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Half-marathon runners head up Bay Street for the final stretch of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on October, 19, 2014. Approximately 26,000 runners from every Canadian province, 42 American states and over 50 countries took part in the race. (Michelle Siu For The Globe and Mail)
Half-marathon runners head up Bay Street for the final stretch of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on October, 19, 2014. Approximately 26,000 runners from every Canadian province, 42 American states and over 50 countries took part in the race. (Michelle Siu For The Globe and Mail)

Health Advisor

Learn how to change your gait and get rid of running pains Add to ...

Like many runners, I don’t just love to run, I need to run. It keeps me sane. So imagine my frustration battling a chronically stiff left ankle.

I have been getting semi-regular massages and acupuncture on my ankle. Both make it feel better momentarily, but they treat the symptom, not the cause. I decided I needed to get to the root of the problem. I asked Kris Sheppard, founder of the Runner’s Academy, a Toronto health and wellness clinic specializing in treating and training runners, to assess my gait.

Sheppard, a chiropractor, began his assessment by filming me while I ran. Turns out, my left foot crosses over the mid-line of my body. Imagine a line from your pubic bone to the floor. Both feet should land equally spaced from this line, roughly hip distance apart.

According to a study from 2014 in the Journal of Biomechanics, a narrow step width increases stress on the lower leg bones. My narrow step width is contributing to my ankle pain. Plus, my left foot already rolls in (pronates) slightly. A narrow stance just exacerbates this problem.

Trainer’s tip #1: Have someone film you run. See if your feet roll in or out and where they land relative to your mid-line.

Next, Sheppard explained that I need faster feet (step rate), in part because picking up my feet will increase my step width.

A study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise from 2014 showed that increasing step rate can reduce the load to the hip and knee, and therefore may help prevent and treat running related injuries.

Sheppard gave me the following exercise to do before I run: Strap a thick band around your hips and a pole. Face away from the pole. Lean slightly forward into the band and quickly run, pushing your knees up to your chest.

Trainer’s tip #2: As you run, pick your foot up above your opposite ankle every time you bring your leg forward. Pick up your knees, as if you are marching. The faster you are running, the higher the march.

Sheppard demonstrated just how essential the upper body is to running. He asked me to run with my hands on my head. Wow, did I run badly. He instructed me to make sure my arms pump forward and backward as I run, instead of side to side.

Trainer’s tip #3: Try this drill: briefly run with your hands on your head, then bring your arms down and quickly pump them and then run normally. Your running gait will improve as your upper body form improves.

I found retraining my gait awkward. A tenet of physiology known as the law of facilitation can be used to explain why. This neurological principle states that when an impulse has passed once through a certain set of neurons to the exclusion of others, it will tend to take the same course on future occasions.

This translates into “your body is happy moving the way you have always moved.” Once you start sending different neurological signals, you can create new pathways. This process just takes concentration and repetition.

Trainer’s tip #4: Avoid injuries by phasing in your new running style slowly. Start by attempting your new gait for the first 30 seconds of every five-minute chunk of running.

Finally, a word of caution: Chronic injuries develop over time. Improving your gait is not a miracle cure. Often, the major contributing factor to any injury is not simply improper running form, but rather too much training and too little recovery.

Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome theory explains how when your body is given a stressor, it is either able to adapt and create a new baseline normal, or, when recovery is not possible, exhaustion sets in and injury occurs.

Think about it this way: Too much rest results in a training plateau. Appropriate exercise (also known as progressive overload) plus sufficient recovery results in increased fitness. Too much training plus insufficient recovery results in injury.

Prioritize recovery, listen to your body and cross train. Learn from my mistakes, and remember that recovery is not a sign of weakness: It is just as important as training.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Kathleen Trotter has been a fitness writer, personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for more than 12 years. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @KTrotterFitness.

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