There’s a perception that running pounds the body, and that this impact is what leads to up to half of all runners getting hurt every year. But scientific evidence collected from one of the world’s leading biomechanists and sports-shoe researchers, Benno Nigg, Ph.D. , of the University of Calgary, indicates that it’s not the impact itself that forces so many to temporarily hang up their sneakers. It’s how your muscles respond to that impact.
Consider that for every step you take during a run—about 150 to 170 per minute on average—your body’s “internal active forces” (the sum of all your muscles contracting and expanding) are far greater than the force of the impact your body feels from striking the ground. How much greater? Nigg says those internal forces are 500 percent more powerful.
But Nigg also says that, for the most part, those forces fall within an “acceptable range.” They aren’t a problem unless they overload a particular structure. For example, your calves may work extra hard during an activity if your ankles are weak.
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One way to think of it is to imagine your body is a car. There’s a strong, durable frame (your bones) supported by shock absorbers (your muscles, tendons and ligaments). If everything is working together, you can cover mile after mile without any problems. But if a shock fails, your car will rattle with every bump or pothole you hit. If this goes on long enough, you can seriously damage the vehicle, and may ultimately need to put it in park til it’s fixed.
If you want to keep your “car” running, test if your shock absorbers are working. Johnny Gillespie, a movement teacher and developer of the Balanced Athlete method, recommends doing a few small jumps up and down.
“If it hurts when I jump up and down, and I can’t do it,” Gillespie says, “that tells me that the springs in my feet don’t really work. When I’m running, then, all of those muscles aren’t doing their jobs. They’re basically just along for the ride.”
If your shock absorbers are out to lunch, Gillespie says you can get your body back into working order with a short maintenance routine consisting of a few simple moves. Perform the following six yoga-inspired exercises before your next run, aiming to hold each pose for 30 seconds unless otherwise marked. Doing them in front of a mirror will allow you to notice important form pointers, so you can make any necessary adjustments. With practice, you should notice that you’re able to run taller, breathe freer, and run more efficiently.
When your toes are pointing downward and your heels are up, the action is called plantar flexion. While you’d think that runners would be pretty good at this motion—after all, a runner’s foot does this on every step during a run—Gillespie says that many struggle with it for a simple reason.
“When we run we plantar flex, but not to the degree you need to keep the ankle and other muscles below the knee strong enough to maintain structural integrity,” Gillespie says. “In many ways, the foot is almost relaxed when running, so you don’t wind up working through the full range of motion for those muscles.”
That’s bad news because even a little weakness below the knee can make your entire system less efficient. A recent study of 26 people found that when people had weaker ankles, other bigger muscles in their lower legs had to work harder to compensate.
Do the move: Stand barefoot with your feet shoulder-width apart. Come up to your tiptoes, then back down. Repeat the up and down motion a few times until you feel stable at the top of the movement (when your heels are farthest from the ground), and then try to hold for 30 seconds.
Watch out for: Your feet rolling to the outside, which is common among people with high arches. Try not cave inward or roll outward. Instead aim to carry your weight evenly across your feet—just like you would if you were coming up onto the balls of your feet in a Chair Pose.
“People have this idea that impact is bad,” Gillespie says. “But in fact, without impact our bones get brittle. Our bones respond to impact by maintaining their strength.” Nigg agrees with Gillespie, who continues, “The problem is we need to learn how to handle impact. What you’re doing with this move is starting to learn how to absorb shock.”
Another point here is to work through the opposite of plantar flexion—the heel-down, toes-up action called dorsiflexion. This builds muscles in the feet and ankles that Gillespie likens to springs that both absorb shock and propel you forward. “If you allow your ankle to dorsiflex, it’s almost as if you’re allowing the springs in the lower part of your body to send energy back up the structure, and as a result run way more efficiently.”
Do the move: Stand barefoot with your feet shoulder-width apart. Jump up and down gently. When you land, allow your heels to gently touch the ground. This may not feel natural at first since many people try to run solely on the balls of their feet so their heels don’t feel the impact. Make sure your heels land softly with each hop, performing up to 10 total.
