For several years I had a large bulletin board on a wall in the clinic. On that board were a few dozen short phrases of advice that I had either come up with myself, or borrowed from someone else and gave them credit. I love the “quotable quote” or “words of wisdom”. Because of my extensive work in running and with runners, one of my original statements was: “To prevent most running injuries do two things: 1.) Land softly, and 2.) Maintain good frontal plane alignment.” While there is a blog (you can scroll down and read if you like) I had written on the more extensive topic of “How to Fix a Runner” which breaks down in more detail the things needed to successfully come back from injury, the preceding statement was that simple “pearl” that kept injuries from happening in the first place. I had made this observation over the past several decades and excellent support for “landing softly” can be found in a new article entitled “Why We Get Running Injuries (and How to Prevent Them)” by Gretchen Reynolds in the ever-popular New York Times “Well” blog. The article cites a study in which “pounding” at footstrike was identified as the provocator of injury.
Landing softly with each footstrike while running is definitely an art form. Where I have had the opportunity to notice this the most is while watching elite African distance runners. You can get an idea of their graceful refinement of the act of putting one foot in front of the other from the television, but that is by far less tangible than having an elite runner go by you.
It was 1986, and I was participating in a one-mile road race. While warming up I noticed several world-class athletes also getting ready, and they were runners I had seen on television and in the running magazines. Kip and Charles Cheruiyot, and Peter Rono (who would soon become the 1988 Olympic 1500-meter champion). They were in a major training phase and had found this race to use a “fitness test”. Once I had gotten over being awestruck that I was near such greatness, I watched them glide effortlessly back and forth in the warmup area. It seemed as though their feet never even touched the ground, and you absolutely could not hear their footstrikes!! It was fascinating and I struggled to interpret what I was witnessing. There was no wasted motion and the seemingly effortless flow of these athletes was mesmerizing – so much so, in fact, that I was awakened from my trance of pondering by the starting gun going off and the race beginning (a typical “John-boy” experience). Now, I had no delusions that I was going to run with these guys, but I enjoyed watching them quickly drift away from me without a sound, no feet slapping the ground, straining with the arms, grunting, forced exhalations…just rapidly disappearing ART! Charles won the race in 3:58 in what was essentially a training effort for those guys, with his partners a step behind. I finished about 30 seconds back, which is a LONG way in a mile race, and the leaders looked almost like little dots up the road. As I gave an absolute max effort, and gutted my way through a blur of lactate, sweat, noise, inefficiency, and mediocrity, my pain was lessened by the absolute amusement of the disparity of how I looked and sounded compared to the elites.
That one experience impressed upon me the importance of trying to land softly while running. Not because I hoped to become an elite runner (not possible) but because they had shown me how, not just to run, but to move as a human being. They did it the right way, and anything less was noticeable, “hearable”, “feelable” (excuse poor grammar for effect). As my career interest in movement science began to take wings, I realized that this type of graceful movement was not only highly efficient, it was easy on the body. Over the next several decades I emphasized the improvement of running form, especially soft landings, with my clients, and I believe it makes a huge difference. While you can tell a person to decrease stride length, increase stride rate, land with a flexed leg, strike on the midfoot, etc., most of the time if you give a person more than one thing to think about, nothing happens. So the idea of just thinking and practicing “land softly” really works.
Frontal plane alignment is very easy to understand. The frontal plane is what you see when you look in the mirror, or look at another person face-to-face. Movement in the frontal plane is basically side-to-side movement of the body. All human movement is tri-planar, or three-dimensional, but if we concentrate on the frontal plane for this discussion, it stays uncomplicated. There should be a very slight amount of medial-lateral motion in the body while running, as weight is shifted onto and accepted by the stance leg, but it should not be excessive. Think of it this way: if you are trying to go forward (as in running), why are you going sideways? One does not require much training in biomechanics or physics to get the point. Yet, runners can develop habits in which they move too far medially or laterally with the leg swing, the knee under weight-bearing, the pelvis, spine, arms, or even head while running. All of this is unnecessary motion, wasted energy, and it serves to decelerate the forward-moving body. Can we strengthen key muscles, both in isolation, and in running movement patterns, to diminish frontal-plane movement? Yes, of course, but this is only the mechanistic side of the equation. We also need to practice form and ingrain the proper movement pattern into our brains and bodies. There can be a few deviations in gait or form which are structural or genetically determined, and can’t be changed, but most of these aberrations respond to practice.
So, those two simple things mentioned above, can prevent most injuries. As long as the #1 reason for running injuries is also avoided: DON’T MAKE UNREALISTIC ADVANCES IN YOUR TRAINING!! This needs almost no explanation. If you are at one level of mileage, intensity, terrain, etc., and want to get to the next, do it gradually, and define gradually by what your body tells you, not by any rigid schedule from a book or what someone else is doing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t occasionally push yourself a little to make a fitness breakthrough, but do this carefully so that your connective tissue or systemic function does not break down. The other reason for not training too far into effort or fatigue is that is when form tends to fall apart. What happens in those circumstances, when running in an exhausted or straining state, is you move with poor mechanics and then teach your body to remember that pattern. The neurologic system remembers what you teach it, so give your body good movement lessons. Just like the elite runners.