When you trip hard on a hidden root or slip on a patch of ice while running, the source of resulting injury is painfully obvious. But sometimes much subtler forces are at work. If you’re injured, fatigued or otherwise hurting, a simple flaw in your running form may be the culprit.
Just a slight forward lean at the end of a run or an inch or two extension of your stride on one downhill can lead to a time-out from running for days or even weeks. By understanding and correcting these mistakes, you can reduce injuries and recover faster.
You’re most likely to make a mistake in your form when you’re 1) finishing long runs, speed sessions or races; 2) running downhill, or 3) beginning a run, when your mind feels frisky but your muscles don’t.
Here are six common signs of trouble – and what you can do to correct them:
1. Back pain or fatigue. Even a slight forward lean can produce back fatigue, which can lead to back pain. An upright body doesn’t require much work from the back muscles that maintain posture, whereas a forward lean can overwhelm those muscles.
When the main running muscles in the lower legs become fatigued, many runners lean forward to maintain their momentum. This tactic works only for a few strides, followed quickly by a slowdown due to fatigue of the muscles in the upper leg and lower back. You’re always better off staying upright, shortening your stride to relax your leg muscles and picking up (or at least maintaining) your turnover.
2. Neck or shoulder pain. Most often, runners who lean forward must use their neck muscles to keep their heads up. Some runners also raise their shoulders too high in a counterproductive effort to balance their leaning torsos. These two reactions will produce fatigue and sometimes nerve irritation in the neck and shoulders. Again, a more upright body posture naturally balances your head. Some runners continually have to remind themselves not to raise their shoulders. A good mantra: “Shoulders low and relaxed…”
3. Hamstring pain or tightness. Overstriding is the leading cause of injuries to this band of tendons and muscles along the back of your upper legs. You can suffer a moderate to severe hamstring injury in just a few exuberant strides at the beginning of a race, during a short downhill or during a sudden burst of speed at the end of a run. Avoid sudden bursts of speed and relax down hills. Hamstrings may also react if your feet kick up too high behind you. (Hint: Your lower legs shouldn’t rise higher than parallel to the ground.)
4. Pain or weakness behind the knee. Overstriding is probably to blame here, too. When your body weight comes down on a lower leg that’s too far forward, the tendon behind your knee is overstressed. You can avoid this if your lower leg comes down directly beneath you to absorb your body’s weight. (If you glance down during a run and can’t see the whites of your socks, your legs are landing directly beneath you.) Overstretching the backs of your legs can also injure, irritate or weaken this area.
5. Sore or injured quadriceps. When you’ve run too fast or too far, your stride shortens due to calf-muscle fatigue. If you try to maintain stride length by lifting your legs higher, your quadriceps muscles along the front of your upper legs may be sore for days. Many runners also suffer after mistakenly trying to use their quads to slow themselves on a steep or long downhill. Don’t fight gravity or fatigue by relying too much on your quads. Just maintain as much momentum as possible by keeping your feet low to the ground and reducing your stride length.
6. “Wobbles” at the end of runs. When you run too hard at the beginning of a run, your leg muscles tire early and can’t support your normal running motion. This results in some nonessential motion of your joints, tendons and secondary muscles, which can lead to injury. Proper pacing from the beginning and a lighter foot strike (imagine running on thin ice) will reduce the chance of fatigue and injury.
Written by Jeff Galloway. Used with permission.