How To Improve Running Mechanics

Article Take Home Points On Running Mechanics:

  • The evolution of the shoe has been a contributing factor towards altering running mechanics in runners throughout the past years.
  • Cushioning shoes and providing more support to control motion were methods used by shoe companies in an attempt to address the rising injury rates.
  • Movement mechanics and other training factors should be analyzed in combination with shoe considerations.
  • The human body is designed to run. The human foot is designed to accept and produce the forces required to negotiate all terrain. Our ancestors ran without supportive shoes and most used materials to protect their feet from environmental elements.
  • With that said, individual genetic and anatomical differences may contribute towards shoe choice and training regimens.
  • With anything, gradual transition periods are required for the safest form of adjustment to minimize injury. Injury rates are contributed to the transition of running styles too fast and rapidly.
  • Strengthening is important for all athletes, especially runners but proper understanding and practice of running form mechanics is most beneficial. Proper coordination and movement efficiency produce better results than just strength alone.
  • Knee injuries are most common in runners due to aberrant forces that occur from multiple factors such as weakness, deficient movement mechanics and improper shoe type for the individual.

When you see a runner on the side of the road, do you ever notice that some look very graceful and some look like they are really struggling?

Intensity and weather factors aside, poor running mechanics can really stick out. You don’t need to be an expert to spot it. Think about how graceful and synchronized Olympic level runners look.

Sprinters seem to move like a hot knife through butter and distance runners seem to just flow along. The mechanics on an experienced runner differ drastically than on a person without experience. So why is this important?

I have seen an array of interesting things when it comes to runners over the years.

My experience and knowledge base of running stems from competitive running in high school, to currently obstacle course racing and also from treatment in my career as a physical therapist.

I find it amazing what people can make their bodies do and not always in a good way.

Some people just cannot run! They either look like they are being electrocuted or like Bambi on ice.

It can be funny to see at times but also concerning as a healthcare practitioner.

Running Is A Basic Functional Movement Of The Human Body

Even though running is a basic functional movement of the human body, it is incredible how the vast majority of people lack the knowledge of how to run properly.

Considering running is one of the most popular forms of activity and exercise, it is important people understand how to do it properly.

Physical therapists are an excellent example of healthcare practitioners that can help with this process. Physical therapy has progressed as a profession over the past couple of decades in that we do a lot more than just ultrasound and back massages. That is an outdated treatment philosophy.

We are movement specialists that have a complete understanding of the human body and how it operates. It is our job to help educate the population about proper movement mechanics and exercise so people can better themselves while minimizing issues.

As we study human performance and conduct more research, we are learning more about the cause of injuries and how to prevent them.

So that is why in this article I am going to discuss running mechanics, injuries related to poor mechanics, treatment techniques and also everyone’s favorite, running shoes.

Why Are Running Mechanics Important?

Ok, so running mechanics are important, but why? Why can’t we just get up and go even if we look like were slipping on banana peels? Shouldn’t it be that easy? The answer is yes, but this not true for everyone.

Some people require more training and education than others.

Running mechanics have become a hot topic of discussion especially as we tend to analyze and understand human performance at a higher level. Every athlete is always looking for ways to improve in terms of speed, power and strength.

Considering the foundation for most sports involves running, it is usually one of the first things analyzed with an athlete.

I mentioned that experienced runners tend to seem flawless when they move but sometimes even experienced runners can benefit from a tune-up.

Sometimes a few tweaks to form and technique can be the difference in a runner dropping seconds to even minutes in their times.

One issue is that most runners have no idea they are doing something wrong until something starts to hurt or they get injured.

The Value Of A Running Gait Analysis

Video analysis involving something as simple as an experienced practitioner just watching an athlete run and providing the visual feedback to the athlete can be a huge help.

Research studies have analyzed runners more over the years as technology has improved for providing visual data, muscle activation signals and impact force generation feedback.

In order to understand where dysfunction in running stems from, we need to understand some history first.

If humans are meant to run and have been since the earliest recorded activity of mankind, then why weren’t our ancestors experiencing the high amount of injuries our most recent generations are? Were they just not recorded, ignored or maybe didn’t occur at all? Let’s look at what has been discovered in the research.

The first endurance runner was documented 2 million years ago as cited in a journal about the evolution of homo erectus, the first ancestral being of today’s human.

