Whether you have been running for 1 week or every day for the past 25 years, you have probably already asked yourself two questions: What can I do to feel better? What can I do to get faster?
If you have been plagued by a foot, ankle, or leg injury, then you are probably really wondering how you can decrease pain without compromising all the hard work, strength training, and miles you have pounded into the pavement.
I am going to highlight common issues that I see, talk through some simple correctives, AND speak to what may need a little more than tweaking.
The first thing you want to assess is cadence or step rate. Runners should have a step rate of 170-180 steps/minute, and an argument was recently made in an article by Luedke et al. (2016) that minimal cadence should be 174 steps/minute or above. This is because overstriding, vertical excursion (bounce), decreased hip activation, and excessive ankle/foot motion are concerns when analyzing gait mechanics, and increasing cadence has been proven to decrease three of the four mechanical issues. Overstriding can cause stress fractures and joint stress pain, while excessive bounce leads to overuse of muscles and decreased efficiency.
Cadence does not only affect your risk of injury, it effects your performance as well. In an article by Quinn et al. (2019), increasing cadence improved running economy in female runners. The runners were divided into two groups, one group who trained at a cadence of 180 steps/minute for 15 minutes for 10 days and a second group who performed the same training run but without any change to step rate. What they found was the cadence training group increased their step rate by 7.5% and experienced decreased oxygen consumption and heart rate.
Garmin and Apple watches allow you to track your cadence on your runs, so assessing your step rate just became a lot easier. If you do not have a watch that calculates it, count your steps on one foot for one minute then multiply by two to find your cadence. If you find that you are not within 174-180 steps/minute, you will want to increase your cadence by 5% every 2 weeks until you reach your goal. The two weeks of training allows your system to adjust and a higher level of efficiency. If you have a cadence of 174 or higher then check this box and let’s take a closer look at the hips and ankles.
Since running is a series of switching weight from one leg to the other, it is very important that the muscles used to stabilize your leg when all of your weight is on it are activating correctly. Notice I did not say it is very important that they are strong. The main job of the gluteal muscles is to stabilize your leg, so they need to be able to turn on prior to your foot making contact with the ground and STAY ON to keep you stable while your weight is on that leg.
One of your great toe muscles also contributes significantly to arch and foot stability as well as lower leg rotation. Excessive motion of the midfoot joint and decreased arch support, impaired rotation of the lower leg or impaired rotation of the hip are all issues that can have direct effects on foot and ankle position. Because the foot, ankle, knee, and hip makes a chain, these areas require further assessment to determine where the source of pain or injury originated.
To recap, if you have noticed yourself landing loudly when your foot strikes the ground or that the horizon that you are viewing moves up and down significantly, you can try to increase your step rate to improve your mechanics. If you have noticed an increase in ankle, knee or hip pain, then you should seek help to further investigate the issues that may be causing this.
Quinn, TJ, Dempsey, SL, LaRoche, DP, Mackenzie, AM, and Cook, SB. Step frequency training improves running economy in well-trained female runners. J Strength Cond Res XX(X): 000–000, 2019
Luedke, LE, Heiderscheit, BC, Williams, DSB, and Rauh, MJ. Influence of Step Rate on Shin Injury and Anterior
Knee Pain in High School Runners. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 48, No. 7, pp. 1244–1250, 2016.