top of page
  • Writer's pictureS A

The Paradox of Running

Our body is an all-terrain vehicle and running provides many health benefits. From a good cardio workout to strengthening bones. But it doesn’t mean it is a good fit for everyone. Especially, the surface we run on has a huge impact and can put excessive strain on your joints and ligaments in your ankles, knees, hips and lower back. Harder surfaces involve more impact and more bio-mechanical stress. Some of the problems that can arise from running on hard surfaces are:

Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, stress fractures, and runners knee are a few specific ailments often reported by runners.

Weight Acceptance

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, damage to weight-bearing joints is one of the most serious disadvantages associated with running. A slow jog and fast walking are surprisingly good for inter-vertebral discs as opposed to the more jarring that comes from running. Discs do absorb shock, and adapt to the stimulus, but there seems to be a speed limit.

Surface makes a difference

For East African runners, who have pioneered marathons, the go-to surface is dirt trails rather than pavement. There is a pretty good reason for it. The evidence on this is a bit all over the place in this regards but where there is smoke there is fire and the proof is in the pudding. Ask yourself, When do we feel more worn out? On a soft surface like grass or sand or on a pavement?

2012 experiment produced peak plantar pressures about 12% lower on grass than hard surfaces.

Touch Down - Impact matters

The amount of force placed on joints during a run is four times greater than that which occurs at rest, making it especially dangerous for those who have existing joint damage or is overweight. There are limits to our ability to absorb shock and we really do not know where that line is drawn. We do adapt to surfaces deftly though, but there are probably limits and consequences to shock absorption.

The spine is part of the spring shock-absorption system, both flexing and compressing, and the tough little jelly-filled donuts of connective tissue between the vertebrae are a key component for shock absorption. The jarring impact of running (at any speed) constitutes a source of relentless wear and tear on the spine, and the discs in particular probably cannot keep up with the onslaught, and aren’t able to adapt and recover.

A giant 2015 study of almost 1700 novice runners in a “Start to Run” program found that a lot of them got hurt (almost 11%), and of those that did get hurt were more likely to be older, heavier, have a history of previous musculoskeletal problems, and less prior running experience.

Monotony of same surface running

On an unvarying surface, our body is subjected to exactly the same forces with every strike of the foot. The biomechanics of each step are identical. If tissue ever fails under load, which obviously it does, it may fail sooner if the load is applied more consistently. This could lead to injuries like:

  • Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS)

  • Medial tibial stress syndrome

  • Compartment syndrome

  • Patellofemoral syndrome (PFPS)

  • Biomechanical overload syndrome and

  • Stress fractures

Point of Contact is the Key

Where you are making the contact can have a huge say on just how bad running can be for you in the long term and is where the running woes usually starts.

'Heel runners', tend to make first ground contact with their heel, which is by far one of the most impactful ways to strike the surface and one that sends shock-waves up your leg all the way to the back. There simply is very minimal shock absorption occurring in the heel and therefore this becomes a very tough way to run.

The other type is the 'Toe runners', where they strike the ground with their toes. Sprinters for example are more likely to run on their toes and therefore less likely to experience the high impact forces that are associated with heel strike runners. That said, this does not make them immune to their own set of issues, namely inflammation of the achilles tendon and the development of achilles tendonitis.

The optimal method is to aim to strike with the mid-foot (ball of your feet, between the arch and toes). This way we get the best of both the worlds of shock absorption and propulsion. To drive home this point you can do a quick test right now. It doesn't need any equipment or special surfaces.

Try: Stand up and start jumping on your heels. You will see it is pretty jarring and sends shock waves all over the body. Now try the other end, which is jump on your toes. It is a wee bit better but it is not perfect either. Now try jumping on your mid foot like how we do when we are skipping. This is the optimum way of striking the surface and running to gain the most with minimal impact.

You can watch this video to get more info on the ideal way to run.

Take Home Message

If you are young, no existing issues with hips/knees/joints and within the healthy BMI range then it is ok to go for an occasional run on hard surfaces. That is, if you have no access to any other more runner friendly surfaces. Running on pavement/hard surfaces is probably a bit risky. In the absence of proper evidence, how about listening to our body and err on the side of caution? Aim for “fast walking and slow jogging”

Ideally, your run should be on a soft, constantly changing, and unstable surfaces, but not so unstable that your risk of tripping and spraining. Do anything you can to vary your running surface, and to get off the concrete every chance you get.

Note: There are so many alternatives to running, which gives you all of the health benefits and more, without the potential drawbacks. Feel free to explore and find something which suits your needs.

46 views0 comments


bottom of page