Monday, January 25, 2016

The Hobbyists Guide to Injury-Free Running: Totally Non-Scientific Observations

Injury-free running: the runner's Holy Grail, our white whale.

Is there such a thing? Maybe. It depends on what you consider 'running'.

In its basic form, running is just moving faster than a walk while not having both feet on the ground at the same time. At its most complex, running can be broken down into a staggering number of sub-disciplines; there were 19 running events in the last summer Olympics alone, and no one person is better at all of them than anyone else. The variables are endless.

Hence, herein, running is two things: running fast & running far.

Running fast is an entirely different activity than running far; it requires a different mindset, benefits from a different form, recruits different muscle fibers, burns different fuel... the differences go on and on, but perhaps most importantly: very few run fast and far well.

If I run fast (fast for me), it's in an attempt to run far better. Running fast doesn't drive me. I mean, I feel good after pushing myself--the dopamine response is there--but I don't get off on external competition--and I'm not sure if that's because I'm just not objectively fast, or if there's some other underlying character trait that feeds that.

To me, running far is just running efficiently, but for a long time. Therein lies running's biggest physical differentiator between running fast and running far: efficiency. To run fast, you sacrifice efficiency for power and speed. To run far, you sacrifice power and speed for efficiency.

I have no experience running fast (I've never broken a 19-minute 5k). In that same light, the longer I run, the more I realize that I have little idea how to run far (my subjective notion of 'far' keeps expanding). There's a Communist Daughter song with this line, "The more I learn, the less I know," Communist Daughter, City Love. Similar quotes go back to Einstein, even Socrates, and I doubt even he was the first--but the line is perfect. It's exactly how I feel about most things, but especially running. Every 3-year-old can run--it's the simplest of activities--but very few people truly do it well.

Maybe running is one of those things that shouldn't be understood; like everything else, it either works or it doesn't. It's as if it lies on the boundary of science and art: some float effortlessly with beauty and grace, while others seem to be constantly fighting upstream.

As it becomes more and more apparent how insanely average at this I am, there's only one thing I seem to do well: I run a decent amount of mileage with surprisingly few aches and pains. (*Except for winter races, where I undoubtedly hurt myself hiking in the soft snow with the 35-lb sled behind me. See, e.g., my coming out of Tuscobia injured the past two years. In contrast, with running, I've been pretty good.)

My take: The two biggest factors in running far injury-free are form & attitude.


As humans, we're each a little different, but not that different. From the form perspective, aside from minor variations in people's skeletal makeup, we can each focus on a few general keys: alignment, cadence, and stride.

Most running problems start at either the top (hips) or the bottom (feet/ankles). Alignment is key.

Level hips

If you've ever had knee pain and been to a physical therapist (PT), odds are they've mentioned something about glute strength. Really, it's just that you're dropping the hip over your non-loaded leg. If you're having trouble grasping what that means, stand up, pick up one foot, and relax your hips and settle down into your planted foot. Your belt line likely just took a big dip towards the floor over the foot you just picked up.

When you drop your opposite hip, to stay upright, one or both of the following happen: your weight shifts over your load-bearing foot, drawing your hip outside, putting strain on your IT band; and/or your load-bearing knee buckles inside, making your patella track incorrectly. If the first occurs, hello IT-band pain; if the second, hello pattelofemoral pain syndrome ("runner's knee"). If you're really lucky, you'll get both.

Now, pick up one foot, but engage your glute to keep your hips level (keep your belt line even). That's what is supposed to happen during your stride: Level hips.

This isn't the only cause of IT-band pain or runner's knee, but it's one of the most likely culprits.

Also make sure you keep your hips square, front-to-back. Unless you're really trying to milk your hips for speed (a running fast issue), reach with your knees, not your hips.

*tl;dr: Keep your hips square and level. Don't settle down into your planted foot. Keep your loaded glute active, and belt-line even.

Active arches, neutral ankles

Whereas your hips can screw up your form from the top, your feet and ankles can just as easily screw up your form from the bottom.

Now, I'm a forefoot striker, so this next part is easy for me. If you have a substantial heel-strike (think 10 degrees or above), this may be more difficult, but not impossible. Now, I'm not a doctor, and I've only ever had my one set of feet and ankles to think about and play around with, so, as with everything else in this article, keep in mind that I could be wrong. There are people with high arches, low arches, no arches, those that pronate, some that suppinate, etc., and there's a ton of physiological reasons for all of these--but, if you keep things square at the top, then, at the bottom, we're just down to your ankles. If you keep everything relatively square, we're going to be in good shape.

This next part is trickier.

There is such a thing as a neutral ankle position.

