How adding va­ri­ety to your run­ning can be your short­cut to bet­ter form and stay­ing in­jury free

Runner's World (UK) - - FRONT PAGE -

Our bod­ies of­ten get knocked out of whack by our life­styles and there are many ways that we can im­prove our mo­bil­ity, cor­rect im­bal­ances and ben­e­fit our run­ning. More im­por­tant, how­ever, and more ef­fec­tive than any form cue or drill, is us­ing our body’s in­nate abil­i­ties to choose and op­ti­mise our pre­ferred move­ment paths. Many run­ners don't har­ness those in­nate abil­i­ties, but over the next six pages, we'll show you how to un­lock their power to trans­form your run­ning.

Imag­ine a stream flow­ing down a moun­tain, find­ing the path of least re­sis­tance. This is roughly the process our bod­ies use in form­ing our pre­ferred move­ment path, only it’s more com­plex, as the vari­ables are greater, the body is clever and it has mem­ory.

The body can re­cruit mus­cles in an end­less va­ri­ety of sub­tly chang­ing pat­terns to achieve a sim­i­lar end. So not only are the di­men­sions and prop­er­ties of each per­son's limbs, joints and mus­cles unique, but our pre­ferred meth­ods of lo­co­mo­tion are unique as well. They are de­vel­oped over time by a process known as ‘plas­tic­ity’.

‘We first learn to move in ways shaped around our in­di­vid­u­ally unique neu­ro­log­i­cal and anatom­i­cal ar­chi­tec­tures,’ says per­for­mance sci­en­tist John Kiely. ‘The more we move, the more we con­verge on favoured so­lu­tions to in­di­vid­u­ally spe­cific prob­lems.’ In other words, we find what works for us and, over time, our brains and bod­ies ig­nore other op­tions. Our move­ment pat­terns be­come em­bed­ded, cre­at­ing our unique run­ning style. This con­form­ity lets us be­come very ef­fi­cient, us­ing only the mus­cles re­quired and let­ting oth­ers rest.

‘Plas­tic­ity al­lows us to learn from our past ex­pe­ri­ences and to con­tin­u­ally con­form to pre­vi­ously suc­cess­ful move­ment so­lu­tions,’ says Kiely. ‘But it also en­cases us in a tomb of con­straints – we be­come stuck in ruts.’

Repet­i­tive ruts

Those ruts create two prob­lems. The first stems from the fact that vari­abil­ity serves as one of the key ways the body pro­tects it­self against in­jury. Even when run­ning on a track or tread­mill, the body sub­tly varies each stride in com­plex pat­terns, spread­ing the work be­tween dif­fer­ent re­sources.

‘The me­chan­i­cal stress of run­ning is dis­trib­uted in ever-vary­ing, yet non-ran­domly or­gan­ised pat­terns,’ says Kiely. It’s sim­i­lar to how, each time you run on a trail, you step some­where dif­fer­ent while still fol­low­ing the trail and stay­ing within bound­aries, cre­at­ing a wide path in­stead of a deep, nar­row rut.

Stud­ies, in­clud­ing a ro­bust re­cent project from the Sports Medicine Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory in Lux­em­bourg, have shown that lack of vari­abil­ity – con­stantly run­ning with ex­actly the same stride – is highly cor­re­lated with in­jury. ‘With­out vari­abil­ity, you have the same tis­sues be­ing hit the same way over time with no respite – that’s the recipe for an overuse in­jury,’ says Kiely.

Vari­abil­ity goes down when the body be­comes ex­ces­sively fa­tigued. It’s also re­duced when we fail to vary the pa­ram­e­ters of our runs. When we run the same way ev­ery day, we can do so mind­lessly, shut­ting down not only the con­scious mind but also the sub­con­scious con­troller that adapts to changes. If we don’t chal­lenge the mind, it fo­cuses its en­er­gies else­where, let­ting our run­ning stride get in­creas­ingly static.

‘Most of my in­jured pa­tients ei­ther run on a tread­mill all the time or run the same course over and over,’ says po­di­a­trist Rob Conenello. ‘It’s im­por­tant to stress vari­abil­ity. Dif­fer­ent shoes, dif­fer­ent ter­rain, so you’re not build­ing up pat­terns.’

