There's no doubt about it: Americans love to run. In fact, about 36 million people patter the U.S. pavement each year and according to the nonprofit running industry organization Running U.S.A., in 2010 – for the first time ever – more women than men completed half-marathons.
The reasons for running's popularity are many-from the euphoric “runner's high” and decreased rates of depression to body benefits that include weight loss, lowered blood pressure and levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and reduced risks for osteoporosis (thanks to a boost in bone mineral density). The best bonus? It's free and you can run anytime, anywhere.
But for all its pluses, running can be painful and, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, at least 5o percent of distance runners experience injuries every year. The reason for that comes down to mechanics, says William Roberts, M.D., F.A.C.S.M., director for the Twin Cities Marathon and a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. “But the cause isn't necessarily universal,” he adds. “The person could have an acute biomechanical imbalance-say they stepped in a pothole or have tight joints. They could also have run too many miles, beyond their limitations.”
Reducing the painful risks
Injury prevention is about what works for the individual, says gait biomechanics researcher Reed Ferber, Ph.D., director of the Running Injury Clinic in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary.'There is no ideal running form, so the way someone runs is dictated by the way she is built, her anatomical alignment, strength and flexibility,” he explains. “In fact, we strongly encourage people not to change their running form in an effort to treat or prevent injuries unless they've first considered all of their biomechanics.” So have your doctor, physical therapist or athletic trainer check out your gait and physical limitations. Then, if he or she gives you the go-ahead, explore the trends that follow, which have been gaining fans in the running world for their injury-preventative properties.
The thinking behind this method of running instruction (see chirunning) is that relaxing your body and becoming more mindful of your
form and cadence can reduce the impact on your joints and help you go further, faster and longer using less energy. “The relaxation component is related to tai chi,” explains Asheville, N.C: based ChiRunning co-founder Danny Dreyer.”Relaxing your extremities allows your body to move more naturally. When certain muscles hold tension, it causes others to work harder and throws off your alignment and mechanics.”
The training also focuses on proper posture, with shoulders, hips and ankles aligned (like skiing), an engaged core and a slight forward
lean from the ankles. “Chi propulsion comes from falling forward,” explains Dreyer. “Gravity pulls you, so [your running] is not forced.” Becoming keenly aware of your movements pulls it together. “It's about deeply listening to your body, which will always tell you how you're doing, what feels good and when you should stop,” Dreyer explains.
- Fast-track tip: Loosen limbs pre-run by literally shaking them out. “Stand on one leg and shake the other, allowing the muscles to go flaccid,” Dreyer says. “Then stand with your arms extended and twist from side to side, allowing your arms and shoulders to swing.”
- Pros: It's easy to personalize and, when mastered, it's been shown to reduce impact on your joints and help prevent injury (Dreyer encourages mindfully trying to land on the mid-foot and hit the ground softly).
- Cons: None-unless you're the type who just can't be mindful. Of course, attempting to become more aware of your movements could actually help you learn to tune in.
There is no ideal running form, so the way someone runs is dictated by the way she is built, her anatomical alignment, strength and flexibility.
Proponents of this training method note that running barefoot prevents you from landing on your heels – which has been shown to produce
more force on joints than landing on the balls of your feet (which happens naturally when you're sans shoes).
According to a 2010 study conducted by Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., the impact of a forefoot strike is roughly one-third of that resulting from a heel strike, therefore making barefoot running a seemingly better choice for those experiencing repetitive stress injuries from too much high-impact activity. And a 2009 study published in The Journal of Injury, Function and Rehabilitation showed that running with sneakers featuring increased heel cushioning and mid-arch padding led to a 38 percent greater torque on knees than did barefoot running.
But the barefoot technique isn't just about canning kicks. “It's about regaining presence in your running and body,” says Ted McDonald,
Seattle-based barefoot running coach and president of the Luna Sandal Company.”It's about learning how to move again:' To master such
kinesthetic awareness, McDonald suggests taking off your shoes, walking and then trotting on hard, fairly smooth surfaces. “Try to feel
a gentle, forefoot-centric landing, and keep it silent and smooth, like a cat “he says. As with ChiRunning, the barefoot technique involves and encourages proper postural alignment and a quicker cadence. “It's nearly impossible to over-stride with bare feet,” McDonald says.
Start slowly! “Dramatically decrease your mileage, and slowly work up in 3 percent to 4 percent weekly increments over
a number of months to get back to your previous mileage,” Ferber says. To ease the transition, try a minimalist shoe like the Altra
Intuition. The wide toe-box mimics barefoot “spread,” and the thin “zero-drop” soles support and protect you from terrain without lifting your heels. You'll still have to take your new style in stride and pace yourself, however, and even the Altra shoebox features take-it-slow guidelines.
Less impact on joints and minimal equipment needed. (You can literally go barefoot!)
If you have lingering foot or ankle problems, like torn ligaments, you may not be able to tolerate it. What's more, you could be trading one injury for another, warns Ferber. “You need to have strong ankles and calves to go barefoot,” he says. “There may be less impact on knees, for example, but a much greater load on your Achilles tendons.”