Running builds runners
By Sarah Barkley
One of the questions I’m often asked regarding running form is this: Do beginning runners need to work on technique, or will a gradual increase in running naturally allow a new runner to develop their own style?
As with most things in the health and fitness industry, the answer at either extreme is invariably the wrong answer. I’m not going to argue that new
runners should be solely focused on achieving their own optimal form, before looking to progress on distance and pace. I’d rather see technique evolve with the runner consistently. However, to say that running is all about ‘getting the miles in’ is naive. Looking at the available injury rate data amongst runners, many of us get injured to one degree or another every year – the injury usually due to overuse.
Running is hard on the body, no way around it.
As an example of how technique awareness can help, we know that the knee is an area that often gets injured in runners. There are many potential causes. But research also tells us that if we gradually increase cadence for a given pace, the stress on our knee joints is actually reduced.
The skill of running
You may have heard of the term, a highly skilled runner, which describes an athlete who has the capacity to keep control of technique almost subconsciously at any given pace, incline, decline, and surface. When starting out, most of us are far from skilful in our running. Some may have an inherent untapped running ability, but even so, the vast majority of new runners are fundamentally unskilled and run with no concept of how well key areas of their body are moving, and the loading we subject ourselves to.
Efficiency is less of a concern with new runners since they are generally already on an upwards curve in terms of becoming more efficient as runners with their fitness improving. Injury prevention is a much more significant concern.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard inspired new runners fall out of love with our sport due to the pain and frustration caused by injury. Some associate running with pain and discomfort.
Anything we can do to help a new runner learn to run in a fashion less taxing on their knees, back and shins — the list goes on — the better.
Consider this perspective
If you’re a coach, would you take a new swimmer and gradually increase their training regardless of a clear technique flaw, a flaw that compromises the shoulder joint, rotator cuff muscles, or another area? I hope not. I’d hope that you give the swimmer some technical pointers, drills and cues to consider as they perform your sessions, to help ensure that the shoulder isn’t overloaded as training load increases.
The same can be said for tennis — a good serving technique is crucial in avoiding injury over time.
Why do I choose these two sports in particular as examples? Much like runners, swimmers and tennis players perform the same repetitive movement patterns. If any movement pattern is habitually flawed, creating stress or strain on certain tissue or joint, injury usually ensues after a certain training load is reached.
So where does that leave beginner runners?
We’re all different. Generally, any new runner should begin gently in terms of intensity, run frequently to build consistency without overloading the system with too much volume, too soon. I would not advocate running every day for new runners. But I do agree that consistency of training is vital.
Consistency helps build running specific resilience and strength, which should be supplemented with regular cross-training, and strengthening, stability and mobility work.
On top of this, an improved awareness of technique basics such as posture, cadence and upper body carriage can go a long way to helping a beginning runner achieve success.
Sarah Barkley is a pro triathlete and coach at SET Coaching of Wenatchee. To reach Sarah, email her at email@example.com.