With the return of warm weather and longer days, more and more people start thinking of ways to kickstart their fitness regime, and running is one way to do this. Running is a great way to build and maintain cardiovascular fitness, if done correctly and if your body is ready for it. Running can also be a great way to get an injury, and sadly, for a large number of people, this is exactly what happens when they run. The reality is that injuries from running, especially chronic injuries, can largely be avoided by ensuring your body is actually ready for the stresses of the activity. In this article, a checklist for running preparedness is presented, along with strategies to help get you on track.
Before we delve into the checklist, it’s worth pausing to reflect on why running has so much potential to be injurious. From a movement perspective, running can be classified as an isolateral, cyclical, asymmetrically loaded activity. Running is isolateral in nature, because each side of the body is completing a different movement at the same time; cyclical, because the same movement pattern is performed repeatedly; and, asymmetrically loaded because of the combination of isolateral and cyclical movement patterns. This contrasts with something like weightlifting, which is bilateral, acyclical and symmetrically loaded.
The combination of isolateral, cyclical and asymmetrical loading creates very specific loading patterns throughout the body. As an example, let’s look at the knee during running. On the strike of foot, the knee is exposed to a braking stress, after which there is a rapid conversion from extension to flexion before toeing off. If the muscles in the lower body are strong enough, they will take the majority of the load, and will also help to hold the knee in the correct alignment. If the muscles in the lower body are too weak, or there are significant strength imbalances, the knee joint bears the load. In addition to this, there is the risk of falling into valgus (the knee tracks to the inside of the foot), which exposes the ligaments to risk of damage as well as creating a risk for hip impingement issues. Repeat this hundreds of times during each run with a body that isn’t ready and you quickly create the right environment for a chronic injury. With that in mind, let’s delve into the checklist.
- Have you had a musculoskeletal assessment? A musculoskeletal assessment should be performed prior to commencing running, with the specific objective of identifying whether there are underlying gait issues, clearly identifiable strength imbalances or movement patterns that predispose you to an injury. A suitably qualified professional should complete this assessment, and a fail at this stage means you should defer all plans to run until solutions for addressing them have been employed.
- Can you walk as far as you plan to run? This may seem like an obvious point, but lots of people subscribe to apps like Couch to 5Ks and assume that this is all they need to be able to run. But we need to go a step back from that and make sure we can walk 5km first. After all, if we struggle to walk 5km, we will really struggle to run 5km. And that struggle converts into a loss of form, which translates into an increased risk of injury, while guaranteeing that we learn to run incorrectly, which affects how efficiently we can ever hope to run.
- Can you complete the following exercises? At a minimum, you should be able to do the following:
- 10 bodyweight squats to parallel, with the knees staying in valgus and the torso staying in extension;
- 10 step ups on each leg, with the ability to extend to lock-out on both side (hips and knees in extension) as well as capacity to control the return to the starting position;
- 10 step-through lunges on each side, with no toe-dragging or loss of balance at any stage;
- front plank for 30s;
- side plank for 30s; and,
- ring rows or chins up for 10 reps, with no clear loss of form and the ability to hold the torso in a straight line at all times.
It might seem like an exhaustive list, but we’re about to engage in an activity that has a highly repetitive nature, so small problems get the chance to become big problems very quickly. Each of these exercises tests your capacity to control body position or examines your ability to demonstrate that there are no significant strength imbalances. If you struggle with this test, you lack the strength and control to be able to run.
- Is your BMI close to normal? Running is a high impact sport. At the very simplest level, it’s basic physics of force equals mass times acceleration. From a kinematic perspective, there are a complex series of changes in loading occurring in the body, with three fulcrums involved (ankle, knee and hip), vertical and horizontal ground reaction forces and changes from shearing to compression forces, and these all happen in very short timeframes. This complex sequence of changes all become amplified as bodyweight increases, particularly if we are talking about increases in fat mass. Simply put – running is not a sport that favours a large build, and it is not a safe or effective way to lose weight.
- Have you had your running technique examined? There is a good way to run, and a bad way to run. Good running technique enables you to have a quick leg turnover, which minimises ground contact time (as a general guide – the longer your leg is in contact with the ground, the greater your risk of injury) and improves your efficiency. Poor running technique is the opposite – it amplifies fatigue, increases ground contact time, creates a movement pattern that recruits the wrong muscles and sets you up for an injury somewhere down the track.
- Are you following a properly designed training program? To be a good runner, you need to develop strength, flexibility, mobility, address strength imbalances and follow a running program that focuses on central and peripheral adaptations. Failing to address each of these adequately will slow down development of your running ability. For example, a running plan has to include both high intensity training, which facilitates central adaptations (makes the heart and lungs work harder), and low to moderate intensity training, which facilitates peripheral adaptations (improves capillarisation, changes enzyme profiles to help with aerobic metabolism and promotes changes in muscle fibre type). Failing to address both of those will dramatically slow down your progress, and that’s without considering the benefits of the other elements to your training.
If you ticked no to any of the above, you’re not ready to run. Rather rushing out to run and risking an injury, it’s best to put your running plans on hold for the time being, and invest in getting your body ready. The following framework will help you to get your body ready to run
- Start walking on a regular basis – start off with 2-3 sessions a week, and slowly build up to the distance over which you plan on running. It’s always a good idea to start with a fairly level course, but over time you can seek out courses that challenge you more. Once you get to the point where you can easily cover your planned running distance, and no niggles or injuries have reared their ugly heads, you’re probably ready to start thinking about turning some of those walks into runs.
- Start strength training 2-3 times a week – if you failed the basic strength test, training is the only way to address this. While you might not want to invest a large amount of time and effort into strength training, addressing those strength deficits and imbalances is critical. Strength imbalances of around 10% between sides of the body can dramatically escalate your injury risk. Getting stronger can also help to reduce your ground contact time, which is linked to your injury risk as well. A simple, well-rounded strength program will address your needs, won’t make you bulky and will help to ensure you get the most from your running.
- Improve your diet – the easiest, safest and most effective way to get to your desired weight is by having a healthy, nutritious, plant-based diet. Start by adding more salad and vegetables to each meal, and eat these first. They will fill you up and make you eat less of the other, more calorie-dense foods. Think whole-grains, fresh fruit, seeds, nuts and lots of vegetables and you’re on the right track to a healthy weight that will help you more as a runner.
- Find a coach or good running group where you can develop the correct approach to running – the Western Australian Marathon Club have group training runs every Wednesday night, and have a range of athletes from complete beginners to elite athletes. They are friendly, helpful and will give you lots of encouragement and feedback. If you’re looking for a more personalized approach, seek out a great strength and conditioning or running coach and get yourself off on the right foot.
Running is a great sport, but it isn’t for everyone. If you and running don’t get on, it is highly likely to result in an injury. While there might be some appeal in using running to lose weight, or because it’s a cheap option, it’s not the best way to do the former (diet is) and if you get injured, the latter is no longer true. If you do want to run, and the appeal is definitely obvious to some, it is worth taking the time to make sure your body is ready for it. And if it is, it is absolutely worth taking the time to build the right strength, mobility, cardiovascular and energy systems characteristics that will let you get the most from your time and effort.