Instead of using the band-aid method to fix an injury, find the root of the problem. It will prevent future setbacks.
For most runners, the onset of an injury is immediately followed by frantic icing, stretching, massage, popping some NSAIDs, and a likely massage. While we could argue the merits and potential pitfalls of each, the real issue is that we immediately focus on eliminating the specific pain, inflammation or tightness. This makes sense since the faster the pain goes away, the sooner we can get back to running.
Many runners end the injury and recovery process at this point. Once they’ve mitigated the problem, they return to training and hope the issue doesn’t pop up again. However, some of the more experienced and savvy runners know the injury process isn’t finished yet. They’ll begin to look at why they felt a specific pain. Were their calves tight, which resulted in a tug on the Achilles? Did a tight hip cause that IT band pain? Once they’ve identified potential issues, they’ll work diligently to fix and ensure that their calves never get tight again.
This is typically where the injury and rehab process ends. For recurring and stubborn injuries, runners will continue to focus on strengthening the specific area and keeping the muscles loose and pliable. But, as many of us injured runners know, this doesn’t always work. If I had a nickel for every eccentric calf raise I did to strengthen my Achilles, I’d be writing this from the Bahamas. Yet, Achilles issues remained the bane of my running existence no matter how hard I tried.
So, what is the solution?
If you’re someone who is plagued by a stubborn and recurring running injury, I think there is another level we can take our rehab to. One that 99 percent of runners either don’t consider or can’t connect how it might relate. Looking at our running form.
Drilling Down By Looking At Running Form
The body is an interconnected chain. This is what makes diagnosing the underlying cause of many running injuries difficult. It’s hard to imagine how sitting in a chair all day can somehow increase the chances of injuring your Achilles. But it can, and it does.
While it can be extremely complicated, the most important thing to remember when trying to understand how the body, brain and muscles work together is that your body will always compensate to get the job done. Meaning, if your glute muscle is inhibited and not firing correctly, your leg won’t simply stop working. Instead, your brain tells your muscles, “Hey, this glute isn’t getting the job done, let’s fire the calves more forcefully to make up for the lack of power.” This “rerouting” occurs unconsciously and often you’ll never even realize it occurs.
When this happens occasionally, it’s not a major issue and we should appreciate how amazingly our body adapts. I certainly wouldn’t want my leg to lock up in the middle of a run simply because my glutes got tired or inhibited.
However, this becomes a problem when it occurs every run. This is when the body makes long-term compensations that continually place additional stress on other muscle groups not designed to handle the extra workload.
When Bad Form Results In Injury
Calf, Achilles and plantar fascia issues
Again, let’s use the glutes as an example. We know the glutes are one of the strongest muscle groups in our body. More importantly, research shows that they generate a majority of power during the stride — being active at strong levels at the end of swing phase, during the first third of stance, near the time of footstrike, and to aid in contraction of the hamstrings.
When the glutes are not activating, which is often the result of poor running form, this power needs to be generated elsewhere. So, the body shifts the work to a muscle like the calves. The problem is that the calf is not nearly as strong or fatigue-resistant as the glutes, and the added stress is more than the muscle can handle. The result is calf strains, Achilles issues, and even plantar problems.
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Shin Splints And Stress Fractures
There aren’t many aspects of running form that all experts agree on (part of what makes it so difficult to teach), but there is one element that no biomechanist believes is good — over-striding.
Over-striding occurs when your foot lands too far out in front of your hips or center of mass, typically with a more straightened leg. It doesn’t matter if you hit the ground with your forefoot, mid foot, or heel — if you over-stride, your impact-loading rate is going to increase dramatically. This adds a significant amount of stress to the muscles, ligaments and bones in the lower leg.
When most runners develop shin splints, they immediately ice the shin and begin to strengthen the muscles in the surrounding area. This is helpful, but if you don’t first fix the potential issue of over-striding, your shin splints are going to come back no matter how strong your shin and calf muscles are.
Runner’s Knee And IT Band Injuries
During the “stance” phase of the stride, the body is supported by only one leg. So, when your right leg is planted, it means your entire left side is “cantilevered” over your left hip. If the right hip muscles aren’t firing correctly (either because of weakness or just bad neural patterns), the pelvis and upper body will tilt downwards on the left side. This is what running coaches would call “excessive hip drop.”
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We know from numerous studies that this hip drop, or excessive adduction and internal rotation, results in increased stress on the knees.
So, while you may be massaging your IT band to get it supple and strengthening the quads to help support the knee, your IT band or runner’s knee issues will continue until you’re able to fix your hip drop.
These are just a few examples of how minor flaws in your form could potentially result in injuries far down the kinetic chain. If you suffer from recurring injuries or have issues you just can’t seem to shake no matter how much stretching and strength work you do, consider taking a deeper look at your running form and how your injury might be connected.