Why You Need To Be Fit To Run

Why You Need to Be “Fit to Run” Before Running to Get Fit

Chances are one of your New Year’s goals is to improve your fitness.  Most people either want to lose that stubborn belly fat, improve their energy, be more productive, or sleep better.  These are all side benefits (or side effects if you prefer) of exercise.

Disproportionally, more people will take up running as a means to get fit more than any other form of exercise.  It’s cheap, you can do it anywhere, it feels hard enough that by the end a sense of accomplishment swells over you, and the results are fast. 

Sounds like the perfect solution to the 20 lbs you said you would lose last January.  Combined with cutting carbs and getting into ketosis, what could go wrong…

The Facts

As it turns out, approximately 80% of runners sustain injury every year.  For any given sport that is quite a high number!  That means 8 out of every 10 runners will have an injury in 2019 that keeps them from doing what they love.

The runners who are most likely to sustain injury are novices.  Those runners who are new to running or just dabbling in the sport are more susceptible to overuse and strain related injuries such as shin splints, tendonitis, and patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee).

Why Do New Runners Get Injured?

To answer these questions let’s look a little closer at running itself.  To run a mile, you take between 1500-1600 steps and the force applied to every step is anywhere between 2-3x your body weight!  So, if you are a 150lb runner, you are having to control 300-450 lbs of force every single step of every single mile you run!

Running is also a highly skilled sport.  It is a single leg sport since at no point are 2 feet ever on the ground at the same time.  Most of our daily lives are spent on two feet and, if you are doing any weight training, you are most likely doing double leg squats and lunges.  It is rare to find any runner doing single leg strength training in the gym even though running is a single leg action.

So, if running is a repetitive highly skilled sport…and a great deal of forces are encountered on every run…can you begin to imagine how a novice runner might have difficulty?

Elite and seasoned runners have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of trials and practice movements in the running form.  They have spent years at the track, on the trail, and on the roads improving their endurance, efficiency, and running form.  This doesn’t make them immune to running injuries, it just gives them a slight edge over runners new to the sport.

What Is the Cause of So Many Running Related Injuries?

Running injuries come in many forms and intensities which makes it impossible to lay the blame on one culprit.  There are however a few “heavy hitters” that account for most running problems.

#1. Impact Forces

A lack of shock absorption is one major cause of running injuries, especially in new runners.  Since 2-3x your body weight is being applied to every step in running it’s easy to see why a lack of shock absorption can causes issues.  Just like a car with poor shocks, when your body has poor “shocks” something will be overused.

Poor shock absorption will look something like the first photo on the left in this picture…

Knee Angle (Shock Absorption)
Figure 1: Impact forces decreased from 1510N of force to 920N of force with improved knee bend and ankle angle after strength training, running form training, and real-time running force feedback on specialized treadmill at Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy in San Jose, CA.

A straight knee at first contact, over-stride, and high ankle angle can all contribute to high forces being applied to the ankle, knee, hip, and lower back.  This is commonly seen in novice runners when they try to increase their mileage too quickly and their muscle strength and body control aren’t prepared for the workload.

#2. Poor Alignment

Another common cause of running injuries is poor alignment between the pelvis, hips, knees, and ankles. 

Since 50% of all running injuries happen at the knees we will focus there for now.

You can think of your knees as hinges that bend forward and backwards.  They do not like to bend sideways or rotate.  Runner’s knee, ITB pain, meniscus injuries, and hip bursitis can all be linked to poor alignment of the hip and knee during running. 

Poor alignment has been demonstrated more in females than males; however, it can happen to any runner.  The amount of single leg movement practice you do will directly impact your ability to control the alignment of your legs.

Here is an example of “normal” leg alignment and “abnormal” leg alignment in two different runners…

Poor Alignment

The picture on the left shows inward rotation of the thigh and a drop of the pelvis which the picture on the right shows a level pelvis and controlled knee during loading.

