How to Run Light on Your Feet & Avoid Injury

July 31, 2017

Running is one of the best full-body aerobic exercises known to mankind, great for burning calories and working multiple muscle groups. Unfortunately, it also leads to common running injuries, such as shin splints, a stress fracture or a heel spur. The good news is there is new research out that may give runners a guide on how to run to avoid injury.

A new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in December looked at why some longtime runners sustain many injuries while others never experience any injury at all. This is major, since up to 90 percent of runners sustain injuries that lead them to miss training time every year, according to some estimates. (1)

Conducted by folks at Harvard Medical School and other universities, the study involved 249 experienced female runners who are all heel strikers, meaning they all strike the ground with their heels when they run. Participants completed questionnaires about injury history and ran on a track with force monitors in order to measure impact loads. The runners were then tracked for two years, with the volunteers using a running diary and injury log during the study time.

Over the two years, more than 140 runners reported sustaining injuries, more than 100 of those injuries requiring medical attention. The other 100 or so reported no injuries, but of greater note to the researchers, 21 also had not had a prior injury either. To determine why this was the case, they turned to impact loading data, comparing the pounding metrics for those who have never been injured to those who have been seriously injured.

Just as suspected, the runners who avoid injury land far more lightly on their feet than those who had been seriously hurt. (2)

How to Run Light on Your Feet

This is a huge breakthrough, since most runners are believed to heel strikers. Turns out, this running technique does lead to more injuries because heel striking leads to a higher impact load on the foot, leg and body than landing near the middle or front of the foot. (3)

In fact, a 2012 study conducted by the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise examined 52 runners, 36 of whom primarily used a rearfoot strike and 16 of whom primarily used a forefoot strike. Researchers found that “approximately 74 percent of runners experienced a moderate or severe injury each year, but those who habitually rearfoot strike had approximately twice the rate of repetitive stress injuries than individuals who habitually forefoot strike.” They ultimately concluded that “runners who habitually rearfoot strike have significantly higher rates of repetitive stress injury than those who mostly forefoot strike.” (4)

Another 2014 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy also found that rearfoot striking puts more pressure on the lower limbs, particularly the ankles, than forefoot striking. (5) So if you’re wondering how to run optimally to avoid injury, you want to focus on avoiding landing on your heel.

Those findings reinforce what was found in this more recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Dr. Irene Davis, the Harvard professor who led the study, said the findings also suggest that thinking about “a soft landing” can help. In addition, she provided some additional tips on how to run to avoid injury:

  • Experiment with landing closer to the midfoot if you’re a heel striker. Most runners naturally land more lightly when they don’t lead with the heel.
  • Slightly increase cadence — the number of steps you take per minute. This seems to reduce pounding from each stride.
  • Imagine you’re running on eggshells or attempting to “run on water,” so to speak, trying to remain light on your feet.

Davis’ Harvard colleague, professor Daniel E. Lieberman, has a few more tips on how to run properly as well: (6)

  • Don’t overstride. It places a big impact and shock wave that travels up your body. It also causes a deceleration of the body, so you have to work harder to keep your stride.
  • If you focus on forefoot striking too much, you may overstride and cause more stress. Conversely, as we’ve noted, heel striking is bad. So focus on a flat-foot, midfoot strike. A very pronounced forefront or rearfoot strike is bad.
  • Increase your stride rate. A high stride rate keeps your stride short and your bounce springy.
  • Upright posture is important. If you lean forward, it puts big angular torque on your upper body, causing your body to want to fall forward, putting more stress on your lower body.
  • Be relaxed. Don’t waste effort by tensing your upper body.

If you’re a newer runner and wondering how to run from the get-go to avoid injury, keep these running tips for beginners in mind as well, in addition to this new research:

  • Warm up.
  • Set a goal and run consistently.
  • Incorporate burst training.
  • Cross-train.
  • Get the right pre- and post-run fuel.
  • Choose the right shoes.
  • Watch out for surfaces.
  • Listen to your body.
  • Stretch.

Final Thoughts on How to Run Light on Your Feet

Changing your running style is not necessarily easy, but it can really have an impact — no pun intended — on your injury incidence. Most people are heel strikers when they run, but this is actually detrimental and leads to more injury. Numerous studies confirm this, noting that rearfoot strikers put more impact and strain on their limbs than midfoot or forefoot strikers.

Seeing as running injuries are so common and can interfere with exercise and training, it’s wise to focus on your running technique. Here are some tips on how to run with proper running technique by staying light on your feet to avoid injury:

  • Warm up.
  • Set a goal and run consistently.
  • Incorporate burst training.
  • Cross-train.
  • Get the right pre- and post-run fuel.
  • Choose the right shoes.
  • Watch out for surfaces.
  • Listen to your body.
  • Stretch.
  • Think about a soft landing.
  • Focus on landing closer to your midfoot.
  • Slightly increase your cadence and potentially shorten your stride.
  • Try imagining you’re running on eggshells or attempting to run on water to remain light on your feet.
  • Don’t overstride.
  • Land flat-footed or close to it.
  • Run with upright posture.
  • Be relaxed.

Read Next: How to Recover from Common Running Injuries

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