We had a unique opportunity to catch up with Dr. Richard Willy, Assistant Professor in the School of Physical Therapy at the University of Montana about running biomechanics. With a Ph.D. in Biomechanics and Movement Science and a Master’s degree in Physical Therapy, Dr. Willy is an expert in the area of injury mitigation as it pertains to running. He has developed a wealth of knowledge around the biomechanics of running as well as preventative measures for running injuries. Dr. Willy agreed to share his perspective regarding the role of gradual load increase and supplemental training to support a healthy running training program.
How important are running mechanics in performance and injury mitigation?
There is a common assumption that running injuries are directly linked to running mechanics, however, how rapidly you increase the stress on your body also matters. The biomechanics of running matter, but the gradual load additions matter more. Most running injuries relate to loading errors (too much, too soon) and don't necessarily show up immediately when you've made a training error. There tends to be a bit of a lag. These training errors can involve overexertion in running distance, speed, incline, and even dramatic changes in running surface.
To prevent training errors from occurring, a focus on strength and plyometric training allows you to bring in steady, high loads with low volume without surprising your tendons or bones. This increases your capacity to function at a high level without risking injury from overtraining or overexertion. It's all about the slow build-up to prevent wear and tear.
As we age, we tend to get injuries in the same body regions as our youth, just in different structures. Young runners tend to have more bone injuries, such as stress reactions like shin splints. Older runners tend to have more soft tissue injuries such as calf strains or Achilles tendon strains.
How should I train to prevent injuries?
Runners are wise to incorporate a wide range of movements that prevent overloading in one area. This is where complementary training is essential as it reduces the risk of the injuries or strained areas from our youth being detrimental in our older years. By performing a wide range of exercises that gradually increase in load we can improve performance while minimizing risk. This can be achieved by incorporating a plyometric and resistance training system in the gym alongside running.
These gym workouts allow for less overall repetitions but high loading, leading to less wear exposure but high load activity. The gym workouts are your high load, low repetition activity, and running is your low load, high repetition activity. The combination can help you reach the same goal without the repetitive wear of overtraining.
Our bones do not always respond well to long-distance running. The longer the run, the more our bones need to cope with mechanical stress that can sometimes lead to a decline in bone integrity. Our bones respond well to fast activities seen in plyometrics, such as jumping or sprinting. These activities give quick stretches and strains that provide muscle contraction, tension in the tendons, and gentle pressure on the bone. In response, the bone gets stronger. Positive bone adaptations have also been observed in resistance training, where gradual, heavy loads lead to stronger bones.
Which muscles and tendons should I focus on in my training?
During running, muscle forces are greatest in the lower leg (and calves). While the glutes are important to train, they are often over-emphasized. Fifty percent of the force when we run is generated by the ankle plantar flexors, specifically by the soleus muscle. The next muscle that usually produces high forces during running is the quadriceps muscle (the knee extensor). The glutes work in higher force-generating activities such as uphill running and sprinting.
How do I prevent overloading with my running itself?
The concept of Polarized Training was introduced by Dr. Steven Seiler and is based on a retrospective review of top Norwegian cross country skiers, rowers and orienteers. . The Polarized Training approach has been applied to other endurance sports such as running, cycling, and swimming. The Polarized Training approach for those running 70-80 miles a week would include a majority of lower intensity running to decrease the onset of fatigue and reduce the risk of injury. The breakdown of the running would include training:
80% in low intensity (conversational pace) (<Zone 3)
3-4% in medium intensity (Zone 3)
17% in high intensity (>Zone 3)
Recreational runners can also benefit from the concept of Polarized Training as they work to increase running volume without increasing the risk of injury. For example:
Session One - A slow, long, steady run (conversational pace)
Session Two - Interval training of very high intensity interspersed with easy, conversational training work
Session Three - A focus on Tempo Runs
Studies indicated that training in this manner improves aerobic capacity and running economy. Running economy refers to a lower oxygen update for a given running speed which is an indicator of running efficiency.
What should my running cadence be? Does that impact my risk of injury?
Our bodies are all built differently, and therefore there is a range of cadences (i.e., stride frequency). Everyone has a unique range of cadence, which you can track with a wearable like a Garmin.
The Montana Running Lab did find that if you're recovering from knee pain, adopting a 5-10% increase in cadence reduces the load on the kneecap by up to 20%. Therefore those with injuries may benefit from a slight change in cadence. If you shift your cadence, you shift the load to other parts of the body, such as on the hamstrings and hip flexors. So if you're not injured, don't change it and if you do decide to change your stride cadence, make subtle adjustments
What shoes are best? Do minimalist shoes reduce my risk of injury?
The best shoes are those that feel most comfortable right out the gate. It shouldn't feel like you have to 'break it in.' Choosing an uncomfortable shoe could change your running mechanics and put unfamiliar loads that create a problem.
Some studies also recommend having two pairs of running shoes (same type of shoe or two different types) and to alternate between the two pairs of shoes to prevent imbalance, reduce overload on specific areas, and therefore prevent injury. With new shoes it is always recommended to start with some shorter distance runs just to be safe.
In early 2010 there were compelling theories and some studies that indicated that barefoot running and running in minimalist shoes should be the way to go. While it seemed logical, it applied well to individuals that grew up running barefoot. If one did not grow up running barefoot, it doesn't make much difference and may possess a high risk of injury.
Minimalist shoes have a similar injury rate as other shoes; just the injuries' location differs—foot injuries such as plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendon injuries. As mentioned before, the way the runner transitions into high running volumes may be far more important than the type of running footwear.
If you have any questions after reading Dr. Willy’s suggestions, please reach out to your Apeiron Life trainer. Our trainers strategically design your workout programs to support your specific needs based on a grounding in scientific research like that of Dr. Willy. Your Apeiron Life team can help you incorporate strength and plyometric training to mitigate the risk of running injury and they would love to discuss these topics or any that relate to your goals in your specific physical activity or sport of choice.
For more running tips from Dr. Willy, follow @montanarunninglab on Instagram.
Contact your Apeiron Life Client Advocate to inquire about training with an Apeiron Life trainer.