Running "Softer" Might Reduce Your Injury Risk
Runners are always looking for ways to limit injuries. They try stretching, strengthening, massage, foam rollers, footstrike changes, and various supplements, to name a few. However, there’s been little to no evidence to support these practices. Preventing running injuries doesn’t come easy.
Until now. A new report in The American Journal of Sports Medicine promises a 62 percent reduction in injuries. And this startling figure comes from a well-designed, peer-reviewed research trial, not from someone hawking their services, devices, or pills.
The secret? Reduce the landing shock of your running strides. In other words, run softer and quieter.
The injury-reduction experiment from the Gait & Motion Lab at The Hong Kong Polytechnic Lab compared the year-long results of 320 runners. About half received “visual biofeedback” training in the lab during eight treadmill-training sessions. This taught them to “run softer.” The other half (the control group) also ran eight times on the laboratory treadmill, but received no special feedback. They just continued running as they always had.
Before these training sessions began, investigators had measured the landing forces of both groups at two paces, approximately 12:00 and 8:00 per mile. There were essentially no differences between the groups.
The same landing-force tests were repeated after the two-week lab-training period. At that time, the runners who had received visual-feedback retraining produced significantly lower results on four measures of vertical loading (aka “impact”). The no-feedback group didn’t change. According to the study’s senior author, Roy T.H. Cheung, Ph.D., the feedback runners achieved a softer stride by running with shorter strides, and more toward the forefoot.
This finding showed that biofeedback training can reduce impacts, which has been known for some years, based on pioneering studies by Irene Davis, Ph.D. But big questions remained: So what if you can change your stride? Does this actually change your injury risk?
To find out, the Hong Kong researchers followed their subjects for the next 12 months. During that time, soft-stride runners reported 28 injuries—much fewer than the 61 reported by normal-stride runners. In all, 16 percent of the soft-stride runners reported injuries, much lower than the 38 percent of normal-stride runners who did.
Importantly, the injury reduction wasn’t universal. Indeed, injuries to the lower leg were reported only by softer-stride runners. They had 10 cases of Achilles tendinitis and calf strain, while the control runners had none. On the other hand, the control group reported 23 cases of plantar fasciitis (versus two among soft-stride runners) and 18 cases of knee pain (versus four for soft runners.)
Similar trends have been shown in smaller, less-robust studies, including those that followed runners attempting to go barefoot, wear minimalist shoes, or shorten their strides. For example, new research from Australia supports the soft-stride findings. It suggests that runners with knee pain should try training in minimalist shoes while employing a deliberately shorter stride.
With the Hong Kong data and other accumulating evidence, podiatrists, orthopedists, physical therapists, and other therapists may now feel more confident about recommending a specific running stride for one type of injury, and a different stride for a different injury. Runners may decide to tinker with their own strides. (See the table below to help guide your decisions.)
When pondering whether to alter your running form, remember these rules:
If you’re not injured or not bothered by persistent injuries, don’t attempt to fix what isn’t broken.
Rest is often a key ingredient in recovering from injury.
Start slowly and progress gradually with any change.
Don’t expect miracles.
Any change in your injury profile will likely take months to show up.