Of the nearly 20 million Americans who run, 79% experience running-related injuries each year and 46% of those injuries are recurring, according to the Spaulding National Running Center, a clinical research institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which studies running biomechanics.
Operating in partnership with Harvard Medical School and housed within the larger Spaulding Outpatient Center, the running center’s theory is that if humans are born to run, then injuries shouldn’t be so common. According to Irene Davis, the SNRC’s director, overtraining is a major cause of the injuries seen at the center. “In our clinic, we see a lot of runners who overtrain, leading to knee pain or stress fractures,” Davis explains. Her research has shown these issues can be solved and future injuries can be prevented through biomechanical adjustments like gait retraining.
Davis, who spent the first 20 years of her career as a professor of physical therapy at the University of Delaware, is the driving force at the clinic, which opened in April 2012, and has become the go-to treatment center for runners who have exhausted other options.
First they study how a patient runs, with tests including a review of their history back to high school, a posture and video assessment, treadmill analysis and a musculoskeletal assessment of flexibility, alignment and strength. All of this information is then used to generate an individualized clinical hypothesis and plan for treatment.
“A well-aligned, soft landing is our mantra,” Davis says. As she explains it, proper running mechanics are about two things: your alignment and the force and motion with which you hit the ground. “The easiest, most effective way [to run] is to land on the ball of your foot, but to do that you have to strengthen the supporting muscles like the arch and calf muscles,” Davis explains.
Put simply, gait is your manner of walking or running. While we’re all doing the same thing when we walk or run (putting one foot in front of the other on repeat), everyone does it differently. SNRC’s research is creating a body of work to prove that, through faulty biomechanics like improper gait (i.e., landing on your heel instead of the ball of your foot), runners subject themselves to all kinds of potential injuries, from tibial stress fractures to plantar fasciitis.
“My contention is that if gait patterns are related to injury, then maybe we should change them,” says Davis. “For people with repetitive, chronic injuries, there may be an underlying mechanical factor that’s worth looking into.” Gait retraining starts with building a foundational strength of function and flexibility in the muscles from the knees down to achieve good arch control and soft, single-leg landings. “Running, after all, is really a series of single-leg landings,” Davis says.
The first phase of treatment is the most intense with the aim of re-learning to activate the right muscles to get proper alignment through constant trainer feedback. The next step is to reduce the amount of feedback a runner is given over time (known as faded feedback) to ease them into making corrections themselves, which, according to Davis, “is a big part of retraining that nobody does — reinforcement and faded feedback is key.”
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While the center isn’t for everybody, here are general strategies for avoiding common biomechanical errors:
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR FOOTWEAR
“Shoes should support, rather than restrict, our natural foot mechanics,” Davis notes. She also explained that shoes with too much cushion may lead to runners to experiencing increased leg stiffness and striking the ground with their heel, which is the opposite of SNRC’s mantra.
LAND ON THE BALL OF YOUR FOOT
“The easiest, most effective way to [address biomechanical issues] is to land on the ball of your foot,” says Davis. “The overall load that your body endures is the same, but it’s all about the way it’s distributed [that matters],” she explains. The key is to land gently with your foot under your hips and relatively horizontal.
STRENGTHEN THE SUPPORTING MUSCLES
Barefoot exercises are one way to strengthen your arches and calf muscles. These muscles play a key role in absorbing the impact of landing on the balls of your feet when you run.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RUN