Many runners suffer from injuries caused by stress and overuse of their feet, legs and back. The cause of these injuries is typically associated with a dysfunction of the musculoskeletal system, though this cause may be debatable. Given the high proportion of people who seem to have these 'abnormalities', it is more likely that injuries and strains are caused by environmental factors.
What is a 'normal' stride?
Only about 25% of the population runs with a 'normal' step that pronates (the foot rolls inward) just enough to absorb shock. The rest of us overpronate (the foot rolls too far inward) or underpronate (the foot rolls outward) when we run. These steps can result in stress and injury to our feet, legs and back.
It may seem strange that so few of us have a 'normal' stride. Rather than considering dysfunctions in our body, we should consider the impact of our modern environment. Humans evolved over thousands of years to walk upright on a variety of soft, malleable surface, like dirt, grass and sand. Our back, legs and feet are designed specifically for this kind of terrain.
Over the past 100 years however, we've seen a huge shift in the kinds of surfaces we walk on: grass has been replaced with concrete and sand with hardwood floors. Our biomechanics have not had time to evolve to this changing environment, however, and so the hard modern surfaces underfoot result in strain and injury.
The wrong way to run
Despite what athletic shoe companies claim, modern running shoes only exacerbate the problem. The 'cutting-edge' technology that makes a pair of sneakers seem so comfortable is causing us harm by encouraging us to run incorrectly.
By providing so much padding between our feet and the hard ground, running shoes make it comfortable to step with our heel first-a gait that would be extremely painful if done barefoot. This is an unnatural way to run and the constant pounding on our heels (no matter how cushioned our shoes) is something our bodies are not prepared for. The strange way our bodies move in running shoes is exactly why so many of us under and overpronate.
Fortunately, the solution to under and overpronation is as simple as slipping a pair of custom orthotics into your shoes. Orthotics are shoe insoles
that slide into your shoe and are used to treat and prevent a number of common leg and foot disorders.
Orthotics work by providing a wedge between your foot and the ground, keeping the foot stable. This is essentially the same function soft ground had when we step on it-keeping our feet from rolling too far in either direction.
Custom orthotics are made with a mould of the foot, to result in the best possible fit. The philosophy behind these is that by creating an insole that fits to the foot, you are recreating the feel of soft, malleable ground.
How to run in orthotics
To get the best results while running, you should learn to run naturally-the way barefoot humans run on soft, malleable ground. When you start running in orthotics, pay attention to the balls of your feet: you want to land here, rather than on your heel. Keep your toes flexed and pointing forwards and your knees bent slightly.
This may feel awkward at first, and you will have to concentrate to keep this form. The orthotics will keep you from injuring yourself as you re-learn how to run and before long this new stride will seem like second nature.
After the initial break-in period, runners who use orthotics typically discover improvements in their endurance and stability and a decrease in injuries. Many of the injuries we typically associate with running (such as shin splints, ankle sprains or plantar fasciitis) are unheard of in cultures where barefoot running is the norm. That running correctly in orthotics can also reduce these injuries is further evidence that the best stride is a natural stride.
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