Tread lightly: How to ease the load running puts on your body

Moving on to the grass or pretending you’re on a treadmill can have real effect on fatigue

Mary Jennings is a running coach with Photograph: Eric Luke

Mary Jennings is a running coach with Photograph: Eric Luke


Can you hear your feet hit the ground when you run? Is it a loud bang or just a soft landing? Some runners appear to glide along effortlessly hardly making a sound. Other runners pound heavily with each stride. You can guess which runner is more likely to get injured. The harder we hit the ground the more force we send up through our knees, hips and lower back. A heavy landing also puts additional pressure on the smaller lower leg muscles to lift the body up and forward onto the next step. It’s no wonder so many runners are fatigued in the latter miles with lower legs working overtime.

How to run light

Running doesn’t have to be a series of heavy steps. Don’t accept that running has to be tough to be rewarding. Indeed, it can be nice to push ourselves to get stronger and faster but that doesn’t have to be at the cost of getting injured or burnt out. Avoiding injury is essential for any runner and taking time to listen to our footsteps can be a great cue to runners to remember to lighten the load. We all tend to plod a little more when we are tired, but there are a few simple ways we can make running easier and lighter on our legs and delay the onset of fatigue.

Listen to your feet

The simplest way to run a little lighter is to reduce your running time on hard pavement and road surfaces. If you have the opportunity in your local running radius right now to get off the road, try it out. Choose grass, parkland, trail or compact sand and notice the difference in the noise that is generated by your steps. Varying the surface we train on can help protect the body from the impact off the hard ground. If you struggle with sore shins and knees or feel as if you are a plodder, start by building in a few minutes of a new surface in your usual running loop. You may have to focus more on your footing if the surface is uneven but you will develop confidence as you practice.

Off the beaten track

When I started running my miles were all on the road and footpaths. As I trained for road races and marathons I never considered changing the surface. But right now with no road races or parkruns on the horizon there is much less need for path/road running and I am loving the move to the grass underfoot. Cross-country and trail runners thrive off-road but I have never been brave enough for the winter mud, spikes and fearless speed on the slippery downhills. If you are a cautious off-road runner there has never been a better time to experiment with the simple move from path to grass. Thanks to the great weather the ground is dry, the grass is short and there is a path worn around the perimeter of most parks from fellow runners and walkers with the same agenda. Give it a go.

Dedicated road runners

It is not always possible to avoid the footpaths and I know many runners will continue to choose them for practical reasons such as their accessibility, visibility and safety. Others will choose the path because it makes them run quicker. So when you can’t/won’t avoid a road or path, running technique becomes even more important. I’ve written many times on how Chi Running technique can lighten the load by taking the effort off the legs. If you have time on your hands go back to my Get Running Programmes for a refresher. But if you can’t face the thought of putting all your attention into technique right now there are some simple imagery tips you can try to lighten the load.

The outdoor treadmill

When you are out on your next run, imagine the road/path is the surface of an outdoor treadmill. The path is moving toward you so all you need to do is lightly lift your ankles off the ground behind you to let the path go on its way. Strange it may sound but don’t discount it until you try it. Your feet will move from focusing on hitting the ground to instead lifting lightly and floating out behind you.

Count your steps

If imaginary treadmills are too hard to focus on, start by counting 20 steps when you are next running. The first time you do this you will most likely count every time you hit the ground as a step. It may even feel more forceful than your normal running style. But then count another 20 steps this time counting every time your foot leaves the ground and floats back behind you. It is a simple change of attention but you will instantly run lighter and feel less heavy. Try this whenever you feel tired, breathless or heavy legged.

Light not loud

Even with the best of intentions we get distracted on our run and may fall back into bad habits. Now is not the time to get injured. Without access to our usual support teams of physical therapists and physiotherapists, strength classes and running clubs, we need to take responsibility and protect our running body more. So let’s make one change this week. Every time we see another runner let that be our reminder to run light or move to a softer surface. If that happens just a few times in every run that will be great start. Let’s all put a little focus into making ourselves a runner who is seen before they are heard.

– Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with Mary’s book Get Running, published by Gill Books, is out now. 

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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