The neu­ro­log­i­cal ruts we fall into due to lack of vari­abil­ity also cause prob­lems when we try to cor­rect for im­bal­ances or im­prove our stride ef­fi­ciency. If we’ve been run­ning with re­stricted hip flex­ors and sleep­ing glutes, our body’s plas­tic­ity has found ways to keep us up­right and to pro­pel us for­ward, and th­ese ways have be­come nor­mal for us. We’ve learned to move in in­ef­fi­cient, well-trav­elled ruts. ‘We need to break out of those ruts,’ says Kiely. ‘And to do that we need to do some­thing dif­fer­ent.’

On its first time mov­ing down the moun­tain, the stream flows into each val­ley and ravine, some of them dead ends, as it ex­plores the eas­i­est route down. Over time, how­ever, the chan­nel be­comes deeper and nar­rower, eroded and en­trenched into one op­tion. Even if we create a new, more ef­fi­cient route, the stream can’t find it un­til the moun­tain gets shaken up – by an earth­quake or a flood – and the ex­plo­ration process starts again. Sim­i­larly, when we change the pa­ram­e­ters of our bod­ies’ ca­pac­ity, we need to shake up the sys­tem and loosen the ruts so new pat­terns can emerge. ‘You change re­sources,’ says Kiely. ‘But then you have to point out those en­hanced re­sources to the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem and con­vince it that, ac­tu­ally, this is, in fact, a bet­ter way to do things. Change your pro­pri­o­cep­tion, change your strength, change your tis­sue ca­pac­ity – then it’s got to be shaken up.’

The spice of life

Vari­abil­ity is the miss­ing link in many run­ners’ rou­tines, and it’s the first step to run­ning bet­ter. Even with­out do­ing any cor­rec­tive stretches or ex­er­cises, with­out cue­ing and form changes, vari­a­tion will al­low your body and brain to find bet­ter ways of mov­ing.

‘The most im­por­tant thing for a run­ner is to mix up their train­ing,’ says po­di­a­trist and biomech­a­nist Si­mon Bar­told. ‘Elites know this. But your av­er­age run­ners run in the same track in the same di­rec­tion the same way ev­ery time they run and won­der why they get in­jured. You have to mix up the sig­nal.’

Va­ri­ety is al­ways im­por­tant, but it be­comes es­sen­tial when you’re work­ing to change and im­prove your run­ning move­ments. Af­ter im­prov­ing your range of mo­tion and key strengths, you have to do

‘Most of my pa­tients run on a tread­mill all the time or run the same course over and over’

some­thing dif­fer­ent to get your body to start us­ing new pat­terns, or you’ll sim­ply keep run­ning the same way. The magic is that when you shake things up and get the brain to pay at­ten­tion again, it will find new pat­terns that are best for your im­proved me­chan­ics. While there are some form cues that can help you con­sciously fo­cus this process, sub­stan­tial, ef­fec­tive change will oc­cur sub­con­sciously through the process of plas­tic­ity.

The most ba­sic vari­a­tion is pace. Sim­ply run­ning faster some days and slower on oth­ers will im­prove your form. Dif­fer­ent paces use dif­fer­ent ranges of mo­tion, dif­fer­ent ca­dences and dif­fer­ent mus­cu­lar stresses. Train us­ing a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent work­outs: long runs, tempo runs, in­ter­vals at 5K pace, re­cov­ery runs, pure-speed work­outs. If that’s too am­bi­tious, start with just adding strides to your rou­tine two or three times per week (see p64).

Chang­ing your ca­dence can also al­ter stride me­chan­ics and re­quire suf­fi­cient fo­cus to create ef­fi­cient new path­ways and pat­terns. Make grad­ual changes so that the changes come nat­u­rally and grad­u­ally, not ma­jor mod­i­fi­ca­tions that might be un­prof­itable or in­ju­ri­ous, such as try­ing to match an un­re­al­is­ti­cally high ca­dence.

