My full time job involves coaching runners and triathletes to make changes to their running technique, in search of improved efficiency, speed and reduced risk of overuse injury.
So when I’m asked ‘can making changes to a runner’s form result to injury?’, some might expect me to say ‘of course not’...
However, that would be a big fat lie!
Approach Change With Caution
The truth of the matter is that our individually unique running styles have each evolved over our lifetimes to become what they are today.
Consider this. Put simply, your running form is essentially just an expression of the following factors:
- Your various muscular strengths and weaknesses – years of running with a particular style may mean you’re particularly strong in certain areas, and relatively weak in others, creating quite an imbalance.
- Your body’s areas of stability and instability – particularly around key joints.
- Your specific areas of restriction and flexibility – too much motion can certainly be as bad as too little .
- Your sense of rhythm, coordination, and balance – running cadence is a big consideration when it comes to rhythm.
- The ‘motor program’ you have for running – the neuromuscular ‘blueprint’ in your subconscious that tells you which muscles to use and when, to create your running gait.
- Your body type – whether you’re tall and long limbed, or shorter with shorter arms and legs will affect your running form to an extent.
These factors and others are all affected by the terrain, pace and gradient (up and down) of your run at any given moment. Our bodies like to follow the path of least resistance as we move, and will ‘work around’ the above factors (and others) to enable us to run.
Hopefully you can appreciate how running form is indeed subject specific, and also very much situation specific. The concept of good running form depends entirely on the individual – essentially depending on ‘what you have to physically work with’ and ‘what pace / distance you’re running’.
If anybody tells you otherwise, and suggests there is a one size fits all solution – please just walk away!
Change Can Be Quick – But Needs Time!
The biggest problem we have is that we humans are generally pretty good at making conscious changes to the way we move – but our bodies are slow to adapt. Patience is a virtue!
Very quickly we can make changes to our running form, by concentrating on the new technique a little harder. In just a matter or minutes, I can get an athlete running completely differently. Albeit these changes are initially very conscious and unrefined, and yet to be accepted as the new ‘motor program’ (this comes with practice). The big problem is that while these changes can be consciously made almost immediately, it can take a good six to twelve weeks for the body to physically adapt and provide the strength, flexibility, etc… to handle the new running form.
If I decide one day that I’m going to start running with a slightly new technique, different to the style my body has developed to over the years, clearly I’m going to be challenging muscles and other soft tissues to be loaded in ways that they’re not accustomed to, potentially increasing the risk of injury in the short term – if I do too much too soon (both in terms of volume and intensity).
I hear the results of this almost on a daily basis when talking to runners who’ve rushed into the change from landing on the heel (heel striking) to more of a midfoot or forefoot contact pattern. Almost as standard, their calf and soleus muscles and sometimes achilles tendon all take a hammering with the new form. Those who don’t give the body the time it needs to adapt and gradually build lower leg strength, usually get injured.
This is particularly true of runners who are very foot focused in their approach to changing their running form. Usually having read or watched reports sensationalising the virtues of a newly adopted midfoot landing ‘brought about by barefoot/minimalist footwear‘, they go out with the end in mind – thinking ‘don’t heel strike’ – without really understanding the means required to achieve this safely So rather than improving posture, cadence and stride length, they force themselves to land on the balls of their feet while still possibly over striding and holding poor posture. A recipe for calf injury disaster!
What To Change And When
While there is no one size fits all ‘best technique’ for all runners in all situations, it’s not really ‘perfect’ we’re looking for. Instead, I’m a big advocate of simply trying to achieve ‘better’, no matter how marginal the improvement. In my experience, aiming for the unrealistic ideal of perfect straight away may be more than some runners are ready for!
I like to take an in-to-out approach to helping runners change running form. Starting proximally with mobility and positioning around the hips and pelvis, then with posture and cadence. These factors in themselves will affect foot postion on contact relative to centre of mass, and in some cases even contact type – without consciously forcing a change in foot position. Only once pelvic position, posture, and cadence are addressed should we look at fine tuning the foot position, if needed, swing leg motion, and upper body mechanics.
The overriding advice is that while change can be very positive in the long term, be sure not to force change, and give your body time to adapt.