Is There an Optimal Way to Run?
Are you wondering if changing your running technique can help with injuries? You’re not alone! This is definitely one of the most popular questions in the running community. If your hips, knees or shins have been bothering you for a while, perhaps modifying how you run can help ease the pain. Some tweaks may also help novice runners reduce injury risk, and make competitive runners cross the finish line faster. This post explains why cadence, impact and foot strike pattern are important when it comes to running technique.
Cadence is the number of steps you are taking per minute. Smartphone apps and GPS watches will generally give you that information. Most runners’ feet touch the ground around 155-160 times every minute. Even though there is no such thing as a magical number, aiming somewhere between 170-190 steps per minute could be optimal for a majority of people. This can be accomplished by taking shorter steps while running at the same speed.
A recent study even found that those with a cadence lower than 166 were more at risk of injury1. In fact, increasing cadence reduces impact on knees and hips2, thus can potentially help runners with knee and hip pain. A higher cadence also minimizes ‘overstriding’ by making your foot land closer underneath your body, which in turn can minimize braking forces and make your running gait more efficient.
Higher impact has been linked with running injuries such as stress fractures. Of course, fancy equipment like force plates or new wearable sensors can provide information on impact. However, the simplest way to find out is to listen to your steps. It has been shown that reducing the sound you’re making during running will result in less impact3.
A recent study found that runners with high impact who were instructed to “run softer” were 60% less injured over the following year compared with those who kept running with greater impact4.
Importantly, more shoe cushioning does not mean less impact on the knees… it’s actually the opposite. Contrary to the common belief, more cushioning will often change running technique5, which will result in greater forces at the knees6! Therefore, adding cushioning is generally not a good option for knee injuries like patellofemoral pain (runner’s knee) or iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome.
Foot Strike Pattern
Is it better to land on the heel or on the ball of the foot? Or with the foot flat on the ground? The answer is that different ways of landing may lead to different injuries: running on your heel increases impact on your knee, hip and lower back, while running on the ball of your foot increases impact on the foot, ankle and calf muscle. Even though it’s possible to adapt to any foot strike pattern, novice runners should probably avoid extremes and land closer to the middle of their foot (foot flat at landing), in order to distribute the impact throughout the leg.
Regardless of running technique, the most common reason for getting injured is doing too much, too soon! Therefore, runners should first and foremost listen to their body. If you’re adapted to your running form, uninjured and do not wish to improve performance, it is recommended not to change anything!
However, novice runners should probably aim for a higher cadence, land softly and close to midfoot. Experienced runners wishing to perform better should target a higher cadence and lighter shoes. As for injured runners, tips will depend on the location and stage of the injury.
Unsure if your current injury is linked with how you run, or if running differently can help you reach your next objective? Allan McGavin Sports Medicine features several practitioners with advanced training on running injuries and is part of the international network of Specialized Clinics associated with The Running Clinic. They will be able to assess your running and provide recommendations, in addition to advising on training programs and running shoes.
Jean-Francois Esculier, PT, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow, University of British Columbia
Physiotherapist, Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Clinic @UBC
Director of Research & Development, The Running Clinic
Article written and published by Allan McGavin Sport Medicine Clinic. Follow this link for the original article.
1. Luedke LE, Heiderscheit BC, Williams DS, Rauh MJ. Influence of Step Rate on Shin Injury and Anterior Knee Pain in High School Runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(7):1244-1250.
2. Heiderscheit BC, Chumanov ES, Michalski MP, Wille CM, Ryan MB. Effects of Step Rate Manipulation on Joint Mechanics during Running. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43(2):296-302.
3. Phan X, Grisbrook TL, Wernli K, Stearne SM, Davey P, Ng L. Running quietly reduces ground reaction force and vertical loading rate and alters foot strike technique. J Sport Sci. 2017;35(16):1636-1642.
4. Chan ZYS, Zhang JH, Au IPH, et al. Gait Retraining for the Reduction of Injury Occurrence in Novice Distance Runners: 1-Year Follow-up of a Randomized Controlled Trial. Am J Sports Med. 2018;46(2):388-395.
5. Squadrone R, Rodano R, Hamill J, Preatoni E. Acute effect of different minimalist shoes on foot strike pattern and kinematics in rearfoot strikers during running. J Sports Sci. 2015;33(11):1196-1204.
6. Sinclair J, Richards J, Selfe J, Fau-Goodwin J, Shore H. The Influence of Minimalist and Maximalist Footwear on Patellofemoral Kinetics During Running. J Appl Biomech. 2016;32(4):359-364.