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Smart Strides: The Total Guide to Running Safely

So you want to go for a run, huh?

Shouldn’t be too complicated.

You wake up in the morning ready for your regular routine, or motivated by that 2 am fast food expedition last night to start a new one. Climb out of bed, eat a healthy breakfast, get hydrated, psyche yourself up by blasting the latest club bangers through your headphones while you stretch out your legs. Eventually you make your way to the bedroom and pull out your workout gear: shirt, shorts, iPod, headphones, shoes. Old shoes, typically, because who wants to mess up a brand new pair of kicks exercising?

Wait a minute. Sit down, relax. Let’s talk.

While running might seem like a natural function of being human and having legs--partly why it’s widely considered the cheapest and easiest form of cardio--there’s a lot more to it, especially if you’re aiming towards long term goals.

Sure it seems elementary: strap on some shoes, go outside, run, hit the showers. But what many people don’t realize is the heightened risk of injury present when they don’t approach the activity properly.

There are two things runners--whether beginning or advanced--have to consider when it comes to training: their technique, and their shoes.

Ignore either of these issues and you might be cutting your future as a runner short.

So let’s discuss the proper way to train, starting with technique.

Run How Nature Intended

Everybody runs differently, because everybody’s feet are different. Which is why there’s no single right way to approach running. Rather, it’s all dependent on the runner and his or her personal goals.

However, one of the universal and overarching themes when it comes to adopting a safe running technique is Natural Running.

Natural Running is based off the notion that runners should feel like they’re barefoot when they’re training, even when they have shoes on. Shoes are necessary to protect your feet from man-made materials like asphalt, concrete, and sharp objects that can cause injuries. However, shoes shouldn’t impede your ability to run naturally.

So what is Natural Running?

To explain, let’s consult a few experts in the field on four different facets.

Posture

One of the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to running is how you support your back. Back problems can be a very painful and expensive-to-treat result of running poorly. A few things to consider about posture:

  • Stand tall: When you stand tall, you run tall, which puts less pressure on your back and helps to alleviate problems that can arise from excessive pounding on your spine.
  • Feet straight ahead: According to Bob Roncker of Bob Roncker’s Running Spot, “You want your feet to come down underneath you with your toes and feet pointing straight forward. If your foot lands in front of the COG (Center of Gravity), you are likely over-striding—adding a force in the opposite direction—which means that you are slamming on the brakes 1000 times each mile. That equates to more stress on the legs and joints.”
  • Knees Soft (not locked): Locking your knees creates unnecessary stress which can lead to injuries and long-term damage to the joint.
  • Relax your arms at your sides at a 90 degree angle: Jenny Sugar from FitSugar claims your arm position and motion plays a significant role in training. “Your arms shouldn't move across your body when you run: it uses up energy, tires your muscles, and actually prevents your body from propelling forward. To increase your speed and endurance, focus on swaying your arms forward and back, keeping your elbows at 90-degree angles.”
  • Use compact arm swings: Keeping your arms tight at your sides with a small swinging motion and a 90 degree bend in your elbow balances your body as you run while also helping you keep to the rhythm you set.
  • Relax shoulders: Uta Pippig and Scott Douglas writing for TaketheMagicStep.com say “It is helpful to run with a free and positive mindset. Tension in your upper body and in your face can often result in a stiffer movement of your arms, shoulders and legs, and you will feel tired more easily. Focus on your surroundings, enjoy the nature around you and the fresh air on your face.”
  • Avoid crossing the body center line: keeping everything aligned has a lot to do with keeping your balance and following all the other tips for running. Visualize an imaginary line down the center of your body and don’t let your feet, arms, or shoulders cross over to the other side.
  • Lead with your chest: NASM-certified personal trainer, ultra-marathoner, and founder of WorkWell Life Balance Solutions Marcey Rader tells runners to “Imagine there’s a string tied to your sternum that pulls you forward as you run. In this position, you’ll avoid rounding your shoulders and hunching over, which makes it much harder to breath properly and puts extra stress on the neck.”
  • Push your hips forward: Try to keep your bottom from sticking out behind you, rolling your hips beneath you to improve your knee motion during your stride.

