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Running: Simple or complex?

Running is an outwardly simplistic activity, one which could be observed as no more than a process of putting one foot in front of the other, and yet despite its pervasive popularity, few regard it is a complex action.

By Jennifer Wilson - 10 September 2018

It is an activity that is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, functioning to aid survival, rather than being an activity for enjoyment, as it is today. We have a unique capacity to run long distances thanks to several key morphological changes, though this capacity comes with significant challenge; to coordinate multiple joint and tissue configurations in the most safe and efficient way possible, all whilst precariously balancing a large frame over a significantly smaller base of support. Coordination of multiple joints is complex, thus running should not be dismissed as a simple skill (despite the ease in which we learn to perform the action) – the impact of one joint action on another is of great importance. And though the skill comes naturally to us, it is not one that is taught, it is one that is shaped by numerous factors including tissue condition, previous experiences, training history, movement history and habituation, thus our running style is unique to us.

With greater experience comes a greater ability to deviate from our running pattern when required (such as when we experience changes in surface). Acute deviation from our preferred pattern is manageable through re-calibration of various joint configurations and tissue responses. This makes us much more capable of meeting the demands of the surrounding environment without requiring gross changes to our running action. A less proficient runner may not demonstrate the capacity to deviate from habituated movement patterns with such flexibility, thus representing a greater propensity toward overuse injury.

Why it matters?

The foot makes contact with the ground between 800 and 2000 times per mile. In this time, the body is subject to forces between 1.5 to 5 times body weight, and given the knee is a primary shock absorber during running, it’s understandable why it is the most injured site of the lower limb. A proficient running style affords us the ability to cope with the stress of foot-ground collisions, however, as is often the case, we can develop running styles that are less than optimal, and in some cases, these running styles may increase our likelihood of injury. However, there are a number of modifications that can be made to running style to increase efficiency and reduce injury risk. Examples of trainable modifications include; changing the position of foot strike in relation to the body (i.e. avoid over stride) and modifying arm swing to limit excess trunk rotation. Of course, it is also important to manage running volume to condition the tissues, so any changes should be introduced incrementally.

Tips for/recommendations for modifying running style

For support and recommendations on improving your running style, our Human Performance Unit running package can provide you with a professional consultation and gait assessment to identify where running performance can be enhanced and injury risk reduced.

About the author

Jennifer Wilson
Programme Leader for BSc (H) Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation

Jennifer is a lecturer in the Sport and Exercise department at the University of Derby.

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