Variability: A Key Ingredient to Better Running?
Running, by nature, is a repetitive activity. With the average runner taking between 800 and 1000 strides per mile, this equates to each foot hitting the ground approximately 5,000 times during a 5-mile run. And as if that isn’t enough, research has also shown that every footstrike produces a force that is equal to 3 to 4 times a runner’s body weight. Which, for a 150-pound runner, means 600 pounds of pressure per footstrike. No wonder so many runners are suffering from overuse injuries! Add to that the impacts of slouching behind a desk all day, and it’s easy to see why many athletes’ bodies are out of whack.
And while many runners turn to form drills and cues to correct imbalances and improve mobility (strategies that certainly do have their place in the runner’s arsenal), others, such as lifelong runner and coach, Jonathan Beverly, feel that the solution may be even simpler. Here are some thoughts on how adding variety to your running routine could lead to better form and fewer injuries overall.
The body’s innate ability to choose and optimize movement patterns
According to Beverly, “the body can recruit muscles in an endless variety of subtly changing patterns to achieve a similar end”. In addition to each person’s unique physical characteristics, our methods of movement also differ vastly and develop over time through a process called “plasticity”. Which, in a nutshell, means that we tend to find ways of movement that works for us, and, in the long run, start ignoring other movement options.
And while finding an efficient way to move, i.e. your own, unique running style, is a good thing, it often leads to getting stuck in repetitive ruts.
The problem with repetitive ruts
According to podiatrist, Rob Conenello, most of his injured patients “either run on a treadmill all the time or run the same course over and over”. His advice? “It’s important to stress variability. Different shoes, different terrain, so you’re not building up patterns.” Performance scientist, John Kiely, agrees. “Without variability, you have the same tissues being hit the same way over time with no respite – that’s the recipe for an overuse injury,” he adds.
But being stuck in a neurological rut can potentially cause problems when we try to compensate for imbalances and/or improve the efficiency of our stride. If, for example, you’ve been running with sleeping glutes and restricted, tight hip flexors all your life, your body will have found a different way to keep you upright and move you forward. Which, in essence, means that you’ve learned to move in an inefficient way.
Do something different
So how do we break out of these ruts? According to Kiely, “we need to do something different”. Why? Because shaking things up will force both body and mind to find a new and better way to move. Or, in other words, you need to start doing things differently in order to get your body to use new movement patterns.
This is especially important if you’re actively working on improving your key strengths or range of motion through exercises and drills. If you don’t shake up your runs, the body will simply keep moving in the same way, despite your improved mechanics. But if you change it up and get your brain to pay attention, you pave the way for new movement patterns to form.
Ways to shake things up
So how do we shake things up? By building variety into your weekly running routine. Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Pace. Since different paces use varied muscular stresses and ranges of motion, simply varying your pace will force your body to pay attention to form. So try to incorporate a variety of paces into your weekly training schedule. Vary between long runs, speed play, tempo runs, and recovery runs. Or, if you’re just starting out, simply add strides to your existing runs twice a week.
- Cadence. While major instant modifications to cadence may do more harm than good, a gradual increase in cadence should require enough focus to create new, more efficient movement. Aim to eventually reach a cadence of between 160 and 170.
- Terrain. You’ve heard it a thousand times before: Vary the surfaces and terrain on which you train. Head for the trails once or twice a week and if you can’t, just run on the grass next to the pavement for portions of your runs. This will improve each step’s variability and force your body as well as your mind to move in new ways.
- Running shoes. Different running shoes force the feet to interact with the ground in different ways, allowing the nervous system to adapt and “play around” with your stride. So invest in different pairs of running shoes, preferably different models or makes, and rotate them on each run.
And while these variability challenges may seem simple enough, remember that each challenge has to be sufficiently engaging to force body and mind to focus in on it. “That’s the catalyst for the slow change in brain chemistry that enables the plasticity channels in the brain,” says Kiely. The brain simply won’t use resources to something if it doesn’t think it to be a big enough challenge. So, in short, we need a challenge that requires our focus and attention but doesn’t leave us feeling overwhelmed.
Injured runners, take note
And while it’s advisable for healthy runners to mix up running routes, running shoes, training surfaces and paces in order to strengthen the muscles required to maintain a consistent stride, the opposite may be true for injured runners.
According to Dr. Reed Ferber, head of the Running Injury Clinic of the University of Calgary, stride-to-stride variability may be problematic for injured runners. Why? Because injured runners often have muscle weaknesses or imbalances that allow their hip-, knee- and ankle joints to move in slightly different directions with each footfall. Which, in turn, is something that requires rehabilitation exercises to ultimately move back to a more predictable movement pattern.
So, for injured runners, Dr. Ferber recommends temporarily limiting variability. “Stick to one route, on one surface, with one set of shoes, and so on. Once they’re injury-free, the focus can shift back to training and varying the program,” he says.
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