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Fitness: Tread Softly

By Oscar Saucedo

Running is a great exercise. It can burn a high amount of calories per minute and produce amazing weight loss results. As a bonus, the “runner’s high” is a real thing! When a runner gets into a nice groove, the endorphins generated will create a feeling of euphoria that can mask pain from blisters and tired legs.  If you are wired that way, running can be addicting.

Running, however, can also beat up your joints pretty good. I’ve seen runners with foot pain, ankle pain, knee pain, hip pain, and lower back pain. Much of this can be avoided by some basic leg maintenance and proper running technique.

Running can cause approximately twice the impact that walking causes. That means that a person weighing 150 pounds can cause about 300 pounds on impact on their feet. While some elite runners can easily absorb this impact without many problems, the other 99.9% of us need to do whatever we can to decrease the impact on our vulnerable joints. Here are some suggestions to do that:

Land on the balls of your feet (front half). I partially blame Nike for encouraging people to land on their heels when running. Their Nike Shox have that shock-absorber-like design on the heel of the shoe. That is a terrible design. When you jump off of a box or step, do you land on your heels, or do you land on the balls of your feet to cushion the landing? When you walk on gravel with your sensitive bare feet, do you dig your heels into the gravel, or do you softly walk on the front of your foot to absorb the impact as much as possible? Landing on the balls of your feet will dramatically reduce the impact on your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and lower back. To me, it’s common sense. The Achilles Tendon acts like a shock absorber. Use that.

Avoid landing on your heels. In addition to the reasons stated above, landing on your heels can slow you down. Imagine Fred Flintstone slamming on the brakes on his car. He extends his legs forward and digs his heels into the ground, right? When you over-stride and land on your heels, you are basically slamming on your Flintstone brakes every time your foot strikes the ground. The root-cause of this bad technique is the runner trying to extend the stride longer than is appropriate for them. Begin to correct this by simply shortening the stride so that your foot lands directly under the hip.

Work on increasing your hip mobility and ankle mobility. The hip flexors (front of hip) tend to be inflexible on most people.  That will dramatically decrease the power that the hips can generate. Ankle dorsiflexion is also commonly limited (flexing ankle up, opposite of pointing your toes) because of tight calf muscles.Lack of mobility in these areas can cause inefficient movement.Legs may not travel in a straight line forward and back, but can move in a sort of circular motion. That will eventually cause knee and hip pain. Stretch your hips and calves and use a foam roll to get the knots out of the muscles in the legs. Google foam roll techniques to learn more about this, or get with a knowledgeable personal trainer.

Try running on a treadmill with an incline. Many runners dread treadmill running, but it can be very effective, especially on an incline. Begin with a 2.0 incline. Running on an incline will make the runner work harder and simultaneously reduce impact. When you think about it, running on an incline forces you to land on the front half of your foot. Work your way up as high as possible. It’s totally OK with me if you go all the way to a 15 incline!

Some important points to remember to improve your running technique are 1) keep torso upright (chest out, shoulders back, chin tucked), 2) learn to use your arms to increase power, 3) get knees high, 4) foot should almost kick your rear-end on the backside, and 5) strike the ground directly under your hip and on the front part of your foot. While elite runners can get away with less than perfect technique, the rest of us need all the help we can get.

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