Watch out for: Your knees caving inward and knocking together—a big no-no. Also, Gillespie emphasizes that your landing from these jumps should be gentle, as if your heels want to give the ground a light kiss.
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The Downhill Skier
Here the goal is to work on hinging the three major joints involved in running—the hips, knees and ankles—all at once. You’re teaching them to move in sync. “What you’re doing is getting those hinge joints to not only start mobilizing but stabilizing as they’re staying in line with one another,” Gillespie says. “It’s very linear, but running is a very linear activity.”
Do the move: Stand with your feet parallel and hip-width apart, and your toes pointing straight ahead. Bend at the knees while hinging backward at your hips, lowering your torso as far downward as you can while keeping your spine upright. Keep your knees in line with your toes, and hold the position.
Watch out for: Check to see that your knees are tracking with your toes and not collapsing inward on one side or the other.
T-Pose with Arm Series
“After people do this one, they find that their whole upper spine feels extended,” Gillespie says. “They feel taller, their posture is better, and they can breathe deeper.”
Do the move: Bring your feet together and stand up straight. Straighten and lift your arms to the sides with your palms down, so that your body forms a “T.” Hold that position for 30 seconds up to a minute, stopping if you feel any numbness or tingling in your arms. (Gillespie says a lot of people find this position surprisingly difficult.)
If you’re still feeling good after that time, turn your palms upward. Changing the position of your hands from facing downward to upward should help you differentiate between the muscles in your upper arm and your lower arm. Continue to hold. Now spread your fingers and keep holding. Notice how each adjustment changes the sensation in your body. You might find yourself feeling a bit taller, with your collarbones a bit broader. If at any point you experience a sensation akin to pain, release your arms downward.
Watch out for: Movement anywhere other than from your elbows downward during each adjustment in the series. When you rotate your hands, the whole motion should be contained within your lower arms. The rest of your body should be stable.
“Whenever I give a presentation to a group of people, I ask them to lift one leg and just stand there,” Gillespie says. “The number of people who can’t just balance on one leg is absolutely catastrophic.”
While that might sound dramatic, consider that one of the leading killers of people aged 65 and older is falling. More than 2.5 million people wind up in emergency rooms every year due to falls, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a large number of these falls are simply due to lower body weakness or poor balance. To Gillespie, being unable to stand on one leg is a glimpse into this unfortunate future.
In regards to running, all of the weight of your body plus the impact forces of the ground must be supported by a single leg. How roadworthy is that leg if it can’t even keep your bodyweight stable for half of a minute?
Do the move: Lift one leg off the ground and elevate it until your knee reaches hip height. Now just stand there, balancing on one leg, aiming for 30 seconds, working your way up to a minute. Then lower the leg and repeat on the other side.
Watch out for: Your knee drifting downward. Try to keep it elevated enough so that it’s in line with your hip. The mirror will be helpful throughout this pose—it should be easier to find your balance when you’re getting immediate feedback from your reflection. If you really have the hang of things, you can close your eyes as you hold.
Modified Dancer Pose
The quad stretch is of course helpful, but Gillespie says a lot of the benefit of this pose comes in the standing leg. “By placing the arm behind the back, it allows you to more easily work on broadening the hip in your supporting leg, improving it’s mobility and stability,” Gillespie says. “For a lot of runners, this pose will be tough because they aren’t all that stabile or mobile in their hips. And it shows up in the form of IT Band issues and Piriformis Syndrome,” two common runner afflictions.
Do the move: Lift your right leg behind you and grab ahold of your foot with your right hand. Take your left hand and wrap it behind you, so that your left forearm sits behind your lower back, keeping it and your hips square. Kick up and back with your right foot against your hand, and fold forward by hinging at the hips. You should feel a stretch throughout your right quad, and also get a lot of sensation in the hip and hamstring on your supporting leg. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides.
Watch out for: The hip of your elevated leg drifting backward. Having your forearm behind your low back should keep you square, but if you see something fall out of alignment, use that arm to give your hips a gentle nudge.
Photos by Hailey Wist