By now, most of us have accepted that cardio is a large part of fat loss. Some step, others row, but most Americans lace up and hit the road to burn extra calories. Many suffer pain that ranges from nagging to downright debilitating. 

Like most pain related issues, causation is complicated and multi faceted. Lack of physical preparation, excessive mileage, and inappropriate recovery time are all big time players in the pain game. Thankfully, all can be addressed by pulling back off the throttle, listening to your body and resting.  Unfortunately, there is one major lynchpin in running pain that thousands if not millions of fitness enthusiasts completely disregard when they hit the road-their technique. 

Most would agree that form is hugely important in the gym. Any trainer or gym partner worth their weight in whey protein wouldn’t let their client or friend dead lift with a rounded lower back or dive bomb bench press to their neck. But if you have a running pal who smashes their heel into the ground like they are attempting to wipe out an endless colony of invisible ants you might be setting them up for injury just like crappy exercise form would.  

Form Check

running outdoors

Here’s a quick test to try at home. Kick off your shoes and jump on your toes five times in a row. Hopefully, that felt as smooth as Vin Deisels famous cranium. Now, jump on your heels five times in a row. Chances are that was as painful and awkward as a junior high school dance. 

If your forefoot is the “gas” then your heel is the “break.” If you happen to foot strike with your heel then you are essentially “running with the breaks on.” The problem with today’s thick soled footwear is that it becomes easy to heel strike because the cushion in the heel dampens the blow.  “Dampens the blow” that sounds like something you’d like right? Well no, because the breaking force associated with heel striking is still substantial enough to cause shin splints, knee issues and hip and back pain. Additionally, this foot strike doesn’t allow the foot, arch and Achilles do what they are designed to do. You are messing with nature man!   

Most runners then enter a vicious cycle of pain med prescriptions, joint wraps and designer orthotics without ever looking at the culprit at hand-the technique. 

So how do we cure running related pain? Great question, for the designs of this article we will keep it simple and avoid an advanced anatomy breakdown. I have found that an easy way to start is to kick the shoes off and do some low intensity jogging on grass. One, it’s really tough to run on your heels shoeless so you can get the FEEL kinesthetically and two; grass is way more forgiving than blacktop. 

barefoot runner

Shoeless running became all the rage a number of years ago and like many great ideas, a couple of folks took it overboard. The thinking behind the movement was that early man didn’t wear shoes while loping after the wily antelope in the African savannah, so why should we? A good point, but it doesn’t capture the whole picture, not by a longshot. 

Early man ALWAYS went shoeless, wasn’t an orthopedic mess from a sedentary lifestyle and most importantly wasn’t running on blacktop. 

So when the aforementioned “over board” crew of weekend warriors with weak feet and a brand new running style tried to do 5 miles shoeless or minimalist the forecast called for pain. Joints dipped in boiling adamantium type of pain. So when I say go slow with the shoeless grass running, go snail’s pace son.    

If your max bench is 200 you wouldn’t do forced negatives with 300 for ten sets of ten. If you haven’t run in a while and are looking to try this out, don’t attempt an ultra marathon. A couple 20-40 yard attempts at a jogging pace should do the trick. If you don’t feel any adverse effects in the next day or two try again.  Add a rep or two or increase the speed.  Remember, training is just managing stressors and recovery. Too much stress can rattle you to the core, not enough can keep you the same. Listen to your body and try these additional exercises to help clean up your technique.

Paw Back

This exercise mirrors the leg action seen in most competitive runners. The movement can be replicated with your own body weight, rubber tubing or a cable attachment. Start with your thigh out slightly below 90 degrees. Your shin should hang straight down, perpendicular to the ground. Slightly straighten and pull your leg down toward the ground(you shouldn’t “karate kick” out and pull down and conversely you shouldn’t keep the same bend in your knee and pull down). Focus on striking the ground through you forefoot close to your center of mass.

One set of 20 daily should rewire that motor pattern.

Calf Raise

Isometric Calf Raise

Stand on your toes on an elevated surface (stack a couple of plates/corner of a rack ect.). Your heels should hang off and most of the tension should be in your forefoot. Go up as high as you can on your tippy toes and hold it for 30 seconds. If easy, try for a minute. If still easy add resistance. Since there is a substantial isometric contraction of the muscles in the forefoot on every strike, this exercise attempts to strengthen them in a position you would see when you actually run.

Glute Ham Raise

Many athletes tend to hunch forward while running. This exercise can serve as a way to correct posture, strengthen the prime movers in running and correct muscular imbalances. 

A roman chair/Yessis back raise is essential to this exercise. Start by moving the machine into the proper position for your frame. The top of your hip should be at the top of the hip pad in this exercise. Too far out can stress the low back and knee, too far in can limit your range of motion for this to be effective. 

Once you are set in the proper position descend down as low as you can while maintaining the proper curve in your lower back. You should feel a big stretch in your hamstrings in this position. If you don’t feel the stretch, chances are you are set at the wrong position for your frame or your back is rounded too much. Once that hamstring stretch is achieved contract your glutes and bring your body up to a straight line from your shoulders to your feet. A significant amount of muscular tension should be felt through your entire posterior chain.

Next, drive your toes into the foot plate and bend your knees so that there is a 45 degree thigh angle. Your hips should not shoot back, there should be a straight line from your head to your knee. Hold that position for a second and control your body down to the starting position. Attempt for a set of 20. Once you are able to perform 20 clean reps add resistance.

These exercises in addition with some low intensity shoeless grass running should have you moving efficiently, quickly and pain free.