You could say that my Achilles has not been my achilles heel (touch wood). However I have managed to injure just about every other lower leg muscle (& some more than once) since I started running. So this is a topic close to my heart.
Running is something humans have evolved to do over thousands of years. But if you examined the rate of injury suffered by runners these days, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
It is safe to say that it is not the act of running per se that leads many of us – myself included – to injury. But how we go about doing it & the impact our lifestyle has had on our body.
Our ancestors didn’t wear high heels or solid running shoes. They didn’t run, or spend all day walking, on unforgiving surfaces like concrete or bitumen. They certainly didn’t spend 95+% of the day seated. These factors & many others mean that our bodies aren’t as adapted to the act of running as our ancestors were. So we need to set ourselves up for (greater) success by doing all we can to help our bodies adjust to the effect that our (modern) lifestyle has had on our (ancient) body.
Mistake #1 – Most runners are unstable.
I mean physically. I won’t comment on the mental state of the type of people attracted to the sport of running
When you run, your foot absorbs some of the force created by the impact with the ground & distributes the rest of the force up through your leg & into your body.
How & where your foot lands will determine the way in which that force is distributed. It is therefore critical to building an injury resistant body (which should be our number #1 goal). How, and where, your foot lands is not just affected by your running shoes &/or whether you are a heel striker or forefoot runner. Other factors include:
- your foot mechanics – pronation is not (necessarily) evil. It is the body’s natural mechanism for distributing load. But not enough, or too much, pronation can cause problems;
- how well your glutes function (ie. your butt) – if you glutes are weak or don’t function in a co-ordinated fashion with the rest of your body, it can cause your knee to collapse towards the middle of your body putting (additional) stress through your foot, calf, ITB & hip (to name a few things!);
- your ability to extend your hip – ie. push yourself forward at the end of your running stride. Spending lots of time seated &/or having poor posture can limit your hip extension; and
- your core – an effective core creates a stable base or platform for your legs & arms to produce force & power. Without it, some of the power your legs & arms produce will be lost & you won’t be able to propel yourself as fast as you might otherwise have.
Anyone who has ever seen a physiotherapist for a lower body injury will be familiar with this test. Try it now -
Stand in front of a mirror in bare feet. (Yes, I’m talking to you!) Balance on one leg & perform a couple of single leg squats. Watch your knee & foot – your knee should continue to point straight ahead over your toes. Does your foot &/or knee collapse or move towards the middle of your body?
Yes? You aren’t alone.
Most people can’t perform this move in a controlled manner in a stable environment. But this movement is the basic component of your running stride which you perform somewhere between 75 & 90+ times per minute when you run. So stability is essential if you are to run fast & with control.
So my tips for becoming a more stable runner are –
(1). Start practising your single leg squat on a regular basis.
Even the best runners do this exercise regularly – & struggle with it. Check out this string of tweets from 3 x time Ironman World Champ, Chrissie Wellington over recent months –
Only squat down so far as you can still maintain your form & keep your knee pointing straight ahead. There is nothing to be gained by squatting further down once you start to lose your form. Once you have mastered it, make it harder by standing on an unstable surface like a pillow or cushion.
(2). Spend time in bare feet.
20, 30 or 40 years (or more) of wearing shoes has changed how you walk. The muscles in your feet & legs will have grown lazy.
Get those muscles working again by spending time in bare feet. It will improve how effectively your feet can send feedback to the rest of your body & will improve your stability, making you a more stable, efficient and faster runner!
(3). Do some integrated stability, core & single leg balance training 1-2 times each week.
Make it sport-specific & use integrated whole body movements which incorporate your legs & arms. Stay away from crunches! Training body parts separately can shut down your body’s ability to co-ordinate its movements.
Most sports (swim, bike & run included) require integration & co-ordination; do your stability & core work in the same way.
Most of the muscles in your body (not just your legs but your abdomen and back) need to stretch or lengthen at some point during the running stride. Trigger points will restrict how much your muscles can do that.
So releasing your trigger points, particularly in your legs, will improve your body’s ability to generate power when you extend through the hip (ie, to propel yourself forward) & calf (when your foot pushes off).
Have you done the single leg squat before? How did you go with it; at what point did you lose your form? Pick one of the tips, implement it this week & let me know what changes you notice.
If you enjoyed this post, I would appreciate it if you would share it. In the next post in The 3 Worst Mistakes Runners Make series, I’ll be sharing mistake #2 – Doing Recovery Sessions That Suck. If you have any questions about this post or anything else on this site, please leave a comment so I can answer it for you.