A while back, Jessica and I took some time in Central Park, NYC, just listening to runners come by. Technically, we had our backs to runners, stood just off to the side and listened to them pass before we could see them.
We were astounded by what we found. We could tell how they were landing and what they were doing, often upper and lower body, just by hearing their steps. We could tell if they were landing symmetrically or off-balanced. We could tell if they were slamming down or landing light. We could even tell if they were running efficiently or wasting a lot of energy.
A very simple thing you can do to improve your running form and prevent injuries is to listen to your steps. Mindful Running or becoming more aware of your inner and outer environment is to us the next step (pardon the pun) or evolution in running. In this case it means being more mindful or bringing greater awareness to your steps. So the next time (or every time) you go out for a run, take at least 5 minutes to keep the music player off, and just listen to your steps. First try to hear them without judgement or without thought. In other words, just listen without trying to hear for anything in particular. But after a minute or two, listen and look in your mind’s eye for a few key things:
1. Do the steps sound evenly spaced apart or is one coming sooner than another.
If so, you have an asymmetry, or a difference in stride between one side and the other you need to work on.
2. Do the steps sound even in sound and tone.
If not you also have a difference, look and see if your feet are landing pointing in the same direction, if one step is shorter than the other, or if one arm hangs down lower than the other. Still unsure, see if someone can record you with video for a minute (facing you as you come running toward them) and then play it back. You’ll be amazed at what you find!
3. Does one have a scraping, dragging, or screeching sound.
If so, it’s not just that your stride is different, but one is landing at a different angle to the other (not pointed forward, digging in too fast, turned out, or even dragging when you try and pick it up). Work to make sure both legs and feet are doing the same thing, pointed in the same direction, and lift and land the same.
4. Does it sound like your feet are landing light, or hitting hard.
Often a great way to check is to put ear-buds in your ears (with the music off) or earplugs in your ears and FEEL rather than hear what’s going on. Can you feel a vibration or pounding coming up through your body? Or does it feel extra light. In this way you’ll likely be amazed by what you feel—next step, work to lighten those steps, listening as you shorten your stride, and land more toward the middle or even front of your shoe to find the quietest landing zone possible.
5. Listen for the timing.
Are the steps each quickly following one after the next after the next (a sign of a good high cadence or turn-over rate) or are they step…pause, pause, pause, step…, pause, pause, pause (I’m exaggerating here) as you take very long steps, or even try to take the longest steps or strides that you can—if you have a long stride, work to shorten it, seeing almost how short of steps you can take. Even if your strides are quickly in succession, you may still be able to shorten your stride. A shorter stride means less impact and greater efficiency. When in doubt, try a metronome. There are handy metronome apps for all phone platforms, or you can get one that clips on your belt. Ideally, you want to shoot for 180 strides per minute, if not higher.
6. Do you hear any skidding, scuffing, or scraping when you land.
If so, you’re not only running with the brakes on, but sending damaging force through your feet up your legs. Shorten the stride immediately, and try landing with the feet almost directly beneath you. It will help to stand tall for this, rather than to curl forward (imagine an imaginary silver string through the top of your head, pulling yourself high toward the sky). Then each time your feet go down, pretend your running on hot coals and pull your feet back up immediately. Quick feet and short strides should stop the skidding cold!
7. Does it sound like your feet gently touch the ground, or sound more like a smack, or almost like one hand clapping the other.
If so, you’re literally smacking the ground with each stride. Try to adjust your landing slightly forward, and keep your legs more centered directly underneath you. If this still doesn’t fix it, look for other shoes (preferably with a more flexible sole) that will help you land more naturally (of course, if you’re doing this barefoot, listen and simply work to get rid of the sound…you’re foot should be rolling down as you land, from outside to inside, and generally speaking from front (ball) toward back (heel).
If you’re up for more of a challenge, listen to your breath, even at a high rate of speed, you shouldn’t be huffing and puffing through the mouth. We’ll talk about this much more in future posts, and breathing is one significant piece that’s often overlooked in running (it’s why we’ve included so many great breathing exercises in Mindful Running) but you don’t need to huff and puff, at any speed. Work to slow your breaths, instead of breathing fast and strong, breathing slow and deep, and always through the nose.
The slower and deeper you breathe, the greater your oxygen exchange, and through the nose means tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing the body, relaxing muscles, and vasodiliation, meaning more available O2 getting into the cells. This takes practice, and we’ll have an upcoming blog on how to get started.
Don’t worry if you feel just short of breath when breathing through your nose–that’s your body’s way of learning to carry more CO2, which we now know gets MORE (rather than less) O2 into the body (who would have thought?). For now just work to slow the breath down, slow and deep, and as much as you can breathe through the nose, even if you have to breathe in through the nose, and out through the mouth at the moment…just ask yourself, how quietly can I breathe (and don’t worry if there’s discomfort, that’s your body getting more efficient and learning to adapt!).
So that’s it from here, you’ve got homework, if you care to take it. It’s just all about increasing your awareness, learning about your body, and letting it tell you what you need to know. Have fun with this. I know you can do it!
This is Michael Sandler saying Be Mindful, Have Fun, Listen and Watch Those Strides, and Run Free!