The days of covering up a runner’s weaknesses with shoe design are finished. This is the era of the all-around athlete—men and women able to reduce overuse injuries by training their entire bodies for the strain of running.
For years, running gait has been examined and analyzed primarily by looking at the motion of the feet and ankles. Up until recently, a runner’s gait style has been determined based on the movement that occurs when the foot impacts the ground. As such, runners were classified—and shoes have been prescribed—based on how their feet hit the ground.
But that’s an old-school approach, yesterday’s news. Declaring a runner as having an overpronating, neutral or supinating gait is really just a quick fix tied to selling neutral, stability and motion control shoes or various footbed stabilizers.
Little attention has been paid to what’s happening throughout the rest of a runner’s body. But in recent years, new research and clinical practice have determined that how a runner’s foot hits the ground is a direct result of what is happening farther up the kinetic chain, specifically how strong and balanced a runner is through the hips and core.
“How and where a foot impacts the ground is important, but the thing every runner needs to realize is how their feet are getting into that position,” says REP Biomechanics Lab director and “Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention” author Jay Dicharry. “The most important thing is that you want your feet to land as close to your body for a given pace as possible.”
Studies show that between 65 and 80 percent of runners are injured every year; many overuse injuries result from a runner applying too much force on a repetitive basis. The way to reduce injury, says Dicharry, is to run with the least musculoskeletal stress possible, with the least metabolic cost.
“You have to look at the bigger picture of your entire body and what might be causing the injury or pain,” he says. “You might have some kind of discomfort or pain in your foot, and it might be a problem with your foot, but it could also be a problem caused by something going on in your lower back or hips that is causing one side of your body to overload and the pain just happens to be in your foot.”
One technique runners can use to avoid injury combines shortening stride and increasing cadence. That’s possible, in part, by making sure the hips are tucked under the torso. But to do that, a runner must be strong in his or her core, lower back, glutes, and hip flexors—the muscle groups that play a large role in not only accelerating and decelerating the legs on a simultaneous basis, but also help to create the proper chain reaction throughout the entire body during a stride.
The bottom line is that running is an all-body activity and a comprehensive training plan is necessary to achieve maximum performance and avoid overuse injuries. But for many recreational runners—especially those new to the sport—the problem is that they repeat the same forward motion without building up muscle groups that account for subtle lateral movements or the fierce rotational movements that take place in every stride.
“If you’re a runner, you can’t just run. You have to engage all of your energy systems and work all of your muscle groups,” says Roberto Mandje, an elite trail runner based in Boulder, Colorado. “For me, it’s all about cross-training,”
At 6-foot-1 and 135 pounds, Mandje is long, strong and lean, a picture of fitness from head to toe. That’s largely because he doesn’t just run, and is meticulous about the non-running workouts he undertakes on a regular basis.
Mandje builds his endurance engine through long runs and completes shorter, faster intervals to build speed. But he also spends a good amount of time cross-training and completing strength and form drills to work on his hip flexors, glutes and a variety of smaller muscle groups in his core and lower back. Those drills include lunges with a twist, lateral bounding, grapevines or carioca, high knees, butt kicks, bounding, and a variety of single-leg balance drills and planks.
Compared to the average recreational runner, Mandje is an overachiever—someone who, in addition to running a hearty diet of mileage during most weeks, also makes time for regular swimming, cycling on a spin bike and regular strength-building sessions like yoga and Pilates. In the gym, he’ll also run through a series of kettlebell squats and use a fit ball for back extensions, hip extensions and jackknife exercises.
“I’m primarily a runner, but the cross-training helps me build additional strength and fitness with much less impact,” says Mandje, who placed fifth at the 2013 XTERRA Trail Running World Championships in Hawaii. “At the end of the day, my cardiovascular system doesn’t know what activity I’m working on, but it is reaping the benefits of the work I’m doing by building strength from head to toe.”
If your workouts consist of running, and only running, you might be doing yourself a disservice. Prepare your kinetic chain for the rigors of training and prevent overuse injuries by incorporating a simple regimen of variable workouts, strengthening every muscle group possible and becoming the best all-around athlete you can possibly be.