The better alignment you can achieve in your pelvis and leg while running, the less strain your tissues will endure and the faster you will be able to run.

#3. Decreased Strength

I bet the thought of strength training makes you think of large gym weights, smelly gym mats, and scary barbells…

If your scared of strength training it’s OK, since nearly every one of the hundreds of runners I have worked with all feel the same thing!  Most runners believe that strength training is a “optional” addition to running.

A substantial amount of running research, both in regards to injury prevention and performance, would argue that strength training is an essential component to running.  In order to absorb 2-3x your body weight you need some serious strength!

It’s now standard practice for elite runners to weight lift using very heavy weights.  To build strength you need to lift more than your body weight. To make substantial strength gains, you need to lift close to your maximum capacity to stimulate the muscle fibers and hormones that build stronger muscles.  This means doing 2-3 sets of 2-4 repetitions only with lifts like deadlifts and squats. 

Lifting weights for strength is way different than body building which focusses on size.  By doing heavy weight and low reps you will gain strength without getting bulky and slow.  You will be more protected against injury and will have the foundation to increase your speed or tackle hills with confidence.

Fit to Run

As you can see being “fit” is needed before seriously increasing running miles or starting a training plan.  Having the needed strength, alignment, shock absorption, and running form practice can keep you from getting injured and greatly improve your ability to reach your 2019 running goals.

Time and time again, I have seen both novice and seasoned runners eagerly start a running program only to be sidelined shortly after starting due to injury.  Running is such an amazing sport that can do wonders for your health, well-being, stress, and physique.  I want you to be able to run to your heart’s content without burden of pain or injury.

Running itself is NOT bad for you despite what your doctor and others might say.  Running distance does NOT cause arthritis or “kill your knees”.  Yes, the injury rates in running are high but only because the upfront practice and training is not being done.  People are trying to run to get fit instead of being fit to run.

Actionable Steps

Here’s what you can do to make 2019 the BEST running year of your life.

  1. Find a running gait specialist in your area that can perform a comprehensive running analysis.
  2. Ask a running gait specialist to write up a “periodized” strength and conditioning plan that is running specific (ideally 8-12 weeks long)
  3. Commit to strength training at least 2 days per week
  4. Progress your weekly running volume slowly, about 10-15% per week, to avoid strain and overuse injuries
  5. Practice, practice, practice your running form. Ask a running gait specialist to teach you running form drills that you can do during your track speed or tempo workouts.  All athletes need practice…runners included

The key here is developing a baseline to work from.  The gait analysis is key to understanding what parts of your running form you can improve upon and to create the strength plan to address any limitations in alignment or shock absorption.

Here’s to your 2019 running goals and to being “fit to run”!

If you are in the local Bay Area of California, near San Jose, give us a call at Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy.  We offer a 3D running gait analysis, running specific strength training, and real-time running form training on our specialized treadmill.

We have the only Couch To 5k training program that combines real running form data, biomechanical running form training, and strengthening into a 12 week progressive program.  You can join other runners at every visit for support and encouragement as you tackle your big goal.  We want you to start your running career strong, so that when you “catch the running bug” after your first race, you will be set up for a lifetime of pain-free efficient running.

Click the link here to learn more: https://competitive-edge-physical-therapy.lpages.co/couch-5k/


Give us a call at 408-784-7167 or email admin@compedgept.com for more information.

By Dr. Kevin Vandi DPT OCS CSCS

Dr. Vandi is the founder of Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy — with his background in physical therapy, orthopedics, and biomechanics, he is a highly educated, compassionate specialist. Using state-of-the-art motion analysis technology and data-driven methodologies, Kevin has assisted a wide range of clients, from post-surgery patients to youth and professional athletes. When he isn’t busy working or reading research, he spends his time with his wife Chrissy and their five wonderful children, often enjoying the outdoors and staying committed to an active lifestyle.

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