Running specialist physical therapist, Irene Davis talks about this in one of her research articles. Irene is a professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. She is the founder of Spaulding National Running Center and has conducted extensive amounts of research and lectures involving lower extremity movement analysis, mechanics and running.

She notes that there is documentation in the literature about materials that were used by homo erectus to simply protect the bottom of the foot from environmental elements. This is the beginning of the shoe!

Shoes have evolved over 10,00 years but the first athletic shoe emerged in the 1800’s.

Rubber soles were first applied to the bottom of shoes in 1832 to provide better durability. “Sneakers” were developed with the technology of using rubber to allow for a flexible and durable sole.

Compared to older technology of shoes, these new light and flexible shoes were quiet and allowed a person to “sneak up on someone”.

The first customized running shoe was developed in 1926 and had customized spike patterns depending on sprinting vs. distance running.

1964 was when the first cushioned running shoe emerged and then over the next 40 years the process of shoes becoming more cushioned and supportive took off.

The problem is this:

Irene Davis notes in one study that she had a conversation with Jeff Johnson who worked for Nike. He helped create the name Nike and is cited in this article stating that when he was younger and still running often, injuries were less common compared to now with cushioned shoes.

There were no injuries found in the literature in the 1960s but injuries did increase leading into the 1970s in congruence with the increasing popularity of running amongst the population.

Runner’s World magazine published the first few surveys of running injuries in the early 1970s and it was found that there was an increase in runners sustaining injuries, specifically involving the knee.

When training on hard surfaces, the legs adapt and increase compliance due to increased demands on the muscular system.

This is in line with bone remodeling theory, which describes how our bones are constantly breaking down and rebuilding. This is why weight-bearing exercises are important for bone health for individuals with osteoporosis.

In response to the rising injury rates, shoe companies began adding more cushioning and support to try to control impact and foot motion. You will often see the shoe types described as “cushioning, stability and motion control”. This trend continued for about four decades bringing us to the present time.

The boom of implementing more cushioned shoes seemed to be a response from shoe companies to address injury rates as a quick fix solution. Instead of analyzing other factors such as running mechanics, strength and individual movement efficiency, the answer was to fix the shoe.

The Rise Of The Minimalist Shoe

In 2004 the first minimal shoe emerged from Nike, the Nike Free, which was designed to mimic barefoot running.

With the popular book Born to Run being released in 2009, the barefoot running craze started. Actually, it exploded!

Everyone wanted to run barefoot style, as it was the “new thing”. Vibram became very popular starting in 2005 with the famous five-finger style shoe that was originally created for yacht racers to help maintain grip upon boat launching.

Runners saw this shoe and went crazy for it as it replicated barefoot style running the best out of any shoe at the time.

The running shoe style has fluctuated in waves over the past 30 years and continues to ride the pendulum between supportive to minimal, struggling to find a landing point of the perfect balance.

The exploration of minimal style shoes and barefoot running has encouraged specialists to analyze running gait and movement mechanics more in depth in an attempt to better understand athletic performance and causes for injury.

It has been shown that traditional shoes produce a landing pattern that results in a more outstretched leg with a straight knee and flexed foot, producing more of a heel strike pattern.

This also results in more oxygen consumption due to the energy required to absorb greater impact sustained through the leg.

Running in minimal shoes has been found to reduce heel striking because of pain upon the constant striking of the heel.

This results in more of a plantarflexed foot, less knee flexion excursion, and shorter ground contact.

To fully understand these mechanics, try running barefoot on a concrete surface and see how your body will naturally want to land.

The foot is designed to absorb impact and displace forces throughout the joints

This is why it is important for your foot to be able to spread and expand upon impact for proper shock absorption. Wearing a tight shoe can limit these mechanics, causing issues.

The major question of how long it takes to transition to barefoot running style still resides.

There still is no conclusive answer for how long it takes for an individual to transition to a barefoot running technique but it is known that injuries definitely occur when the transition occurs too fast and rapid.

How Long Does It Take To Adjust To Barefoot Minimalist Shoes?

Jumping into a pair of barefoot-style shoes and running 50 miles of trails in one week is a sure way to be on the receiving end of multiple injuries.

Studies have indicated that basic adjustment to the barefoot technique and shoe is recommended for the safest start.

