutes where our running strides actually begin. Better running form comes from keeping posture in check by maintaining hip and core control, achieving glute engagement and avoiding over striding or reaching our legs too far forward. Over striding makes our feet land in front of our torsos, ahead of our centers of gravity.
Physical therapists are movement experts who can evaluate your functional mobility and movement patterns to home in on imbalances, weakness or inefficiencies and help you address deficits so you can become a stronger and smarter runner with less risk of injury.
Q: Are minimal running shoes (e.g. those “toe shoes”) better for runners, as some claim?
A: Minimal shoes and even barefoot running have received a lot of attention in conjunction with the idea that foot strike affects running form. However, there is little data to support use of minimal shoes as a training tool or treatment for injury. In fact, researchers here at the University of Colorado found that running barefoot offered no metabolic advantage over running in lightweight, cushioned shoes.
While running mechanics can be influenced by shoe traits such as midsole, stiffness or geometry, it’s important to remember that shoes don’t run, runners run. An ideal running shoe acts as a filter by offering foot protection and shock absorption while still allowing the foot to function and get important feedback, or proprioception, from the ground. Too much shoe or cushion can limit the foot’s ability to feel and interact with the terrain, but if an individual lacks foot strength or has motor control deficits, too little support or cushion could lead to excess stress or injury.
The truth is that there is no single best running shoe and selecting the optimal shoe may vary based on factors such as an individual’s body type, muscle imbalances, motor control or the type of terrain they will be running on. If you choose to transition to a minimalist shoe, it is import to transition gradually because an abrupt change can also overwhelm your body, leading to pain or injury. Incorrect footwear choices can exacerbate or cause lower extremity dysfunction, while ideal footwear can help with injury prevention or even speed healing of an injury by decreasing tissue stress on an impaired structure.
Gait analysis by a physical therapist or your local running store can help you select the proper shoe for your body type.
Q: Is running bad for your joints?
A: Contrary to common perceptions, no, running is not bad for your joints. In fact, current research shows that runners are no more likely to develop osteoarthritis of the knee than non-runners. Runners are also less likely to develop disability and have significantly reduced osteoarthritis and hip replacement risk. Running may actually benefit your joints by promoting increased bone density and muscular strength, while developing aerobic capacity.
The key is to run smart by understanding and maintaining proper form. Physical therapists can evaluate your functional mobility and movement patterns to help improve your running form, reduce risk of injury or return to running if you do experience an injury.