The Importance of Good Form running and Interval Training

A couple of weeks ago I touched upon the subject of the need to train good form running, not conditioning in Injury: Recovery & The Grand Return. In today’s post, I want to dive a little deeper into the subject of Form.

What is Good Form Running?
Picture of toddler performing a perfect squat. Good form running.When it comes to movement patterns, including – but certainly not limited to – squatting, lunging, running, jumping, throwing, etc, form is paramount. Break down in form is what breaks the body.

Poor form is one of, if not the primary cause of, chronic pain and injury.  This goes whether you are an elite level athlete, weekend warrior, or even a sedentary couch potato. The way you move has a direct and definite impact on how you feel.  It has everything to do with your form, good or bad.

Form is the applied combination of technique and skill. Form is a learned behavior.  It is built through repetition (aka practice), and is embedded in the nervous system. When you learn a new movement pattern, your nervous system creates a specific neural pathway for this new skill (the connection of one part of your nervous system with another).

At first this pathway is weak; the connection is poor. But the more often you repeat the movement pattern, the stronger the neural pathway becomes.  Sustained consistency goes farther than sheer force of effort.   It’s kind of like building a road.  Over time, as more and more traffic uses the road, it is expanded.  Over time, with enough use (i.e. traffic in this example), the road is slowly transformed into a highway.

Proper form takes the right movements and deeply hard wires them into a specialized skill through perfect repetition of movement patterns.

Poor form takes the wrong movements and deeply hard wires them into bad habits through the repetition of imperfect movement patterns.

Poor form

Is inefficient, leaks energy, and makes tasks harder and more exhausting to perform.
Wears down the soft tissue of joints, leading to inflammation and damage.
Creates dysfunctional pain patterns throughout the body.
Increases your short and long term medical costs, by way of…
-visits to doctors and physical therapy
-pain medications
-surgeries
-hospital stays
Poor form, in short, shortens your life!

Good form running

Increases efficiency – You move smoother and faster, jump higher, squat more weight, etc., all with less effort and strain.
Minimizes wear and tear on joints, ligaments, tendons, cartilage.
Allows you to do more with your body and your life.
Speeds recovery time.
Is preventative medicine.
Reduces short and long term health care costs.
Prevents living a life of pain and injury.
Increases productivity.
Proper form, in short, lengthens your life!

Good form running must come first

This is important. Proper form and poor form are both developed through repetition.  The difference lies in the quality of the movement being repeated.

Why does this matter?

Because you cannot train form and conditioning at the same time.

You cannot learn a new movement pattern (form), and – at the same time – use that movement pattern to train for endurance, strength, power, or speed (conditioning).

For example, say you are recovering from a running injury.  If you are training to improve your running gait (form), you cannot use running to improve your conditioning. The two – on a fundamental level – don’t work together!

Training to improve your form and training to improve conditioning are fundamentally incompatible.

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To improve form, you need practice… perfect practice. You need to practice your good form running perfectly in order for it to stick.  When you train for form you are allowing your neurological system to develop new bio-mechanical habits. Because it is so important to have flawless form, you must repeat the movement pattern flawlessly with every repetition.

At the beginning of form training, perfect form breaks down at the first sign of fatigue. Once fatigued, you will no longer be able to maintain good form running.

Training with imperfect form reinforces the poor movement patterns that will ultimately lead to injury.

At the same time, you cannot improve your conditioning without fatigue.  Fatigue is a core component to training endurance, strength, power, and speed. You will not achieve significant improvements in your conditioning without training into some levels of fatigue.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect! Good form running.
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Case Study. An example from real life:
Susan had not had the time to run in over three months.  On Saturday she decided to try one mile for her first run.  One mile is a pretty short distance, and a perfect place to start to get back into good running condition, right? She ran at a 10 minute mile pace.

Here’s the problem: because of her level of conditioning, she is only able to run with proper form for about 1-2 minutes before fatigue sets in.  Once fatigued, it is impossible to maintain proper running form without rest. Each and every step she takes after her form breaks down is a step down the path of a poor neural pathway.  

If she decides to push through and complete the mile without rest, she will actually spend 80% of her running time practicing poor form. That is 80% of her training time building upon a highway system of dysfunction and future pain and injury!

Is that what she wants?  Is that what you want?