This consists of gradually progressing walking and standing time in a barefoot shoe throughout a number of weeks to months while monitoring the response.

General exercise in a barefoot shoe will also help to allow adaptation to the technique and train the muscles to respond to the new loads and forces. Along with wearing the shoe, foot and ankle strengthening programs should be implemented.

With the barefoot running technique, there is more adaptation required for the joints and muscles to build a tolerance to the demands of increased impact forces and loading.

The plantar fascia, Achilles and ankle stabilizers will all be under more stress and will require time to adapt.

Ankle mobility exercises will also be important to compliment strength exercises to maintain proper joint and tissue extensibility. Transition time is also dependent on fitness level, environmental factors, running experience and compliance to a consistent routine.

A person who was very active as a child and continued into a lifestyle of movement as they aged may have a shorter transition period than someone who just started running in their later life.

Genetic variations also require consideration as some individuals are born with foot abnormalities and anatomical changes that may cause a foot to be more rigid or excessively mobile.

Depending on individual anatomy, proper treatment and training techniques are warranted to ensure the person is receiving the proper applications.

It seems that the evolution and changes to the running shoe over the years has been a contributing factor towards altering running mechanics in the general population and also contributing to injuries.

Even if returning to a more barefoot technique is the way to go for runners, the practice of running mechanics is just as important. You cannot just fix the problem of poor movement efficiency by changing the shoe only.

For any other exercise, you would practice it routinely to improve your execution. To become better at squatting, you squat more often. To improve swimming, you practice your swimming technique. To improve your tennis or volleyball serve, you practice serving. It should be the same for running.

Research in this area has shown that most commonly, abnormal hip and knee mechanics are associated with running injuries.

Iliotibial band syndrome, tibial stress fractures, and patella femoral pain syndrome are most common.

These occur when there are aberrant forces experienced in the tissue.

Patella femoral pain syndrome (PFPS)

Occurs when the patella is not tracking properly across the front of the knee. Stress to the tissue that surrounds the patella underneath the patella and in the patella tendon can produce pain.

IT band syndrome

Occurs when the IT band is under increased stress and contracts, causing pressure and pain where it inserts on the side of the knee.

Tibial stress fractures

Are a result of excessive impact forces being transmitted to an isolated part of the lower leg. They also can occur from overactivation in the muscles that attach to the tibial bone.

These conditions usually result from faulty movement mechanics. Common movement disruptions are known as valgus or varus stress.

The Single Leg Squat Test

Most commonly seen during a single leg squat, the knee either buckles inward wobbles or pivots. The pelvis on the stance side rotates while the other side tends to drop down.

This is usually seen during the single leg squat test, step down test and also can be seen when analyzing running gait.

If deviations are noted with a single leg squat on a stable surface in a controlled environment, imagine what is happening when the leg is under 3x the load and impact during running with about 100 plus cycles or more of the single leg stance phase depending on the running distance!

Strengthening is important to improve muscle integrity and response to loads and stress.

Working on single leg stability exercises that target all the gluteal and pelvic muscles is beneficial to build the isolated muscle groups but research has shown that neuromuscular re-education is more beneficial towards reducing injuries and improving movement mechanics.

This is where that term “motor control” comes back as I mentioned in previous articles.

Remember when I discussed how someone can generate a high-grade strength measurement when tested in the muscle isolated movement but then when they do a dynamic movement such as single leg squat, the deviations are noted?

This is exactly that example translated over in running. The basic muscle strength may be good but the coordination of all the muscles is deficient.

Retraining individuals to improve their single leg squat through visual and tactile feedback can produce better alignment and movement mechanics than just strengthening the muscles alone.

This philosophy has been found for running mechanics in research.

One study found that retraining proper running form on a treadmill with an audible feedback machine for proper striking timing helped to improve running efficiency and cause decreased reports of pain during running.

About The Author

Michael St. George, PT, DPT (@icore_stgeorge on Instagram) is a physical therapist who works for Excel Physical Therapy and Fitness which is a private practice that is based around the greater Philadelphia region and suburbs. He is FMS, SFMA, Y Balance and Motor Control Test Certified with 8 years of experience in outpatient orthopedics and sports medicine. His training consists of experience working with physicians and surgeons from the Rothman Institute and therapists in his field specializing in various manual techniques and advanced treatment procedures


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