ST Run: Putting your best foot forward
Which is better? Hindfoot or midfoot running?
Anthropological and gait studies have long supported the notion of humans as efficient long-distance walkers with a hindfoot strike gait.
Over the same distance, walking is more efficient and less taxing than running, calorically speaking. Forefoot running may be faster but it is not as energy-efficient and less sustainable over longer distances.
On the other hand, hindfoot running has been suggested to be injurious as it involves greater ground reaction forces. Chi running or other variations that involve midfoot strike, have been associated with being more graceful, efficient and less likely to pose risks of harm or injury. However, midfoot runners are not immune to overuse running injuries like metatarsal stress fractures. Currently, there is no definitive evidence to support any foot strike as better for running.
Regardless of running style, there are a few running gait mistakes that have been commonly observed.
Overstriding occurs when your foot lands "too far" in front of your centre of mass, which tends to happen when one is trying to increase running speed.
Tips for a better gait
Here are some tips to tweak your running pattern if you think that the way you run may be causing you injuries:
- Increase your running cadence rather than striding out. Good runners have cadences in the higher ranges upwards of 180 cycles per minute
- Do not overstride: Your foot should land within your centre of mass, which will fall somewhere at your hips/pelvis.
- Keep a straight spine, but do not over extend. Keep your shoulders relaxed and chin in line. Do not hinge forward at the waist.
- Go with the flow: Allow your arms and trunk to rotate and counter-rotate, but not excessively.
- Run 'light': Lighten the impact on landing.
- Start slow and focus on the changes: When changing the way you run, give your mind and body time to adapt before picking up speed.
- An experienced runner friend or a running coach can be helpful in providing feedback on running gait. If you are still uncertain and your discomfort and pain persist, it is best to seek medical assistance from a sports physician or sports physiotherapist.
Overstriding puts the gluteal and hamstring muscles in a lengthened state on foot strike. Muscles are at their weakest when stretched to their extreme and as a result, they become less able to absorb shock when you overstride.
Overstriding can also result in heavier landing, as well as rapid, and/or, over-pronation. Heavier landings have been associated with lower limb stress fractures like shin splints and metatarsal stress fractures. Rapid and over-pronation are common contributing factors in running injuries such as patellofemoral pain syndrome, and iliotibial band friction syndrome.
POOR SPINAL POSTURE
Each of us has varying degrees of spinal curvature. The ideal posture when running would be to maintain one's natural spinal curve in a position which requires the least muscular effort to support. Runners with more pronounced upper-back curves, or forward head postures, can result in harder work for back muscles, which can lead to back ache and discomfort.
Poor posture has also been observed in hindfoot strike runners who are trying to adopt a midfoot strike. During the transition of running styles, they often end up making the mistake of leaning too far forwards, or slouching at the back or hip.
HIP EXTENSION ISSUES
Some runners run like they are 'sitting' down on stance phase. Others do not push back their legs to open up their strides enough. For some, it could be due to a flattened lower back or posteriorly rotated pelvis. For others, they might not know how to properly activate and use their gluteal muscles. While this may not directly result in injuries, runners end up wrongly compensating for the lack of gluteal strength by overstriding or excessive usage of calf muscle.
TOO MUCH BOUNCE
Some runners bounce when they run. Momentum is wasted when energy is lost through vertical displacement, and not translated into effective forward motion. It is a very inefficient way of running, although one might argue that it is better for weight loss as it consumes more calories. It also places more impact on joints and tendons, and can lead to overuse injuries like patellar and Achilles tendinopathies.
HOLDING ARMS/TRUNK TOO RIGID
Efficient running requires dampening at various joints, including pelvis, trunk and arms. By allowing pelvic and trunk rotations/de-rotations, as well as arm swings, vertical displacements (bouncing) can be minimised. Some run without much rotation, resulting in either excessive bouncing, or overly forceful landing. Overly stiff arms and trunk can also lead to soreness and aches in these areas due to over-activation of the muscles.
HABITS FROM OTHER SPORTS
Running is needed in other sports like football, hockey, rugby and baseball. In these instances, running would be very different and require changes in techniques and postures, e.g. running while bending over with hockey stick, or increased trunkal lean when running bases. These variations are necessary for sports-specific performance and, if practised over short bouts, do not pose any cause for concern. However, carrying over these sports-specific postures when running for prolonged periods could result in discomfort and, likely, injuries.
Sharon Lim is a sports physiotherapist at Moving Space. She has been the team physiotherapist with Team Singapore for competitions and overseas training trips and specialises in rehabilitation and prevention of sports-related injuries.