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Does it actually matter how you run?

By Jonathan Wilson, DPT – HCA Virginia Sports Medicine

Finally, the RVA can wave goodbye to winter and open our arms to embrace spring. Spring time in Richmond means buds will appear in Maymont and Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, and it also means more runners will be hitting the streets and trails outside to run. This seems like a good time to discuss running mechanics and form, and their relationship to injuries.

Most running injuries result from repetitive stresses causing tissue breakdown and ultimately tissue failure. For every mile we run, we take roughly 750 steps with each leg. That’s 1,500 combined foot contacts per mile. If we could make small changes to our running from that would decrease the load with each step, you could have a significant change in overall stress our body endures for a given run.

Research with realtime feedback from force plates have enabled us to see the stress and loads created during running. We know there is a spike representing an increase in loading rate which is thought to correlate to increased tissue breakdown and increased risk of injury. Some runners have this spike, while others do not. Runners who make contact out in front of their center of mass, or over stride, have this spike of increased loading rate. What if we could change our running mechanics to get rid of the increased loading rate? The good news is that we can!

Some people associate heel striking with over striding. They blindly believe heel striking is always bad, whereas midfoot striking is always good. It’s not this simple. Jay Dicharri has a great post on the topic. Oftentimes, heel striking does accompany over striding. However, Jay Dicharri explains why a heel striker can have a smaller force loading rate compared to that of a runner landing at midfoot. Instead of getting completely focused on foot striking pattern, let’s focus on landing close to our center of mass.

In research, and the clinic, stride rate manipulation (increasing your cadence) has shown to successfully help a runner land closer to their center of mass. Runners typically choose the most efficient and comfortable pace to run. However, oftentimes this leads to a low cadence. Cadence is the amount of foot contacts a runner makes per minute. 180 steps combined (90 each foot) is considered the “ideal cadence.” With this said, 180 is dependent on pace. Research shows increasing cadence by 5-10% can help bring a runner’s foot closer to their center of mass. However, if you increase your cadence by more than 10%, you risk increasing your cardiac output, becoming less efficient.

First, you need to find your cadence. I suggest using a treadmill so you can maintain a steady pace. You will also need a metronome, or an app on your smart phone. Count how many times you’re right leg makes contact with the treadmill for one minute. Double this number and you now have your cadence. Multiply this number (your cadence) x .05 (round up if you get a decimal) and you now have your target cadence. Enter your original cadence into your metronome and run till you fall in sync with the beat. At this point, increase the metronome to your target cadence and run until you again fall in time to the beat.

Second, work on feeling the difference between the two cadences as you maintain the same speed. Once you feel like you have the timing of your target cadence, remove the metronome. Run for a few minutes and then bring the metronome back to check yourself. How close were you? It will take a few sessions per week of training with a metronome until the new cadence feels normal.

It is important to remember to run loose, even when working on increasing your cadence. You do not want to become so focused on your cadence that you are tightening your upper body or become mechanical. Gait manipulation takes time, as you are retraining your body to run in a new way. Don’t get frustrated. Remember, run loose, run soft, and always enjoy your run.

For further inquiries about running injuries, performance, or physical therapy, contact Jonathan Wilson, DPT, at hcavasportsmed.com, HCA Virginia Sports Medicine’s Boulders location at 804.560.6500, or like us on Facebook.

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