The Injury Shuffle
When an athlete sustains an injury, the body produces pain as a way to get the athlete to stop doing what is causing it damage. Inflammation creates a feedback loop “turning off” muscle fibers and further shutting down an injury site. Depending on the intensity of the pain and inflammation, the athlete will compensate for it by using other muscle groups to do the work of the ones that are injured. This may be in the form of a subtle shift in weight or a full-on limp.
Once the athlete is healed, however, they will not always return to the same running form they had prior to being injured. The injury-compensated stride mechanics may continue; in some cases, even leading to more overuse injuries in other areas. An example is a “unipod” stride in which the athlete puts more weight on one leg to protect and unload the other. It is important to note that stride mechanics are deeply ingrained neurologically and habitual. Often the athlete does not realize that they are compensating. A comment I frequently hear after a video stride analysis is “I did not know I was doing that.”
One of the more common compensations I see is one I call the “injury shuffle.” Running involves forceful contractions. The faster a runner runs, the more forceful they become. For this reason alone a runner is more likely to be injured at their race pace versus a slow training pace. The injury shuffle is a way to compensate for the forces involved in running while attempting to maintain some semblance of speed. I generally observe a very fast stride rate of 190-200 strides per minute, with a relatively short stride. Posture is upright without much forward lean into gravity. There is little vertical oscillation or flight time and the run is very “flat;” picture the little sand piper birds you see running along the beach. I guess the good news is that this is a relatively “safe” stride, as the mechanics diminish contractile force and impact. I have observed similar mechanics in ultra distance runners in which time on the feet and injury prevention is trumped by running speed. The bad news is that it creates slow stride mechanics with little opportunity for improvement without some sort of mechanical intervention.
The gluteus maximus and hamstrings are some of the largest and most powerful muscles in the body. They are involved in “pawback” motion driving the leg forcefully back towards the center of gravity to make forceful contact with the ground. The calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) provide the final push-off before flight by extending the ankle (picture a calf raise). The hip flexors forcefully drive the knee creating centripetal force which lifts the lower leg and shortens the lever arm of the leg. It is these critically important explosive movements that are mitigated by the injury shuffle. Runners will pile mile upon mile on top of this type of mechanics but may see little improvement in speed, if any. I have interviewed athletes who have trained extensive miles for several years or more without improvement.
There is a deliberate process for addressing the injury shuffle or other compensated stride and I recommend the following…
• Address your strength and flexibility first. Have your strength and flexibility tested by a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or sports medicine provider. Weaknesses in the kinetic chain should be identified and strength balance restored from left to right. Tightness in the hip flexors, quadriceps and hamstrings are often limiters as well. Get the body strong, flexible, and balanced. Once this restored, it is very important to maintain it. Realize that you may always have a weak spot that needs special attention and it may be necessary to drop back your run volume as you address these areas specifically.
• Get your stride analyzed by a professional. It is very hard to change what you are doing if you don’t know that you are doing it. It takes a highly trained eye and slow motion video analysis to accurately identify limiters. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there regarding running form so beware of casual observations in real time.
• Make the mind-body connection. Once you understand what is happening while you are running, it is time to address it. There are many run drills to address form limiters and proprioception, but I find many athletes perform drills with little understanding of the application to their run form. The purpose of a drill is to take a small portion of the stride and perfect it. Select the right run drills for your limiters and apply them to your running mechanics. Light plyometric drills such as bounds and skips may be incorporated at this point.
• Start to run fast; slowly. In order to run faster you have to run faster but too much too soon will quickly drop you back down to step 1. I start an athlete off with 50 meter run strides. Strides are simply running with good form and are always submaximal. If their form is good, I gradually lengthen the distance of their run strides and have them increase speed. The idea is to open up the stride and increase force production gradually. The next step is to incorporate speed work. An athlete with an injury history will be best served performing their speed work on a flat, linear, and soft surface such as crushed gravel.
• Break old habits by creating new ones. It will take hundreds of miles before proper form is subconscious and automatic. Once proper mechanics are instilled, the athlete must stay focused on their run form. This requires vigilance, especially when fatigue sets in. Listen to your foot falls. Feel where your weight is landing on the foot and what muscles you are using to propel yourself forward. Use your arms to keep your legs in rhythm and time your stride. The more fatigued you are, the more important it is to stay focused on your mechanics.
This is obviously not an overnight process but addressing form and economy may be just the thing needed to get over your running plateau and on to your next PR.
Matt Russ has coached and trained athletes up to the professional level, domestically and internationally, for over 15 years. He currently holds the highest level of licensing by both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is Head Coach and owner of The Sport Factory, and coaches athletes of all levels full time. He is also free lance author and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines and websites. Visit www.thesportfactory.comfor more information or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org