20 February 2012

Learn how to run

While running might just seem like a speeded-up version of walking, there are some important considerations if you want to make sure you get the most out of it.


Is there any one of us who has not, at some stage, decided to take up running to get fit, lose weight, or in some other way reap the benefit of this most accessible form of exercise? And how many of us have dropped out because it's just too hard, or because we suffer aches, pains and injuries early on?

Running for exercise is quite different from the running we used to do around the playground as children, and not taking it seriously guarantees you'll hurt yourself. As with any exercise training, it involves many different systems, including the nervous, muscular, skeletal and cardiovascular systems. When we move, the brain sends message via nerves to the muscles, to tell them to respond in a certain way. To perfect a movement, we literally have to do some brain-training.

As we repeat the movement many times, so a new map with all the new neural pathways to the muscle is ingrained and stored in the brain, so that you can do the action without even thinking – so yes, practice makes perfect!

How to do it

To optimise your running technique, consider the following:

  1. Your head should be held up with your eyes looking straight ahead, not down.
  2. Most of us don't have perfect biomechanics. Our feet either roll in excessively or not enough; our legs are different lengths or of unequal muscle strength. So we need a little help, which comes from wearing the right running shoes, getting orthotics, and engaging in a bit of gym-work to strengthen weak muscles (ideally you should consult an expert to help you get the right equipment and do the correct training).
  3. In his book “Lore of Running”, Professor Tim Noakes notes that runners tend to choose the stride length which is most economical for them, so this is something that should develop naturally. When running uphill, though, you should consciously shorten your stride to make it easier.
  4. Land lightly when running, rather than slapping your feet on the ground and increasing the impact forces and chances of injury.
  5. Your knees should be slightly bent as you make contact with the ground.
  6. Your hamstrings (back of your thighs) and gluteus maximus (biggest muscle of the backside) play a crucial role in the running movement and it is key that you strengthen them. Often the quad muscles (front of your thigh) are much stronger than the hamstrings.
  7. New runners and tired runners often have excessive sideways movement of the hips and waist. To avoid this, you need to do stabilisation exercises to strengthen your core muscles.
  8. Keep your back straight but relaxed. Tired runners often lean forward. As you get fitter and strengthen your stabilisers, so you should be better able to hold your back up straight.
  9. Relax your shoulders, which means you need to relax too, otherwise you will be hunched up, tire more quickly and have a stiff neck.
  10. Bend your arms at approximately 90 degrees and let them move from your shoulder.
  11. Try to keep your hands relaxed with the palm facing inwards. If it feels more comfortable holding your hand in a fist, then make it a relaxed fist.

Although you might feel very mechanical initially trying to get all this right, you’ll find that as the brain-training happens, all these patterns fall into place and you feel comfortable and natural.

What not to do when running

  1. Overstride – if you run using your naturally correct stride length, you’ll run most efficiently (that is, the energy cost of a given workout will be lower than if you ran inefficiently). Many runners overstride, which wastes energy since it means you effectively have to brake with each foot strike.
  2. Rotate your upper body excessively – if your upper body turns in partial circles instead of following the lower half of your body in a linear fashion, it makes for inefficient running. To avoid this, keep your arms close to your shirt to reduce upper body swing. Strengthening your core stabiliser muscles will also help.
  3. Bounce excessively – try to think of “saving energy” as you run.
  4. Hardly use your arms – the pumping action can help you significantly, especially when running uphill, but keep your arms close to your shirt.
  5. Land heavily, either due to tiredness or due to weak stabilisers resulting in less control in running.
  6. Lean forward when running.

(Kathleen Mc Quaide - Sports Scientist)




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