The same example can be used for all forms of movement.  Fatigue affects your form in all activities, like swimming, cycling, tennis, resistance training, etc.

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If you want to improve your form, if you want to reduce the recurrence of pain and injury, then you must train with patience.  You must limit how much you perform the desired movement until you have fully developed your new and improved form.

You need perfect practice until you have perfect form.

Then, and only then, can you use that movement to train conditioning.  It may take a few months or longer, depending on your age, conditioning level, injury history, and a few other factors.

It is very likely that you will be able to work on your conditioning in some way.  However, it must come from activities in which you already have a high level of skill and technique.

In any specific movement pattern, you cannot train form and conditioning at the same time.  Perfect form first.  Train conditioning later.

Interval Training
One of the best training methods for improving form is interval training.  Interval training maximizes the benefits of repetition and minimizes the instance of fatigue.   It involves a series of low to high intensity exercises followed by periods of rest or recovery. Interval training includes in the vital rest and recovery your body needs to maintain proper form.

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Case Study. An example from real life, Part 2:
Let’s take another look at Susan’s run.  Instead of running a mile nonstop, she can do a series of one minute runs followed by one minute recovery up to ten times, or really as long as she can maintain proper form, whichever comes first. Not only will she be able to get in the distance that she wanted to run, but she will do it using proper form during a much greater percentage of her workout.

Over the course of several weeks, she can slowly add more time to each running interval and decrease the time of each recovery interval. This helps improve form, increase mileage, and prevent injury. Within a couple months, she will be able to run nonstop for the desired distance while maintaining great form.

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Barefoot Running
Person running barefoot. Good form running. If you have been thinking about making the switch to a barefoot lifestyle, this interval training is an ideal time to incorporate barefoot running into your training. By adding barefoot running into your training you get immediate feedback in your running form.  Basically, bad form will hurt immediately, allowing you to make immediate adjustments in your form.

It is also a great way to force yourself to limit the total amount of training time each day. Your feet will be far too sensitive to train beyond fatigue and poor form. A proper barefoot running transition needs to be done slowly.

It is important with barefoot running that you do not attempt to Push Through The Pain. (Here is more reading on how to make a smooth, safe, injury free transition into a barefoot lifestyle.)

12 Week Interval Running Program

This is the same interval training that I included in the article about Injury and the Grand Return.  It is an excellent interval training program and is a solid way to get back into proper running form.  Jump back over to the bottom of the “Injury” article to have a look or click here to download it as a PDF.

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Pushing Through The Pain

Each week, I see new clients dealing with a very specific type of injury. The one that comes from pushing through the pain. This past week, Jason Robillard of Barefoot Running University wrote an article that I think you should take a moment to read right now: When Running Hurts: Discriminating Between Good Pain and Bad Pain.  He writes about the difference between good and bad pain for barefoot runners and for runners who want to run ultra marathons.

Go ahead and read it now, I don’t mind waiting…

Two Kinds of Pushing Through the Pain

No Pain No Gain. Pushing Through The PainThis is a topic that has been on my mind as well. In the runner’s groups and forums, I see the advice, “pushing through the pain is what you have to do.” Usually it’s offered haphazardly by “experienced” barefoot runners to novice barefoot runners. This kind of thinking comes from a particular couple of ideas.  First, that when transitioning to barefoot/minimalist running you will experience pain, and second, that the only way to get beyond the pain is to push through it. “No pain, No gain.”

I consider this advice to be not only irresponsible, but dangerous for most people.  Doubly dangerous since the majority of those who offer the advice have very little experience in coaching much less in working directly with people with injury. Triply dangerous because they’re often strangers on the internet, where trustworthiness and background info are superficial at best.

The Article
I agree with everything Jason says. But I think he is speaking to a very specific segment of the running population. For the most part, his audience is made up of people who are already in good to excellent physical condition and injury free. However, many of the people transitioning to a barefoot/minimalist lifestyle are doing so because they have been dealing with chronic issues of pain and injury. And they are searching for the cure to their woes.

Running - Pain Now - Beer Later. Pushing Through The PainI grew up as a competitive athlete and I am all too familiar with the sayings. “No Pain, No Gain!” and “pushing through the pain is good.” One of my favorites comes from my best friend, an ex-Navy SEAL, “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” My guess is that the last one would resonate well with Jason Robillard, being an ultra marathoner.

