Is running really good for everyone?
We’ve been doing it for more than two million years. In fact, we were born to do it, so says Christopher McDougall in his best-selling book.
But were we really?
There are two camps when it comes to running.
There are those of us who feel free when we run, we feel connected to the wildest part of ourselves and, via this instinctual movement, get to explore the limits of our bodies.
Maybe in another lifetime we would have been like the Tarahumara Indians, who, even in their 70s and 80s, run 160 to 240 kilometres a day without injury or apparent fuss. Or the Japanese monks of mount Hiei, who run up to 1,000 marathons in 1,000 days in an attempt to reach enlightenment.
Then, there are those of us who “look at running as this kind of alien, foreign thing, this punishment you’ve got to do because you ate pizza the night before”, as McDougall puts it.
To those people it seems pretty questionable that they were ‘born to run’ and certainly, there are plenty of people who look (and feel) as though they’re being punished when they run.
“I think we are all ‘born to run’, but as a nation our bulging waistlines, expansion of the concrete jungle that is our cities and suburbs and physical deconditoning from sedentary jobs and lifestyles will tell a different story,” says John Arnold, a lecturer in exercise science at the University of South Australia. “Running as a form of exercise has a range of health benefits – it’s good for just about everything – our heart, bones and even our brains. However, if we were ‘born to run’, why do so many of us get injured?”
It’s a good question. About 70 per cent of recreational and competitive runners are injured each year.
“The simple fact is we’re all built differently and, of course, move in different ways,” says Runlab co-owner and Athletics Australia Accredited running coach Damon Bray.
For the non-Tarahumara-like among us, who don’t find running ‘natural’, it can be a fast-track to injury.
“Let’s take riding a bike as an example, some of us take to it quicker and easier than others,” says Bray. “The consequence of not riding a bike correctly is, well, you fall off or you hit something – an instant indication that your riding technique or the way you’re riding the bike is incorrect.”
With running, however, there is rarely such an instant indication and instead, people often push through niggles – after all, if it’s punishment, it’s not meant to feel good.
“The so-called ‘natural’ runners don’t seem to get as injured and they run more than anyone – perhaps they’re more flexible or perhaps they’re built differently,” Bray suggests. “Quite possibly they couldn’t ride a bike as well as someone that isn’t such a great runner – they may not be built to ride a bike.”
Although the best way to ride a bike – or move when we run – is different for different people.
“Running is good for everyone but not everyone is a good runner,” Bray says.
“There isn’t a perfect technique. For example, in about six weeks the Rio Olympics will be beamed into our lounge rooms and you’ll have the best of the best runners competing. No two runners will run exactly the same, think about it… and they’re the best runners on the planet – so how can we say there’s a single perfect technique – I don’t think we can.”
Adds Arnold: “Often signs of poor ‘form’ that are predictive of injury in one study are not replicated in others. It is also very hard to apply the results of these studies to the individual we see in front of us – they may not be displaying any of these proposed risk factors and end up getting injured regardless.”
While there is no single perfect technique, learning how to listen to our bodies and learn core principles can help us all become better runners, and maybe even rediscover the “sense of playfulness and joyfulness” that McDougall believes is at the roots of running (when we tap into our inner Tarahumara or Hiei monk, that is).
Damon Bray’s technique tips
- Firstly, relax the shoulders and smile.
- Stand tall to ensure the natural curvature of the spine. A straight back keeps the airways open, allowing breathing to remain easy and unrestricted. Imagine a rope is tied to the top of your head and it’s being pulled up toward the sky.
- Draw your shoulder blades back and in line with the spine. When your shoulders ‘roll in’ it can restrict breathing.
- Your hips and pelvis should be aligned – pretend your pelvis is full of water – you don’t want to tilt it in any direction causing the water to fall out – this will ensure everything from the hip down is supported.
- Aim to land your foot under you hip with each stride. If the foot is landing too far out in front with the shin at an angle, there will be high levels of ground reaction force slowing you down.
- Listening to your foot hitting the ground is a great indication of correct technique – the longer it spends on the ground, the more you’ll hear a ‘thump’. We are aiming to hear a tapping sound, which indicates a nice faster turnover and means our foot isn’t spending too much time hitting the ground, which will lead to injury.
- If you’re unsure seek out an expert There are running coaches and even specialty running shops where you can get advice and drills on how to become a better runner.
- Just like riding a bike, it takes time. Unlike riding a bike for the first time, there’s no such thing as special training shoes (or wheels). So be patient, running is good for everyone if you’re willing to learn to become a good (although not necessarily fast) runner.
John Arnold’s injury prevention tips
- First, ditch those crusty old running shoes. See a Podiatrist or specialty running shoe store who will be able to advise you on the best footwear for your requirements. If your stuck between two pairs, go for the ones that feel most comfortable.
- Second, start out slowly. Gradual increases in the amount of running you do are the best approach. If you are unsure where to start, seek advice from health professionals with a special interest in running (Exercise Physiologists, Physiotherapists) and get them to draw you up a graduated training program tailored for your specific needs.
- Third, mix up your training surface. Find your local park or oval and substitute some of your road or footpath training sessions for grass. Too much of the same is never a good thing, and this rings true for training surfaces, especially when you are building up your distance and number of sessions per week.
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