You should also vary the ter­rain you run on. Even just get­ting off the pave­ment and onto the grass be­side it greatly en­hances the vari­abil­ity of each foot plant and re­quires your body and mind to adapt to and ex­plore new ways of mov­ing. ‘Jump on an off-road path,’ says pro­fes­sor of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy Ryan Green. ‘You have to be aware of the ground, your pro­pri­o­cep­tion. You’re do­ing core strength and drills and don’t even know it.’

Run­ners used to the road of­ten balk at this, be­cause it re­quires more fo­cus and ef­fort to run on trails than on a smooth, paved path. But that is the point. The more chal­leng­ing the ter­rain, the more the body and brain will fo­cus, and that fo­cus is re­quired to re­wire the sys­tem.

‘It’s do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent phys­i­cally, but also do­ing chal­lenges that are suf­fi­ciently en­gag­ing that you have to zero in on them,’ says Kiely. ‘That’s the cat­a­lyst for the slow change in brain chem­istry that en­ables the plas­tic­ity chan­nels in the brain.’

The brain won’t com­mit re­sources to this process if it doesn’t sense ad­e­quate chal­lenge. ‘It has to be en­gag­ing,’ says Kiely. ‘The brain has to fo­cus: “This is the rel­e­vant stuff – if I don’t get it right, there will be a con­se­quence.” Our brain will re­spond to what it feels is im­por­tant.’

When Kiely de­scribes this, it sounds rather like what psy­chol­o­gist Mi­ha­lyi Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi calls ‘flow’. Flow is the state where chal­lenge equals skill, so that the task re­quires full phys­i­cal and men­tal fo­cus, but doesn’t ex­ceed what you’re able to ac­com­plish. Of­ten in run­ning, the phys­i­cal ef­fort brings us to that fo­cus. And in this in­stance, we are look­ing for a co­or­di­na­tion chal­lenge at the pre­cise level that we need in or­der to give it our full fo­cus while not feel­ing over­whelmed so that we with­draw and make ex­cuses. To this end, fast-paced run­ning down a tech­ni­cal trail may be one of the best ways to shake up your stride. Fast enough that you can’t break your fo­cus for a second, but not so fast that you’re out of con­trol.

Lack­ing ac­cess to steep, tech­ni­cal ter­rain sev­eral times a week, some, like Olympic sprint coach Dan Pfaff, in­tro­duce ran­dom vari­ables to pro­voke rapid change and re­quire in­tense fo­cus. Pfaff draws ir­reg­u­larly spaced lines us­ing chalk or tape on a pave­ment or track and gets run­ners to go through them at a rapid pace. Coach An­drew Kas­tor has his run­ners do re­peats in spikes in a grassy park that is not per­fectly groomed, in­ten­tion­ally en­sur­ing that they en­counter holes, rough patches, un­even turns and other ob­sta­cles that re­quire re­ac­tion and ad­just­ments in their strides.

‘At a rea­son­able pace, the run­ner has to change ca­dence and stride length based on visual in­for­ma­tion, while main­tain­ing speed,’ says Kiely. ‘Too slow is too easy: you don’t have to fo­cus. Too quick and you’re bor­der­ing on risky.’

More in­for­mally, no­tice kids splash­ing each other with the pud­dles along the roads dur­ing runs. It’s a game to them, but it cre­ates many of the el­e­ments de­sired: quick steps out­side of the nor­mal stride path for both the splasher and splashee, who has the added ben­e­fit of hav­ing to re­act with­out prior plan­ning in which di­rec­tion or speed. At other times they’ll jump over benches, bushes and play­ground equip­ment, push off the sides of rocks or walls. There are im­por­tant lessons you can learn from this ‘play’ – the key is to be cre­ative, have fun, and chal­lenge the body to move in new ways.

Another source of va­ri­ety missed by many run­ners is footwear. We tend to find a shoe that fits and feels right, and we wear it ev­ery day un­til it wears out, then we buy a new pair of the same model. But dif­fer­ent shoes change how your foot in­ter­acts with the ground and al­low your ner­vous sys­tem to play with your stride, al­low­ing for adap­ta­tion. ‘The eas­i­est way to change your move­ment pat­tern is sim­ply to change your shoe,’ says Paul Langer, a po­di­a­trist and an ad­viser to the Amer­i­can Run­ning As­so­ci­a­tion .

