Increasing Running Efficiency Part I

As I was preparing myself for running in the annual Resolution Run here in Red Deer, it came to mind that I should write about running. However, since this is a fairly large subject, I am going to do it in 3 sections. Please be advised this is designed to give an overview of the subject and as such is slightly abbreviated.

I’m going to preface this article by saying I am not a “runner”. I haven’t run a marathon, I’m not going to be setting speed records any time soon. I do however run. I run for my health. I run for the, *cough *cough, “fun” of it. And when I run, I work on the exact principles I will be outlining here. It hasn’t been easy, but I have improved my running form and I am sharing this so you can hopefully make some improvements as well!

Today’s post will be focused on running gait. One of the things that research has been showing is how the transition from a heel strike to more of a mid-foot strike can increase your efficiency as a runner. This is where a lot of recreational runners have issues. They end up over-striding and heel striking. This is inefficient for several reasons.

Typically when runners heel strike, they are landing with a straight leg, meaning there is no elasticity to help absorb the shock of the impact. This impact on the body would be similar to hitting the ground with a long, straight, rigid pole over and over again. The force that is created up the pole into your hand is what happens when you land with a straight leg when you run. All that force is transferred up the chain into your body with hardly any shock absorption.

Another problem with heel striking/over striding is the loss of forward momentum. Every time your leg hits the ground while outstretched you take that impact into your body and it stops you for a split second.  Instead of having a smooth transition, you now have to propel yourself over that straight leg.  This means you are working way harder than you need to be!

Bare foot heel strike

Heel strike with runners on

As you can see in these two videos, there is a sharp increase in the amount of force when landing with a heel strike. It creates a ‘braking’ phase in your running, where you are actually stopping mid stride. In addition to adding this braking phase into your running, it means your weight is out in front of your body. Any time your weight is not close to your center it creates an unstable environment, which then requires more work (aka energy) to stabilize.

By changing to a more mid-foot or fore-foot running style there are several advantages. For starters, it removes that braking phase in your running. By not having that sudden stop on every stride it allows for a smooth transition through your foot.   Secondly, once you have modified your running gait to remove over-striding, it leads to better distribution of your body weight.  This means you will have more stability, more natural leg bend which helps absorb shock and therefore reduce the stress on your lower body.

When you create a smoother gait and remove the braking phase of your running it will increase your power.  Chris Powers, a physiotherapist in the States, works with a wide range of runners, spoke about the power phase of running. He said that research has shown it is not the toe off phase that is the main propulsion of the running gait, but rather the pulling phase after the lead foot hits the ground. What does this mean? It means that in reality a runner is literally pulling themselves forward, rather than pushing. This is why a smoother stride (not over striding) is so vital to becoming a more efficient runner. If you can lessen the transition time from the landing to the pulling stage of your running you will become a more powerful runner.

How does a person become a more efficient runner?

The steps are actually quite simple in theory, but they take practice. There are three main steps in learning to become a more efficient runner according to Jean-Francois Esculier of the Running Clinic.

  1. Increase your cadence, which are your steps per minute. An optimal range is 170-190. The easiest way to find this is to count your steps in 30 second intervals once you are warmed up. Double it to calculate your cadence. If you need to increase your cadence, it is really easy to fix, with some practice.  If you try and tackle it all at once, you may tire out quickly and feel like giving up. If you run on a treadmill you can manually increase your speed on the treadmill to the point where you have to increase your number of strides. If you are running outside, you have to force yourself into shorter strides and a faster turn over.

Personally, I recommend trying this for minute bursts throughout your run. This ensures you can create a pace you can handle. Don’t try to do too much too soon. As an example I personally have a cadence of 134-138, which is very low. Initially, I am aiming to reach the 150-160 range. Once I am able to consistently maintain that I am going to increase it further. The trick is to do it in increments so as not to get frustrated.

2. Run softer

  1. …and run quieter. These two come hand in hand. We all know that person, the one you can hear from half a mile away – it may even be you!  All that noise means they are losing efficiency. Newton says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, just transformed. When you hear that person it means that some of their energy is being converted to sound. They are losing energy that could be used for propulsion. Therefore practicing running softer, and thereby quieter, will improve your efficiency.

Essentially how it works is as cadence increases, stride length decreases (increased turnover necessitates a shorter stride), forcing more shock absorption into the legs which helps to create a quieter, softer run.

A word of caution with this. You will start to feel stiff and sore in new places! Most notably your calves and the bottoms of your feet (plantar fascia). This is normal as these structures begin to work differently than what you have asked them before. In order to avoid injury (or at least a lot of pain/discomfort) I recommend making these changes in increments. Please don’t go out and try to change your entire training all in one session.

If you have any questions about this article or anything else I have written please feel free to contact me at Elite Chiropractic and Sports Medicine.

Check out part 2 of the series coming out soon discussing the importance of footwear!

I would like to give credit to Chris Powers, PT and Jean-Francois Esculier, PT for the above information. The videos and graphs, as well as a more in-depth explanation, can also be found at http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/4BiomechanicsofFootStrike.html.

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