Stand up, shoes off, feet flat on the ground and pointing straight ahead. To engage your arches, lift your toes up, while keeping the rest of your forefeet and heels firmly on the ground. Keeping your toes lifted, imagine three points of contact with the ground for each foot: inside forefoot, outside forefoot, and heel. With each foot, equalize the weight, left-to-right between your inside and outside forefoot, and front-to-back between your forefoot and heel. That's the neutral ankle position. Now, without moving your ankles or shifting your weight, put your toes down.

Now, and this is fun: Relax. When I relax from this position, my arches collapse down, and my ankles drop to the inside. If I run like this, the collapse of my arches and drop in my ankles buckle my knees in, making my patella track incorrectly and increasing the strain on my IT band. What do I do to make sure that doesn't happen? Don't relax. Ever. Find that neutral ankle position, equalize the weight inside-out on each foot for each footstrike, and never let that ankle relax. Just like you can't let your glutes relax and drop your hips, you can't let your arches relax and drop your ankle. Keep your feet coiled, and, at least while under load, always resisting. Never settle or relax into the ground.

This is one of the two big problems (the other is overstriding) with a prominent heel-strike; it's difficult to keep your ankle aligned with only one point of contact on the ground. Your ankle could be rolling in or out, making everything else track incorrectly. With a forefoot or whole-foot strike, you can feel the weight on your forefeet and equalize it left-to-right.

Often, to make sure my ankles are in the right position, I'll lift my toes, landing forefeet only (before my heels comes down) to better feel the weight distribution on each foot, giving myself an opportunity to recalibrate on the move.

*tl;dr: Equalize the weight on your feet, when loaded, left-to-right.


Running fast is simply a combination of cadence and stride length.

In 1984, famed running coach Jack Daniels studied the cadence of all '94 Olympic runners at distance 800m and longer, finding all but one had a cadence between 180-200 steps per minute.

Turns out, our tendons and ligaments store a lot of energy, and to get maximal response of that stored energy, in relation to running, you need to keep a high cadence. This is best visualized by the simple act of running in place. Step too quickly or too slowly, and too much of the work is done by the muscles, which fatigue over time. Somewhere between too quickly and too slowly, though, there's a sweet spot that feels easier than anything else. Find it. That's your cadence--that place where you get the most return from the stored energy in your tendons and ligaments.

But if all Olympic athletes at 800m+ have roughly the same cadence, why don't they all run the same speed? Turns out, that 180 steps per minute model breaks under 800m. At top speed, Ussain Bolt has a cadence of 264, whereas Tyson Gay, just slightly slower, has a cadence of 288! The break likely lies at anaerobic/aerobic threshold.

The main variable with speed, though, is stride length, which is nearly a direct result of the amount of force that you push into the ground, which is fantastic and necessary to run fast. Ussain Bolt has an average stride length over 8 feet over 100m, with a max over 9.2 feet! The problem, though, is that a long stride length is entirely impractical for running far. The muscles just can't continue to support a large stride length over longer distances.

But here's the thing: Whereas running fast requires a combination of cadence and stride length, running far requires efficiency, and the key to efficiency is maximizing return of the energy stored in the tendons and ligaments, while keeping muscle output (e.g., stride length) under the anaerobic threshold.

If you can't keep your cadence up at 180 beats per minute, just keep it as high as you reasonably can. It's one of the things Karl Meltzer keys off; keeping his cadence up. Aim for a Red Hot Chili Peppers, Can't Stop cadence.

The other beautiful thing about a high cadence is that it helps keep everything healthy. Generally speaking, unless you're bounding, the slower your cadence, the longer your feet are on the ground--but more importantly, the longer you're supporting your body weight through its range of motion. If your form is perfect and exactly in line, this isn't so much a problem, but if even one thing is slightly off, the longer your feet are on the ground, the more time that imperfection is under load, through a greater range of motion, and unnecessarily stressing some part of your running anatomy, typically your ankles, knees, or hips.

To minimize ground contact time, aside from keeping your cadence up, land as close under your center-of-mass as possible, and, like above, don't settle into your planted foot. Push into the ground with your glutes, feet coiled, then get that foot off the ground. If you want to go faster, push harder into the ground, but keep in mind, at a certain point, the harder you push, the more quickly those muscles will fatigue, and the less far you can ultimately go.

If you have troubles keeping a high cadence, it's likely you're feet aren't getting very high off the ground, you're reaching out too far in front of you, or *gasp!* both; which brings us to two more related point: foot strike & picking your damn feet up off the ground.

*tl;dr: Keep a high cadence. Aim for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Can't Stop.

Foot strike

I know there's been a gazillion dollars spent advertising minimalist footwear, barefoot running, yada yada yada... but I'm convinced that it all comes down to this: I don't care if you're a fore-foot, mid-foot, or heel striker; I care that you're not overstriding, and that everything is aligned. I just simply think this is easier to do with a fore-foot or mid-foot strike.