‘The best thing to tell peo­ple is to change your shoes ev­ery day,’ says

Conenello. That sounds like a lot of shoes, but even a two-shoe ro­ta­tion will help. You can have one lighter, more min­i­mal shoe and one that’s some­what heav­ier and more cush­ioned. Or one with a slightly dif­fer­ent heel-toe drop. Or a trail shoe and a road shoe, if you get on the trails a cou­ple times per week.

And the big­gest, most ef­fec­tive vari­a­tion you can pro­duce in your footwear is to go with­out it. Very few peo­ple ad­vo­cate go­ing bare­foot all the time any­more, but there are a lot of things you can do while bare­foot that will create va­ri­ety in your stride, strengthen your feet, cue bal­ance and en­cour­age a light, quick foot­strike.

Drilling for new pat­terns

I n ad­di­tion to va­ri­ety in your run­ning, adding ‘form drills’ en­gages mus­cles, in­creases your range of mo­tion and cre­ates move­ment pat­terns out­side of your nor­mal run­ning stride. More ef­fec­tive than con­sciously cue­ing stride changes, drills work at the mus­cu­lar and ner­vous sys­tem level to con­vince the body to try new move­ment paths. ‘You ad­dress the range of mo­tion, you ad­dress the strength deficits, you get drills to pro­vide the bal­ance and the rhythm and the skill, and then they or­gan­i­cally move into the kind of run­ning form that they were ca­pa­ble of when they didn’t have en­vi­ron­men­tal re­stric­tions,’ says coach Bobby Mcgee

There are a huge num­ber of ef­fec­tive in­te­gra­tive ex­er­cises and drills to help you mix things up, but we've dis­tilled them to a sim­ple, ac­ces­si­ble start­ing point:


One of the sim­plest ways of im­prov­ing your neu­ro­mus­cu­lar con­nec­tions, strides im­prove your run­ning econ­omy – teach­ing your body to move faster with less ef­fort – as well as your max­i­mum speed.

In his book, Run­ning­science, (Hu­man Ki­net­ics), Owen An­der­son ex­plains that the pace you are able to sus­tain at any dis­tance is a per­cent­age of your max­i­mal run­ning speed. If you can im­prove your max speed over short dis­tances, you will be able to sus­tain a faster pace when you run longer. ‘Max­i­mal speed im­proves as the ner­vous sys­tem learns to co­or­di­nate the mus­cles in ways that pro­mote faster stride rates, shorter con­tact times per step and quicker gen­er­a­tion of sub­stan­tial propul­sive forces,’ An­der­son ex­plains.

‘Go­ing all out is like turn­ing a fire hose on full,’ says elite coach Brad Hud­son. ‘It re­cruits ev­ery nerve and mus­cle group, in­clud­ing ones that don’t of­ten get used.’ 1 / Af­ter warm­ing up, or at the end of your run, go ‘as quick as you can while stay­ing re­laxed’, says Hud­son. Try to stay tall, aim for a quick turnover and push your stride out be­hind you, not reach for­ward. 2 / Ease off as soon as you start to feel it takes any ef­fort to main­tain. Push­ing too long (more than 10-12 sec­onds) will kick in your anaer­o­bic en­ergy sys­tem and in­crease acid­ity in your cells. Plus, you’ll start pac­ing your­self or your stride will fall apart. The point is to shock the sys­tem with an all-out, co­or­di­nated ef­fort. It should hap­pen so quickly that your heart rate and breath­ing don’t have time to re­act. 3 / Slow to an easy walk and rest for a few min­utes. Don’t start another fast seg­ment un­til your heart rate has dropped to close to a rest­ing pulse, so you’re ready for another max­i­mum burst of nerves and mus­cle. Your last burst should feel of equal ef­fort to and be just as fast as the first. 4 / If you’re just start­ing, try one to three fast ef­forts per ses­sion. As you feel more com­fort­able, add more,

PACE MAKES Run­ning faster on some days is an easy way to keep things in­ter­est­ing

QUICK CHANGE Even a twoshoe ro­ta­tion will add va­ri­ety

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