I’m delighted to welcome Alexandra Merisoiu to the blog today. Alexandra has a background in Martial Arts (she still competes at international level) and a fascination with how the body moves. She is a Running Coach, specialising in running form and technique. She works with runners of all abilities to help them run faster, further, more efficiently and most importantly, with fewer injuries. I still frequently hear, “Running hurts my knees” so I thought it would be helpful to have Alexandra share some of her wisdom about minimising the impact of running. Head to the Merisoiu Technique Institute to find out more but in the meantime I will hand over to Alexandra to share some of her top tips for healthy running.
As a culture we see running as a long, tedious and painful experience. We think about the long runs which leave us with shaky knees and painful muscle aches the day after. We have been conditioned to believe that running is about distance and speed, about pushing ourselves beyond our limits. But running doesn’t have to be lengthy and tedious. It doesn’t even have to be painful, especially not destructively painful. You don’t need to run 20k or achieve personal bests; unless you want to. You don’t even need to track your distance or time. Yes, you read it, you don’t need a running app to go out running!
It’s a commonly held belief that running is bad for the body. I have to break it to you, it’s not. The impact of running makes your bones stronger. How? You might not have heard this before but for the bone to get stronger it needs to weaken first. When osteoclasts break the bone down or absorb bone tissue, osteoblasts come in and rebuild the bone even stronger. Of course, it’s that not quite that simple, but it gives you an idea of how things work. Weight bearing exercise is an effective way to strengthen bones.
That’s doesn’t mean you have to run 20k. Running shorter distances more often is better. It’s not about how much you do, but about how consistent you are with what you do. It’s not the big actions you take monthly but the small actions you take daily and weekly that make the greatest changes in your life.
Having said that, it’s important to remember that running, swimming, cycling and any other physical activity, when done in a mindless manner, can be detrimental in the long run (excuse the pun). Even sitting at a desk in the wrong manner can be harmful – are you slouching right now?
For running to be healthy, and not cause damage, particularly to knees, we need to think about HOW we run, as well as think about HOW we sit at our desk (are you still slouching?).
I’ve been running since 2007, I’ve done my own solo marathon and numerous 20k just for the fun of it. I love long distance running, but I don’t compete, my competitive sport is Shotokan karate, but that’s another story.
As a running and Martial Artist I became passionate about how the body functions, why it gets injured and how to recover quickly and continue training. I started studying human movement in 2013. I began coaching runners, especially those who were injured or kept injuring themselves. I really love the challenge and seeing how happy my clients are when they realise they can run 10k or more without pain while, in the past, a 5k was almost impossible without destructive pain. I believe there are two types of pain, destructive which is linked to harm and injury and constructive pain, the one you feel when you train hard, but it isn’t causing damage.
So, what do you need to do to run without (destructive) pain? I believe there are two main categories:
1. How you plan your training
The main challenge I find here is the desire to go out there and put everything you have into your running as soon as possible. As beginners we are eager. While I completely understand that, if you are a beginner or recovering from injury, you need to hold yourself back a little.
Remember, that for the bone to get stronger it first has to weaken. It weakens, then, during recovery, it builds back up. That doesn’t happen instantly, bone is a living tissue and it does need a day or two in between.
As a general rule, when you begin running, take it slowly, you don’t need to count your steps, or track your mileage, just go out there, run, walk, crawl (that’s actually good!), run some more, run until you need to stop. Just stay in the comfort zone and enjoy it.
You need to fall in love with your running first and then you can push yourself really hard in the future, if you want to. That’s how I started back in 2007, with just one lap around the park. I didn’t even know what the distance was until later (about 2km). It didn’t matter though I was doing 1 lap, then 2 laps, then 3 and so on. I didn’t care how fast or how far I was going, the only thing that mattered was to go out there every day and do that lap. That’s the compound effect, small actions done consistently. It’s not just about how many calories you burn or how much you sweat, it’s about what happens underneath the surface that makes or breaks our bodies.
2. Your running form
With regards to running form, if I am to pin point one element that can change a runner for the better, it’s the stride length. To reduce the pressure on your joints and reduce the risk of running injuries, you need to shorten your stride. We have these cushioned shoes which, more or less, numb everything. You can stride away, pounding the ground at speed and feel almost nothing. I challenge you to take your shoes off and run, if it’s safe. You will notice that you immediately naturally shorten your stride. You’ll also notice that every time your foot hits the ground, the vibration travels from your heel to your head; it’s like an earthquake going through your joints.
Research suggests the loading rate is lower with minimalist shoes or barefoot running, but you don’t need research to tell you what you feel. If you feel impact, it’s there, don’t doubt what you feel, and don’t wait for research to tell you that what you feel is real!
That doesn’t mean you always have to run barefoot, you can run with shoes in the same manner you run without shoes. You just need to FEEL the difference in your body.
Here are three elements to help you with shortening your stride length and running with a healthy form:
1. Landing under the body will shorten your stride.
When you land ahead of your body, you are not controlling that landing, you drop. You can’t transfer your body weight; you have to drop on your front leg that’s stretched in front of you. That uncontrolled drop is the cause of so many problems.
Watch this video. You want the foot to land right under your body while keeping your body straight (i.e. don’t stick your bum out). As a general rule, if you look down and see your foot your foot is too far in front of your body.
2. Lean from ankles
If you lean from your ankles slightly (without sticking your bum out) your hips and head will move forward, and, as you land, you will land under your hips. That’s how you move forward, not by pushing and dropping your weight on your front leg. Use gravity to move forwards, rather than using your strength. Gravity will always be stronger and it’s free energy, why not use it? Think of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, just like that. Here’s a video with more explanation.
3. Pull the foot under the body
Many runners drag their foot over the ground. Try to pick your foot up under your hips, then lean and place the foot on the ground again directly under your hip. Watch this video for a demonstration and explanation.
Follow these three pieces of advice and running becomes as simple as placing one foot in front of the other. You will reduce the amount of pressure on your joints, you will reduce the risk, frequency and severity of your injuries, you will enable your body to get stronger and stronger and you will fall in love with running. I wish you great success.
Favourite resources of Alexandra:
1. Danny Dreyer with Catherine Dreyer “Chi Running”
2. Nicholas Romanov “POSE Method Of Running”
3. Ross Rucker and Jonathan Dugas, Runner’s World “The Runner’s Body”
4. Danny Abshire “Natural Running”