(This article originally appeared in L.A. Air Force Base Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Quarterly newsletter.)
Written by Captain Levi Severson, SBIRS CTF & Air Force Marathon Team Captain
Most individuals in the Air Force recognize the importance of fitness to our mission, especially given our deployment tempo. What you may not know is running has risen to the #2 cause of recreational injury in the USAF (2010).
In addition, the Fitness Assessment (FA) failure rate is above 10% on average, and as high as 28% at some bases. The overall cost of injury and FA failure is high when medical, physical therapy and administrative time, are factored in.
These problems led to creation of the USAF Efficient Running Working Group (ERWG) last year. Thanks to the initiative of several doctors and other running-industry leaders, the knowledge gleaned from the natural-running movement will hopefully make its way to Airmen everywhere via Health and Wellness Centers and make running more fun for all.
The ERWG has yet to be approved for implementation, but the intent is to provide education on form, online support, year-round training programs, teaching strategies, instruction on interpreting video gait analysis, certification of instructors, and education for medical staff. Due to my involvement with AF Sports and experience with teaching natural running form, I have recently been more involved with the ERWG and wanted to share some of the concepts with more Airmen.
The Relationship Between Form, Footwear and Injury
You can reduce your chance of injury by relearning the biomechanics you had as a child. I doubt the children in our lives put much thought into how they run since it is more natural to them. However, after years of running in shoes with an elevated heel and being coached to run with a heel strike, adults find it challenging to relean “natural” form.
Starting in the late 1970s, running shoes began featuring increasingly cushioned heels, which creates a six to 14% ramp angle. This angle tilts your posture forward and puts you off balance. This instability increases unnatural forces on the knees, hips and back.
What is Natural Running?
An AF Sports team member, Lt Col (Dr.) Mark Cucuzzella, describes the fundamentals of natural running on www.freedomsrun.org under the “training” tab. His critical points are:
- Land with bent knees with feet landing softly under your center of mass. Resist landing on your heel or taking overly long strides, which causes a loss of momentum. Run over the ground, not into it by visualizing riding a skateboard or Razor scooter. Ideal ground contact is with your foot under your center of mass.
- Touch down quickly with your foot in such a way that generates a "tap, tap, tap" sound, rather than "thud, thud, thud." Keep your knees low and pick up your heels. A high knee lift is only for sprinters.
- Short strides and a quick cadence results in less vertical bounce. Like throwing a ball between two points, the ball travels higher if the points are farther separated. The ideal cadence is about 90 steps a minute. Build up gradually to this.
- Focus on the core and prefect posture. If you can teach your core muscles to lift your legs as opposed to pushing off with the small muscles of the feet, you have discovered new power. Think "run tall" and straighten your spine. Connect the dots between your ear, shoulder, hip, and bony prominence of ankle. Initiate a slight forward lean from the ankles (not the waist). This harnesses some of the power of gravity.
- Practice running down a very gentle hill. When you allow yourself to relax and lean gently while maintaining good posture, and let your feet land under you to avoid braking- you are harnessing the power of gravity. This can be applied on the flats as well.
- Bend your elbows bent 90 degrees and don't cross your hands in front of your body. Arms drive back, not forward. Relax your breathing and movements. Respiration occurs in the lower lung fields so learn belly breathing.
In addition to Lt Col Cucuzzella’s highlights above, there are a variety of programs out there to help teach the movements and make it easier to visualize. These programs include Chi-Running, Cady Stride Mechanics, Evolution Running, Radiant Running, and Pose Tech Training that can all be found online.
The Transition Process
I had a lot of success after picking up the book Chi Running by Danny Dreyer and over a period of 4 months, gradually applying the book's principles. Eventually I was able to throw away my orthotics after 14 years of use and began wearing flat shoes (Newtons). Again, the transition to Newton shoes was a slow process where I started out wearing them one short run per week and eventually was wearing them every day after two months.
I often get asked about running shoes and typically make recommendations based on my experience and knowledge of various products. When choosing footwear, consider your running surface (dirt, trail, grass, cement, pavement, etc).
Generally speaking, if you are running on more manmade surfaces, a more protective shoe is preferred. For more detail on this topic, another great book covering the connection between form, footwear and training is Natural Running by Danny Abshire.
After a year and a half of improving my running form and wearing flatter running shoes, I improved my marathon time significantly and experience fewer injuries. my goal is for participants in the ERWG to find more enjoyment in running, the FA easier to pass, and your improved health.
As more the ERWG progresses, I will pass along updates. Good luck and happy training!
Special thanks to AF doctors Lt Col Mark Cucuzzella, Lt Col Dan Kuland, and Lt Col Antonio Eppolito for allowing me to reference their research and publications for this article.