Are You Falling for These Four Common Running Form Myths?
Don’t let common running myths hold you back from reaching your full potential, or worse, put you at risk for injury. PT Kevin Capata puts these misconceptions to rest in hopes of changing the way we all think about “perfect” run form.
BY KEVIN CAPATA, DPT, RAUSCH PHYSICAL THERAPY
If you are a runner, treat runners, or even just know someone that runs, you have most likely been involved in the never-ending debate on what is the “correct” way to run. Well, I hate to burst everyone’s bubble, but the truth is this: There is no “one size fits all” answer!
These days, runners come in all shapes and sizes, and they run at various fitness and experience levels; this is why people often come up short on their search for THE best way to run—it really does depend on each individual person. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t figure out a better, more economical, and more efficient way to run depending on your individual body structure and function.
So, to finally abandon this one-size-fits-all approach to “perfect” running form and shift the way the world thinks about running, let’s examine a few common myths and misconceptions that may be holding you back from reaching your full potential, or even causing injuries.
NOTE: All these recommendations are assuming you are healthy with no current injuries. If you are unsure, first make an appointment with your physical therapist to identify and resolve any chronic injury or pain.
Myth #1: Running is a Hobby
First things first, it’s important to understand that running is a sport—not a hobby—which means running requires specific athleticism in terms of strength, balance, range of motion, stability, mobility, etc. As with any sport, developing fundamentals is the key to success. Once you have the fundamentals down pat, variability/adaptability become king!
Take a look at the top 10 jump shooters in the NBA. Each athlete exhibits similar and consistent fundamental motor patterns, form, and mechanics that are essential to being a good basketball player, however each individual also displays slight differences that they’ve found have made them successful. It’s these small variations built on top of the sports’ fundamentals that has set these athletes apart and elevated them to the elite level.
While it may seem totally unrelated, by treating running as a sport and applying this similar concept of developing fundamentally “good” running form, then building on it, you can get faster and prevent running-related injuries. Here are some of the fundamentals you should carry with you on every run:
- Maintain an upright posture with slight forward lean from your ankles, NOT from your hips or trunk. Avoid the dreaded “toilet bowl of doom” or “backseat” running postures, especially when fatigue sets in. (Fun tip: if you’re having trouble with this, go for a run where you’re sure to be seen—researchers have found that the majority of runners will straighten up when a runner of the opposite sex is coming towards them ☺)
- Land with your foot just in front of your Center of Mass (COM). If you land with your foot directly underneath you, you’re going to fall over, and if you overstride you’ll lose energy, endurance, go slower, and risk multiple lower extremity injuries.
- Focus on pushing off from your posterior chain. Yes, those infamous glutes, core and hips. Get your foot off the ground as quick as possible, working on elastic recoil and spring. Think plyometrics and quick, powerful movements. Just like you compress a slinky down and then let it go, this is how we want to think about our legs as we run.
- Use your arms. Reciprocal arm swing will help generate power and momentum, as well as maintain your balance and rhythm. Keep a rhythmical arm swing with your shoulders relaxed and elbows brushing up against your hips, not crossing in front of your midline.
Myth #2: Anyone Can/Should Run
Like I mentioned above, running is a sport—not a hobby—meaning not everyone can/should just “hit the ground running.” Now don’t get me wrong, I love running as a way to get in shape, but IF and ONLY IF it’s something that’s gradually (very gradually!) built up to. We live in a time of instant gratification, however the truth is that developing the skill of running, improving strength, and changing motor patterns are habits that take time and hard work. Read any book about building habits or becoming proficient at a skill and I bet it mentions something about “10,000 hours” or “6,000 repetitions” of focused practice to master a specific skill; running is no different.
So listen up! If you a) have never ran competitively before (e.g. high school or college cross-country, track, or other running team), b) have a BMI in the “overweight” category, or c) haven’t been doing cardiovascular fitness training at least three to four times per week for the past two to three months, then you should NOT start running on a consistent basis without first getting individual instruction, coaching, and/or gait analysis. You need to learn how to build your endurance, volume, and intensity overtime, and you should have an expert analyze your current gait and running patterns.
Why is this so important? It’s no coincidence that “running-related” injuries have become so prevalent over the past three decades. Runners used to be predominantly male athletes who ran for competition—skinny guys who were dedicated to the sport and coming in first place. Nowadays, there are more recreational runners who run a marathon just to finish; some are overweight and most are involved in cross-training activities; not to mention that females now make up the slight majority (54%) of runners.
So please, do your body a favor and be patient, take the time to make sure you “get fit to run” before signing up for that first half or full marathon. It will be more fun and rewarding and much less painful if you do.
Myth #3: You Should Run the Same Way Every Time
Efficiency and variability—develop these two attributes as a runner and the rest will take care of itself. The human body is an amazing specimen that adapts to the loads that you place on it, so use that to your advantage! Stand on one leg all day long, and I guarantee you that leg will get stronger and your balance will improve. Change the way in which your foot strikes the ground, and you will be prepared for any surface, incline, decline, or obstacle thrown your way. Again, this takes time! For instance, run some days slow, some days fast, other days both; throw in some hill repeats, some short speed sessions, increase your cadence when you’re feeling good, and slow it down when you’re fatigued.
Myth #4: Cadence is Key
According to numerous studies, the fastest runners take about 90 steps per leg each minute. However, this should not be taken as a stand alone statistic because cadence (or turnover, stride rate, etc.) is a function of an individual’s speed and stride length, as well as physical and cardiovascular capacity. Basically, each person will feel most comfortable and perform optimally at different step rates.
However, it is true that by increasing your cadence you can dampen ground reaction forces, decrease joint loading and impact forces, as well as improve your economy and speed. Therefore, the best thing to do is to either count (or download one of several apps that counts) your average cadence during your run. Play around with going fast, slow, up/down hill, fatigued and energetic, and get an average number. You should be between 160 to 190 steps per minute. If you’re within this range, you can then experiment with increasing and decreasing throughout a run and keep track of what feels most comfortable, what’s less physically taxing over longer distances, and what yields the quickest results. That is the range that your body prefers—assuming all fundamentals listed above are also abided to!
While running mechanics and form can become a complex and heated subject, we have to first and foremost acknowledge the fact that running is a sport and skill that requires time, dedication, and focused practice to achieve results. My main hope is that by taking this approach, we can start to limit the amount of injuries, pain, and suffering that a majority of recreational runners are experiencing on a daily basis.
If you’re still lost and want to take the first steps to becoming a better, faster, and more efficient runner, come in and schedule a Run Right with us at Rausch Physical Therapy & Sports Performance and not just PR your next race, but have fun and be injury free after.
Kevin Capata, PT, DPT, CSCS is a licensed physical therapist at Rausch Physical Therapy & Sports Performance. After receiving his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at Columbia University, Kevin started his career at Rausch PT, where he used to work as a physical therapy aide. Now, Kevin enjoys helping his patients recognize and fix movement faults to help them overcome their injury or pain, as well as empowering them with the knowledge and tools to prevent re-injury or potential new injuries.