Foot Landing

How your foot lands when you run says a lot about your stride, how fast you run, and whether or not you’re prone to injuries. Here are some tips on improving your stride:

  • Your entire foot should land beneath and in-line with your hip, with your knees bent to relieve pressure.
  • Try to keep your feet moving lightly and quickly. Focus on getting your feet down and back up as fast as possible while keeping proper form.
  • The ball of your feet should touch the ground first; as Trisha Reeves of Active.com states “Your heel should still touch the ground briefly. However, it should not carry a large weight load. Most of your weight should be directly above your mid-foot. As soon as your heel makes contact, your arch and lower leg muscles can gather the spring they need to move your body forward. This way you can land much more lightly and bounce out of each stride rather than pound the ground.”

Lean

Leaning in a certain direction when you run is natural. How you lean, though, can be the difference between an efficient and inefficient workout. Here are some tips:

  • Gravity is your friend, use it to keep you moving forward at a steady pace.
  • Focus on leaning forward at your ankles, and don't bend your body at the waist when you do: Claude Eksteen of Go Multi Magazine says that “By leaning forward from the waist the resultant hip angle is reduced, inhibiting your full range of motion and preventing you from driving your knee up during the swing phase of your gait. The greater the forward lean, the greater the negative impact.”
  • Lean forward properly and the only thing you'll have to concentrate on is your foot turnover rate and making sure it lands properly, instead of how you're pushing off.

Cadence

A huge part of effective running has to do with rhythm. Your running cadence--especially for long distance running--can greatly affect your time and energy during a workout. Some tips on how to discover your own cadence:

  • Target 180: Jonathan Ide-Don, PT, DPT, OCS, works at California Pacific Medical Center’s Outpatient Physical Therapy and Sports Wellness Center. According to Ide-Don, “There appears to be a general consensus that a minimum of 170 to 180 steps per minute is a good cadence to shoot for.  Pose running teaches at least 180 steps per minute, but faster if the athlete is able to perform the proper technique.”
  • When your feet move quickly, you have a more efficient run while also reducing the impact of the ground on your body.
  • Your cadence should be the same whether you are jogging or running; it's all about foot turnover.
  • Important: Do not land in front of your body. This causes sudden stoppage that can negatively impact your joints.

With all this information concerning the right ways to run, you might think that’s all you need to attack the streets marathon-style. But running safely isn’t solely dependent on how you run, but also what you run on.

Get the Right Gear

Those old Nikes in your closet that have been sitting there for the past five years? The ones that you’ve worn so much the tread is completely gone, the bottom as smooth as glass? The ones that you’re about to put on for your morning jog?

Don’t do it.

Contrary to popular belief, running is not something you should undertake with any old pair of sneakers lying around your house.

“Worn-out or ill-fitting shoes are a leading cause of injury. And wear and tear are not always apparent to the naked eye,” says Jennifer Van Allen of Runner’s World. “If you want to stay healthy, fit, and injury-free, invest in a good pair of running shoes.”

Such is the unanimous advice from countless running experts across the world: what you wear on your feet is of utmost important. Running shoes need to fit each individual’s feet and need to be specially-made for the specific purpose of running. Which means two things for the beginning runner: figure out what type of foot you have, then find the right running shoe to fit it.

Your Feet

What shoe size are you?

Simple enough question, right? Walking into a shoe store, it’s almost an afterthought; you just walk to the section with the number corresponding to your feet, pick up a pair of shoes and purchase them.

However, finding the right pair of running shoes requires a little more research.

While figuring out what type of foot you have is a matter of measurement, it’s not simply about measuring your foot size. You also need to measure your foot’s shape and the size of its arch.

“Get to know your arch," says exercise physiologist Dr. Jesse Pittsley, Director of Exercise Science at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. "If a person has really flat feet, they're going to need more of a stability shoe, but with a higher arch, they'll need more of a curved shoe."

Knowing the arch of your feet can help you figure out whether you pronate (roll to the inside of the foot with each step), supinate (roll to the outside of the foot) or remain pretty neutral when you run, which can be crucial to figuring out which shoe to buy. One way of figuring this out is called the “wet test”, a simple task that can determine whether you have a high or low arch:

  1. Pour a thin layer of water into a shallow pan.
  2. Wet the sole of your foot by stepping in the pan.
  3. Step onto a shopping bag or a blank piece of heavy paper.
  4. Step off and look down.

What you’ll see is one of three results: half the arch of your foot, the whole arch of your foot, or just the heel, which corresponds to a normal (medium) arch, a flat (low) arch, or a high arch, respectively. This can help greatly with not just what style of shoe you purchase, but what size.

“You may think you know your size,” says Van Allen. “But it’s best to get your feet measured each time you buy new shoes. Your feet change over time, and one model’s fit can be drastically different from another’s.”

What time of day you do the measurements of your feet is significant as well.

