Shake off old injuries with a fresh technique
From martial-arts running to ditching the runners, here are a few techniques that could help you deal with recurrent injuries and problems
SORE KNEES? Check. Painful shin-splints? Check. Dodgy hip? Check.
Then, chances are, you know all about running-related injuries. That’s why there’s been a growing focus not on achieving faster times or longer distances, but on finding training methods that can help keep you injury-free. Different techniques claim to help reduce the chance of injury, while simultaneously making you a better and more efficient runner. Here’s a selection.
This combines the essentials of proper running form with the martial art t’ai chi. It focuses on good posture, developing strong core muscles and maintaining a relaxed body. It was developed by Danny Dreyer, a US-based running coach, who applied the ideas behind his martial-arts instruction to running. There are now hundreds of instructors based around the world.
One of them is Catherina McKiernan, one of Ireland’s most accomplished runners. She does chi-running workshops around the country and offers advice on good running techniques on her website ( catherinamckiernan.com).
“Running, at the end of the day, is a high-impact sport,” she says. “There is a way to make it easier on the body. Chi running is about developing good body mechanics, so there’s less impact. Good posture and a strong core is the cornerstone of it. It’s like a tree trunk: it’s the strongest part of the tree. It’s the same with the core of a person.”
She sees lots of mistakes that result in needless injuries. Among the most common are poor posture (“you see people bent at the waist quite a lot”), landing poorly (“there are a lot of heel-strikers, which is bad, because it’s like running with the brakes on”), and over-striding (“long, swinging strides can put more pressure on the lower legs, knees and hips”).
“If you run with the right posture, you’re landing mid-foot with a slight tilt, so it’s like being pulled along by a bungee-cord. You’re working with gravity, rather than against it,” she says. “I say to runners to develop your core and develop good practice in everyday life. Even if you’re sitting at a desk, keep your shoulders down and stay relaxed. Relaxation during running is a big part of it.
“People tend to hold a lot of tension in their body. But learning to relax is important, and it also helps in the absorption of oxygen into the blood.”
It all sounds simple, but surely it’s difficult to change the habits of a lifetime?
“I do one-day workshops and I get great feedback from people,” she says. “It’s all about being more body-aware, practising drills in everyday life, and then they become part of your routine.”
Former Olympic distance runner Jeff Galloway says there is no one perfect running form. Instead, he advocates a “run-walk” method. Essentially, it allows muscles to recover at regular intervals during a run, rather than at the end of it.
“It’s very simple,” he says in his recent book. “You run for a short segment, take a walk break, and keep repeating this pattern . . . By inserting walk-breaks, you can manage fatigue and be strong to the finish. The resurgence of running muscles, with each walk break, bestows confidence to take on challenges. The ratio of running and walking allows one to feel better during and after the run, with the confidence to keep pushing further.”
It’s ideal for beginners, but he says elite runners use walk breaks on long runs to allow them to recover faster. For marathon runners, who accumulate heavy mileage, it’s also a good way to stave off injury.
If you’re planning to run a long race such as a marathon and have a specific goal in mind, he also uses a “magic mile” formula as a predictor of how you’re likely to fare.
In essence, it involves running a mile as fast as you can (after warming up thoroughly). Then, multiply your time by 1.3. So, let’s say you can run a mile in seven minutes. When adjusted, that equates to a marathon pace of 9:06 per mile in the marathon. This time includes taking a walking break.
As with all coaches, though, he warns against overexertion. He advises runners not to increase weekly mileage by more than 10 per cent per week, and suggests dropping total mileage in half every third or fourth week to allow the body to recover.
Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, on how the author overcame injuries after adopting the stride of the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, has heightened interest in barefoot running. Its supporters tend to be near-evangelical in their support of this approach, and many say barefoot running has cured them of various running-related injuries.
A study published in the journal Nature last year lent scientific weight to the theorising. It found that Kenyan schoolchildren who lived in urban areas and normally wore shoes ran differently from those who lived in the country and were almost always barefoot.
When the city kids ran over a special platform that measured how their feet hit the ground, most landed on their heels, resulting in a lot of pounding and wear-and-tear. In contrast, barefoot children tended to land towards the front of their feet, with less impact on the body.
So should we throw away our runners?
Not necessarily. Research shows that the body tends to hang on to what it is familiar with. So, if you dispense with your runners, you won’t suddenly start running with the right form. It’s more likely you’ll continue to pound around the place, potentially causing even greater damage. As with chi-running, it takes patience and perseverance to develop a new stride.