My wife and I lived in a very old apartment building in Hampstead, London for a short time. We rented one room in a four bedroom apartment, sharing the place with other people too poor to rent an entire flat in London (which is everyone). On the plus side our room was relatively large and we could have a small dining table in there so we could enjoy some privacy for our meals.
One night my wife woke me from my slumber with some urgency. It seemed we had dropped some crumbs on the dining table and a little mouse had found his way to them. We watched the little fella quietly for a while until something spooked him and he scurried away. The following day we discussed how we might trap and relocate the little guy. However, procrastination won the day and we did nothing for a few weeks.
Almost every night for a few weeks my wife would wake me to let me know the little man was visiting us again. We worried he might bring some friends but he never did. After a while we began to consider our little visitor as a roommate. A few more weeks passed with somewhat irregular visits. Then one day, he just didn’t come back.
Our running technique is a lot like that old apartment building. It has some little mice in there but they don’t really trouble us. Most of the time we don’t even notice them. Sometimes however, our uninvited guest is a monkey.
We lived pretty comfortably with the mouse in our apartment. Had he been a monkey though, that would have been a different story. At some point, I would lose patience with the screeching and banana stealing and the monkey would have to go (humanely relocated to his natural habitat of course). Sometimes it’s even worse. Sometimes the uninvited guest in your house is an elephant.
I’ve never lived with an elephant, so I can’t say for definite, but I’m pretty sure an elephant would be very difficult to share a house with. An elephant would smash up your place pretty good. Finding a new home for the elephant would be a matter of urgency.
So, when we think about running technique, it’s a good idea to divide things into elephants, monkeys and mice.
Elephants are a big problem. If your running technique has an elephant you need to try and get rid of it asap. Here are a couple of examples of elephants:
- Excessive Noise (impact force)
- Low Cadence (or overstriding)
Monkeys are a problem. They are not quite as bad as elephants, but you should probably do something about them at some point. Here are a couple of examples of monkeys:
- Arm Swing
Mice are not really a problem. You can try and get rid of them or just accept them. Your running performance and injury risk are not going to be dramatically affected in a positive or negative way by mice (Elite or competitive recreational runners may be more interested in dealing with mice). Here are some examples of mice:
- Knee Valgus
- Hip drop
Why divide things up like this?
Well, it’s all about “relative risk”. Here’s a question, what is the biggest risk factor for developing a running injury?
That can be any kind of change. Good or bad. If you change your training habits, your shoes, your diet, your sleep habits, your speed, your cadence, your long run, your hill sessions, your sprint work, the surface you run on. It’s all change.
Our body gets used to what we do with it often. Our tissues adapt to the stresses and loads we place on them. If you change something, you change those stresses and loads. If the change comes quicker than your tissues can adapt, you will get injured.
“If you make any change to your running technique, even a good one, you will temporarily increase your risk of injury.”
So why bother? Well, if you can introduce the change slowly so that your tissues can adapt, then you will transition to your new technique without injury. Certain running techniques offer the long term benefit of increasing running economy and reducing injury risk.
Is changing my running technique worth the risk?
That’s where the animals come in.
- Elephants – Yes, it’s worth the risk
- Monkeys – Sometimes, but it’s not urgent
- Mice – No, not unless you have exhausted all other means of improving your performance and reducing injury risk
So why do we call some things elephants and some things mice? Well, that’s all about how strongly that particular feature of your running has been associated with reduced performance or increased injury risk. Let’s take some examples.
Excessive Noise. Landing harder makes more noise due to the higher impact force. This gives us a clue to your Vertical Loading Rate (VLR). Basically, having a faster VLR will make more noise. Having a faster VLR has been shown to be highly correlated with increased injury occurrence.
Cadence. A low cadence (<170 spm) will increase your impact force (i.e. VLR – which is associated with increased injury occurrence). A low cadence will also compromise performance by increasing muscle work and vertical displacement.
Asymmetry. Most asymmetry is within about 10% of the other side and is not going to increase your risk of injury or compromise your performance. Asymmetry of >10% may be more important. For example, if your quads on your right leg is 30% stronger than your left, then your left leg is going to take more load elsewhere. This might increase your injury risk or compromise your performance.
Footstrike. This is really only relevant in how it relates to the elephants mentioned above. A hard heel strike will increase impact force and is usually related to a lower cadence. However, if you are not noisy and your cadence is >170, don’t worry about your footstrike.
Arm Swing. A common monkey is a shorter arm swing. People often keep the arms in front of the body and this usually comes along with a more hunched over posture. We need a little free momentum from our arms to propel us forward. Try running with your arms held down by your sides or your hands in your pockets. Pretty uncomfortable right? Getting a decent arm swing just helps us cash in on that free momentum and improves our performance.
Pronation, knee valgus (knee dropping inwards as you land), hip drop. These are just a few examples. There are hundreds of little biomechanical peculiarities about the way people run. Most of these have been shown to be poorly correlated with injuries. I would only suggest trying to address mice in two situations:
- You have had repeated injuries in a specific area which also has one of these biomechanical peculiarities
- You have eradicated all your elephants and monkeys AND optimized your training habits AND are looking for another avenue to improve your performance
How do I look for elephants?
- Excessive Noise (impact force) – Jump on a treadmill in a quiet room. If you are worried about waking the baby next door, your impact force is too high. You can also use a decibel monitoring app if you like. Just place in on the treadmill on the plastic bit beside the belt.
- Low Cadence – Read my blog on How to Use Cadence to Prevent Running Injuries.
How do I look for monkeys?
- Asymmetry, Footstrike, Arm Swing etc. – I wouldn’t advise you try and find and address these on your own. FInd a qualified running expert. If you’re in Ottawa feel free to reach out to me 😉
How do I look for mice?
- Pronation, Knee Valgus, Hip Drop etc. – Again, I wouldn’t advise you to try and find/fix these on your own. In fact, I usually don’t even recommend doing anything about them as the short term. Increased risk of injury from changing something usually outweighs any risk or benefit you would get from addressing the mice.
So, do you have elephants in your house? Maybe just a couple of mice? Have you ever tried to do anything about them and if so, how did it go? Let me know in the comments below.