“You also want to have your feet measured later in the day, when they’re at their biggest,” says Van Allen. “Many people end up getting a running shoe that’s a half size larger than their street shoes. The extra room allows your foot to flex and your toes to move forward with each stride.”

In fact, feet change as we age, according to former Olympic runner Julie Isphording.

"As adults we rarely have our foot measured because we just assume we know our size," says Isphording. “Feet swell during the day. They also swell during a run, so trying on running shoes when your feet are at their largest is going to give you the most comfortable fit.”

Figuring out the shape of your feet as well as your running shoe size are the most important points when it comes to buying a shoe with a comfortable fit. Size and style is also dependent on the brand you buy; your shoe size at Steve Madden will probably be different than your shoe size with, say, a Salming Running shoe.

What it essentially comes down to is comfort and flexibility.

“Even if you find out you are a pronator with flat feet and weak ankles,” says Pittsley. “You may not necessarily want to buy the stiffest, bulkiest -- what people in the industry call the "motion control" -- shoe.

"The human body was made to move. If the shoe is too bulky, it almost causes the shoe to compensate for your weaknesses. A person should be able to control his own ankles and should be able to control the shock (the natural occurrence of the foot hitting the surface) a little.”

All these points are crucial when shopping for the perfect running shoe, which is one reason why companies like Salming have taken steps to inform customers about the many factors that come into play when choosing the right shoe, a list that they’ve dubbed the “Salming Rule of Five”.

Salming Rule of Five

If there’s a lot that goes into choosing a good running shoe, there’s doubly more that goes into making one. Which is why Salming--a leader in professional running gear--created its list of five rules that apply to all their products.

  1. Light: The weight of the shoe should be significantly reduced. By doing so, running efficiency is improved approximately 3-4% per 100 grams. Having a light running shoe can cut minutes away from your running time, which can come in handy when you’re tackling that half marathon.
  2. Flexible: Having a flexible shoe mimics barefoot running. It also strengthens biological structures with a very flexible forefoot.
  3. Flat: A low heel to toe drop facilitates a correct foot landing and keeps you balanced with gravity.
  4. Thin: Thin shoes improve sensory feedback from the feet to the brain (Proprioception). it also makes use of your body’s natural cushioning system.
  5. Comfortable: Good running shoes sport an anatomic fit, breathable upper level and a roomy toe box.

On top of this Rule of Five, Salming also differentiates between their shoes based on the runner’s goals, categorizing their products by purpose, as follows:

  • Distance: Built to last, these shoes are Salming’s most durable, meant for long distance running.
  • Speed: Built for speed, these are lighter and more flexible than the other lines of shoes, made to run on a variety of surfaces.
  • Race: Built for racing, these are fast, light, and responsive for the more demanding runner.
  • Xplore: A versatile barefoot style running shoe, these carry great Cross-fit characteristics while also being extremely flexible, breathable, and lightweight.

With such variety, companies like Salming--distributed in North America exclusively by Clutch Sports Company--stay on top of their industry by offering runners a wide array of options to choose from.

Buy Smart, Not Cheap

Van Allen urges readers of her running blog to be mindful of a few things, namely that running shoes aren’t meant to be cheaply constructed, or priced.

“Don't skimp,” she says. “It may feel like a lot to spend up to $120 on a pair of running shoes, but the investment is worth it.”

Experts also agree that a shoe’s odometer is just as important as the type of shoe you buy. Rotating out old running shoes can be the difference between staying injury-free and finding yourself in an inconvenient position. It’s recommended that you replace your shoes every 300 to 500 miles. Keeping a running log and tracking your daily mileage can go a long way in helping you with this.

Coupled with the research involved, the purchase of running shoes is an integral part of your routine. And the task can become even more complicated by the sheer amount of brands and sales tactics out there.

“Don’t be a trendsetter,” Van Allen says. “There is a dizzying array of shoes to choose from, and it can be tempting to be wooed by a bargain-basement price, shoes that “look fast,” or a promise to cure an injury or help you lose weight.

“There is no one best shoe for anyone,” Van Allen concludes. “There is only one shoe that offers your feet the unique support and fit you need.”

Bottom line: running can be a fun and efficient form of exercise, but it should be approached smartly. Make sure you pratice the proper techniques to avoid injuries, as well as equipping your feet with the right gear.

“Consider this,” Van Allen adds. “Whatever your new shoes cost, it is likely less than the money and time you’d spend seeing the doctor because you got hurt.”

Let’s go ahead and run with that.