There's research that says it's impossible to bring your foot down under your center mass. Try to do it anyway and you'll be in good shape. Your running motion should take place beneath and behind you, and not out in front of you, with the sole exception that you should have a slight forward lean from the ankles (not the waist), and you should lead with your knees (not your feet). The simple fact is that if you're bounding, or if your feet land too far in front of you, there's a huge amount of energy lost in absorbing that impact that's NOT returned into your stride. Your ligaments and tendons load behind you when stretched/extended, and not in front of you, absorbing impact.

The closer your impact to your center mass, the more of a fore- or mid-foot strike you'll have. Also, it's important to note, that a fore-foot strike does not mean that you run only on your toes, but that you first land at the front of your foot before the rest of it comes down. It's simply not efficient to be on your toes the whole time, and your downhill running will be insanely bad.

*tl;dr: Don't overstride.

Heel kick

A lot of slow runners never take their feet off the ground. This is a problem for a bunch of reasons. First, they're swinging a longer lever, requiring more work to bring their leg forward, placing a lot of stress on their hip flexors, and making it more difficult to have a high cadence. Second, the less their feet come off the ground, the more likely they are to overstride, and with a substantial heel-strike.

This is especially harmful when it comes to trail running, as well, as the more you tend to shuffle, the more you'll catch your toe on rocks, roots, or uneven terrain.

Simply put, swing a shorter lever, carry a high heel as your leg comes forward. The harder you explode into the ground underneath you, with a slight forward lean, the more your heel will naturally recoil, as your hamstring recoils. The higher your heels, the less work it takes to bring your leg forward, and the better you'll be on difficult/uneven terrain.

Heal, then change something

If you develop a running injury--related to form or mileage--once healed, don't just go back to doing the same thing that got you injured in the first place. Change something, preferably one thing at a time, and see how it goes, but keep in mind that form changes take time, and the more fatigued you are, the more your form is likely to suffer, leading to injury. THAT's why you're supposed to slowly build up mileage--not because you can't go out and run a 120-mile week, but because you're likely to break down if you do.

If your knee/hip/ankle/foot hurts, wait until it doesn't hurt anymore, change something, then make sure you don't run farther than you can maintain "good" form. I'm skeptical of anyone that advocates body-weight exercises to fix your running form. You take 1,000 to 1,500 steps per mile while running, depending on your stride length. What are 3 sets of 20 single-leg squats really going to do for you? When you're too fatigued to keep good form on a training run, stop. Walk home. I'm serious. If your form goes to hell, you're just going to hurt yourself. If you find it still hurting, change something else. Trial and error. You'll get there.

*tl;dr: If it hurts, stop, change something, then try again, gradually.


One characteristic I've noticed of people with staying power in the "running far" game is that the competition is often internal. I'm not striving to be better than you; I want to be a better me. I want to find where my boundaries lie, then push past them. That said, this type of person (myself included) also has a tendency to go farther than they should go. Just make sure you're doing it for the right reasons.

Take days off. If you don't want to run, don't run. This is supposed to be fun, after all--this isn't a punishment, something you have to do to right some other wrong. This is a hobby. If you're not smiling, what's the point?

When racing, if it hurts to walk, and it hurts to run, run. When training, if it hurts, stop. Something's wrong, and doing the same thing you've been doing and expecting it not to happen again is madness. Heal, rest, change something, then try again.

Being healthy and enjoying what you do is better than being trained. Don't ever let this sport single handedly define you, because when it will be taken from you--and it will be taken from us all--is completely out of your control.

At the end of the day, what the hell do I know? I'm not a doctor. If it feels good, do that. If it hurts, wait until it doesn't hurt anymore, change something, then try again.

And remember to have fun.


  1. I was going to disagree with you, but then you elaborated on the Attitude and nailed it.

    Being willing to stop, rest, reduce, cross train..etc...that is such a huge factor in not getting injured! I'm running at my upper tolerable limit, so little niggles are bound to pop up once in a while. If I let the ego take control I'd run through them and get injured. But if I'm willing to take a couple days light or an unloading week with reduced volume and let the tissue adapt and strengthen, I'll be safe and injury free.

    I'm not so keen on your *form* argument. It's important but I would put *being more mindful of your training* in my top 2. In my experience most injuries are a result of training errors, mainly doing too much of a new change too soon OR not allowing for proper recovery/adaptation opportunity by the body.

    Kyle @ SKORA Running

  2. I enjoyed the article, bookmarked it, and read it again. I'm an older runner, but going for my 3rd hundred this summer. My mantra is always to go slower if anything hurts, but never ever stop. I'm always trying to get my form right, which I know is never perfect, but I keep trying. Once I slowed down a little, change shoes to minimal drop, and tried to step gently, many nagging injuries went away. I hope to keep running long, till, well, when I kick the bucket basically. Thanks for posting.