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Runners: Don't Let Poor Technique 'Run' You Into the Ground

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Whether it's for exercise or simply to de-stress, running is one of the most popular pastimes today. Rain or shine, it's a sport that requires little beyond a good pair of shoes. Old, young, men, women... we run in nearly every region of the world. And it's easy, right? Who doesn't know how to run?

When you consider the sheer number of injuries incurred by runners, perhaps that answer isn't so simple. Running injuries span the foot, ankle, knee, hip and low back area. Some are simply a cumulative load from decades of running, others are injuries from other sports that now prevent running, and still others come from continuing to run in old shoes that have long lost any structural support they have once possessed.

There are also those runners whose horrible technique has us wondering how they will make it one more lap or block without total collapse. They're easy to identify, but they are also the minority. For the majority of runners with poor running mechanics, there are two main problems: 1) aches, pains and injuries, and 2) slower running times due to inefficiency.

As a track coach once said to me, "Just because they can run, it doesn't mean they know how to run. You wouldn't golf without lessons. You wouldn't play tennis without lessons. What makes you think you can run without lessons?" It couldn't have been better stated.

Poor running technique, which describes most recreational runners, can lead to: plantar fasciitis; Achilles tendinitis; inflammation and early degenerative changes in the ankle, knee and hip; hip flexor strains; hamstring strains; and low back pain. These injuries may be caused by improper foot placement and impact, which can generate unnecessary forces through the joints with stride after stride for years. The abnormal forces must have their effect at some point. Poor posture when running can further shift the forces through the body and can also worsen proper hip motion during the stride.

So, what is the solution? I can simply answer, "Run with better technique,'"but if you already knew what proper running mechanics were, you would have run more effectively already. Anyone serious about their running (e.g., runners of marathons, half marathons, numerous 10Ks, mini-triathlons, or simple high-mileage enthusiasts) should hire a track coach to improve stride technique. And you don't need to enlist a world-famous track coach -- try someone from your local college, or track club, or perhaps even find a retired college or professional track athlete who lives or trains near you.

The shorter distance coaches have had to make stride efficiency a high priority because there is such little time and distance to allow make up in the race for their errors. Often distance coaches will make up for poor stride mechanics through conditioning. In other words, if the athlete becomes more cardiopulmonary efficient, he/she can pass opponents during a longer race even with stride technique that is not perfect or great.

The stride is improved through commonly performed track drills and warm-up drills, after which it is observed and corrected by the coach over short distances (100m to 200m). The athlete can learn and maintain proper technique again and again until they are strong enough to hold the position and they have learned the new motor pattern to keep the new stride technique. If you can't hold proper technique for 200m, you can't hold it for 10,000m. More often, the field at a track can be used to have the runner run up and down the field so the technique improves with easy observation from the coach.

I recall one patient who simply wanted to run a marathon in under four hours. She was referred to a track athlete turned coach. The drills were instructed again and again, and running technique was evaluated and corrected over many 100m runs. The runner often became frustrated, saying "I need to run long distances. Why am I wasting my time running 100 meters?" The coach's reply was, "You can't hold your technique for 100m, so what do you expect to do in a marathon?" The end result after months of coaching was a 3-hour, 37-minute marathon and one elated runner. She then understood just how much her poor running technique had hindered her performance.

If you are a recreational runner who simply likes to run two or three miles twice a week and you have no intention of completing a marathon, half-marathon or even four to five 10Ks per year, you probably don't need the help of a coach, even though it would benefit you. However, serious runners should consider hiring a track coach even if only for a few weeks. The benefits will be very noticeable.

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