How to improve your running form, reduce the risk of injury and increase efficiency and speed
Those dreaded words, ‘conditioning exercises’! A few years ago, whenever I visited my physiotherapist, we would have a joke about my very predictable eye roll whenever he told me I needed to focus on my conditioning exercises if I wanted a better chance of remaining injury-free. For many years I somehow managed to ‘wing it’ (perhaps helped by my move from competing on tarmac to trails), doing very little strength work but managing to run far and fast without many problems. If I did pick up an injury I would do the exercises he prescribed for me, perhaps for a week or maximum two, then once the problem disappeared, I would go back to 90% cv work in my training.
Then miles, or age, or a combination of the two caught up with me and suddenly I was getting a far greater number of niggles. At around this time I gained my PT and running coach qualifications and started working with clients to improve their running. I read and researched a great deal and in a sense had a ‘eureka’ moment when I realised the exercises were not just about addressing a particular problem but that they could be used to improve running form as a whole….and as I’d been told so many times before, prehab really does help avoid rehab! I had my own running gait analysed and was given a programme of exercises to improve weaknesses and iron our imbalances. Suddenly I was running better, able to train less but with greater gains and even more importantly, getting very few injuries. I took a course in gait analysis and started focussing on this with my clients with such positive results that I moved into carrying out gait analysis and helping people improve their running alongside the coaching side.
The way you run is vitally important to the way you perform and, as mentioned above, will impact propensity to injury. Small changes to correct imbalance, weakness or flexibility helps reduce the stress and strain on your body and can make the difference between injury and injury-free running. Being able to train consistently is what will ultimately bring results, whether it be improving speed, losing weight or increasing distance. Consistency is only achievable if you remain uninjured.
Prehab exercises are training tools that prepare the body to undertake the movements you require for the physical demands of training as well as everyday life; they include range of motion and strengthening exercises, usually through stretching and mini band exercises. They are thus proactive in nature as compared to the reactive exercises given in response to a particular injury. Three keywords you are bound to have heard in this context are ‘mobilise, activate and stabilise’. All three are vital components of any prehab protocol.
Mobilisation expands the range of motion and flexibility through stretching.
Activation uses body weight or light resistance exercises to ‘turn on’ under activated muscle fibres.
Stabilisation is the generation of an adequate amount of new muscle coordination to enable tissues, muscles and tendons to meet the physical demands of the movement required.
Prehab for runners
For runners, it is important to focus prehab on building adequate strength and flexibility in legs, hip muscles and core as well as upper back mobility.
In a generalist prehab programme for a runner, areas I would focus on are foot and ankle mobility (including calf stretch and strength), hips (mobility and glute strength), upper back mobility and core strength.
Exercises such as side plank, side walk and squat with a resistance band, dead bug, single leg deadlift, clams, hip flexor stretch, pigeon stretch, single leg balance, single leg bench squats and calf raises are all great exercises to include in a prehab routine.
One size fits all exercises are not always successful. This is where gait analysis comes in.
Gait analysis involves a more in-depth look at an individuals running style. For example, in a consultation, active and passive tests would be carried out to assess strength and to discover any imbalances. Running at different paces, including after fatigue, would be filmed and analysed. The combination of the tests and video enables a detailed study of a runners gait and a look at areas that could be improved.
Common running mistakes
Every runner has their own ‘style’ and it is not possible nor desirable to iron out all idiosyncrasies. Watching professional runners in action demonstrates the variety of styles, some of which make you wonder how they manage to go so fast!
But there are certain things they all have in common and which reduce their chance of injury, helping them run efficiently. One is their running cadence and the other is foot strike - where their foot lands in relation to their centre of gravity. Both are areas many runners could improve on to reduce excess stress going through the knees in particular.
Many watches now record cadence but if you don’t have one, it can easily be worked out by simply counting how many times your feet hit the ground in a minute. Most recreational runners have a cadence of around 160 steps/minute. Professional runners have a cadence of around 200! However, a cadence of around 175-180 is a good one to aim for. Cadence cannot be changed overnight, it is a gradual process of learning to foot strike at a faster rate; as a rule of thumb I don’t recommend clients try to increase theirs by more than 10% at a time and only when that is consistent should they look to increase again.
Over striding is the other common mistake, that is the foot landing too far in front of the body / centre of gravity. Runners try to increase their speed by striding further and further out in front rather than landing the foot under the knee and using the glutes to propel themselves forward. A faster cadence will help reduce the tendency to over stride.
Implementing change – exercises, stretching and cues
In order to change a running behaviour a combination of cues, exercises and sometimes stretches are required. The exercises strengthen the areas needed to restore biomechanical alignment function to improve movement quality. The stretch gives the flexibility to carry out the movement. The cue helps to remind the runner to carry out the movement.
For example, to reduce over stride and to increase cadence, lifting the knees slightly higher will help. Hip flexor and glute strength are important facilitators, so strengthening exercises for these areas will make the motion possible over an extended time. A cue I often use is ‘imagine you are running through wet grass’. Thinking of this will automatically prompt a runner to lift their knees a little.
Changes cannot be too sudden as muscles and learned patterns of motion need time to adapt. I usually recommend clients use the cue for 30 seconds every five minutes of a run, increasing to one minute in five and so on over a period of several weeks. An 8-12 week programme to address particular aspects of a runners gait is usually enough to then move them to a more generalist, maintenance focussed prehab programme.
It is almost impossible to stay injury-free forever, but using an effective and efficient programme of strength and conditioning will really help. The trick is to be disciplined in doing just a few minutes every day. I find that first thing in the morning is the best time for me. Before the day starts and the house wakes up, I do 10 minutes of prehab work and that is sufficient to make gains. I have been converted; my physio can’t quite believe it!
So, I challenge you to give it a go – those pesky little exercises really do move mountains!