In the past, as a personal trainer and coach, I’ve even used these same phrases to motivate clients to push themselves just a little harder. But now that my work has shifted into movement therapy, my practice has deepened and grown, and I see more and more clients with issues of chronic pain and injury.  Many of my clients come to me over-trained and in pain because they spend the majority of their training time “pushing through the pain.” In light of this, the “idea” that I have makes me think of this in an entirely different way.

What is “good” vs “bad” pain?

Good” pain….
… is general in feeling, meaning it does not have a specific origin (i.e. muscle soreness vs. “my knee hurts”).
… happens when you try a new exercise or workout after a long break.
… comes from pushing yourself to your limits of speed, strength, endurance, power.
… goes away once you slow down or stop exercising.
… in the case of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), the soreness you get a couple days after intense exercise.  This pain should reduce within 72 hours, and be gone completely within 5-7 days.
… does not interrupt your sleep.

Most well-coached athletes spend less than 10% of their total training time pushing themselves into this level of pain. It is the extra kick at the end of a workout, or a planned high intensity day. The majority of their training volume is at a lower level of intensity. However, it is not uncommon for uncoached athletes to spend the majority of their training time at this level. Every workout is a hard workout. There are no rest days. They run as hard and fast as they can every run, lift as hard as they can every workout.  Their idea of a rest day is.. well, the only easy day was yesterday. Spend too much time training at this level of “good” pain and you will eventually feel the “bad” pain.

Bad” pain…
Person with knee pain. Pushing Through The Pain… is when, in other words, you have done damage to your body.
… tends to be very specific (i.e. “my foot, heel, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow hurts right here.”)
… doesn’t necessarily go away once you stop exercising.
… lingers around for weeks or months.
… interrupts your sleep.
… affects performance.
… leaves you moody – frustrated, angry, or anxious.
… leaves you overly fatigued.
… makes your joints, bones, or limbs hurt.
… leads you to the point that your immune system is compromised.
… makes you question whether you should continue exercising.

Do you feel this? Well, if you do… You are injured. To continue pushing through the pain, your body will make the injury worse, it will increase the amount of time needed to heal, and will prevent you from doing what you love to do so much. When you have this pain, you need to stop immediately and seek help from a movement specialist who specialized in walking and running gait assessment, movement assessment, hands on massage therapy, and developing a personalized exercise program for you. It would also be highly advisable to seek the advice of a health care professional. What you want is a solid health care team!

What is Pain?
Pain is not good or bad. Pain is a vital piece of a complex communications system that tells you something is going on within your body. Pain is there for a reason, and it should be listened to, respected, and understood. Listening to, and participating in this conversation is incredibly important. If you listen to the ideas of “pushing through the pain” or “no pain, no gain,” you are  consciously disconnecting or ignoring the body’s natural warning signals.

Let’s get specific for a second.  If you are training for an ultramarathon (of 50 to 100 miles or more), then pushing through some pain is what you will need to do to be successful. There is a level in which you have to disconnect and ignore pain to achieve
your goals. However, doing so is not necessarily in the best interest of your long term health and wellness. This, I believe, is the grey area in which Jason is addressing in his article. Most high level athletes understand that they may be sacrificing some level of health to achieve a specific goal.

However, if you are learning a new skill, perhaps you are learning how to barefoot run, now is precisely and absolutely the WRONG time to shut off or ignore the vital conversation that is taking place within your body. Keep in mind that you have spent the majority of your life cut off from the communication taking place at your feet at every step. To your body, the change from walking and running in a shoe with an arch support, cushion, and heel drop, to walking and running barefoot/minimalist is like training for the Kentucky Derby by riding a merry-go-round. It’s not the same thing. It’s not even in the same ballpark.

Now is the time for you to be extra vigilant and hypersensitive.  Listen carefully to every signal coming from your body. Right now pain is the best coach you could have on the planet. It will tell you when you have done enough, and when you have done too much. It will say when you need to rest and, ultimately, when you can push it a little harder.  Appreciate it, respect it, love it. Listen to it, and don’t ignore it until you better understand exactly what it is telling you. Happy training.

Stop sign with "Stop Pain Stop". Pushing Through The Pain

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