Running expert Jay Dicharry details injury-free running in 'Anatomy for Runners'
Jay, who has competed in triathlons, swimming, cycling and running events, is the director of the SPEED (Strength, Power, Endurance,Education, and Development) Clinic at the University of Virginia.
Dicharry, MPT, CSCSA, has researched the biomechanics of proper running form, and is also a board-certified sports clinical specialist through the American Physical Therapy Association and a certified coach through both the U.S. Track and Field Association and the U.S. Cycling Federation.
In this exclusive interview, Jay shares tips on how to prevent common running injuries, his thoughts on barefoot running, and discusses how we can all get the most out of our runs.
Samantha Chang: You have a ton of knowledge and personal experience with endurance sports. After doing research for your book "Anatomy for Runners," what's your advice on the best way to run?
Jay Dicharry: Safely! OK - want a more serious answer, the best way to run is to use as little energy as possible so that you are efficient, and put minimum stress on your body. How do we do this? It's actually pretty simple. For a given pace, you want to land as close to your body as possible.
Imagine climbing up a flight of stairs one step at a time, and then 2 steps at a time. Which is easier? The single step at a time puts your foot close to your body which is more efficient and places less load on your body.
Sure, you can do two at a time, but it's going to tire you out quickly, and can place more stress on your body that you must control. If more runners took time to learn to run better, a lot less of them would get hurt!
SC: Do runners need to stretch?
JD: The age-old question is actually very simple. You need enough mobility in your joints for the sports and daily activities that you do, and nothing more. For example, a lot of runners have overly tight hip flexors. If you are in this camp, stretching this muscle group is tremendously beneficial since opening up the hips is critical to running.
However, if you already have enough mobility in your hips, stretching your hips won't really provide any advantages at all. It's best to assess yourself, identify your limits, and work on the things you specifically need to improve.
SC: What causes injuries such as fractures, pulled muscles and tendinitis, and how can we prevent them?
JD: Training breaks the body down. Following a proper training schedule ensures that you can recover between workouts, not just day to day but month to month as well. If you load the body faster than it can recover, with too much volume or intensity, muscles, tendons, and bones become overwhelmed and break down. So a proper training schedule is essential.
However, this doesn't explain the biggest reason people get hurt. Even though we run essentially straight ahead, the body must be able stabilize itself in the lateral and rotational planes. Since most runners don't complement their run training to work on this these specific out-of-plane skills, a number of imbalances creep up. The best way to prevent these imbalances is to identify and target your individual weaknesses, and improve them!
SC: Barefoot running is extremely popular right now, and a topic you cover extensively in your book "Anatomy For Runners." What are your thoughts on barefoot running?
JD: Barefoot running is great drill to learn proper run technique. We've been raised to think that the cushioning and stabilizing elements in traditional running shoes are good for us even though there is no body of research to show that this is true. Taking away all the stuff between your foot and the ground takes you from a passenger to a driver. Without cushioned shoes, the body figures out a way to cushion itself. You contact closer to your body, and land a bit softer. And these are two beneficial attributes no matter if you wear shoes or not!
SC: What type of diet do you follow? What type of diet is optimal for running (is there one)?
JD: The diet pendulum has swung far and wide. No one magical solution has ever appeared. All athletes should eat a wide variety of foods focusing heavily on fruits and vegetables, and unrefined sugars. The most critical aspect of sports nutrition actually should focus on the timing and amounts of foods you ingest in relation to your training. The timing of your meals and snacks is much more powerful than most runners realize.
SC: What are your thoughts on ultra-runners/marathoners? It seems logical to conclude they probably get injured more than recreational runners. What's your opinion?
JD: This is a great question, and one that requires more clarification. A lot of ultra-runners and marathoners follow well rounded training programs, and have trained for years to get where they are. This group is knowledgeable and in it for the long haul.
Conversely, there has been a recent surge in everyday people challenging themselves to tackle their first marathon. I wholeheartedly cheer and admire their mental focus to take on an event like this. Unfortunately, the mind is often willing to take on more than the body is ready to tackle. A lot of runners in their first 5K download a marathon training program off the Internet. Instead of going to the finish line, they typically are calling for a medical appointment. Running long distances in the right amount of volume is doable and even healthy. But we must be sure that gradual increases in our activity match those that our body can handle.
SC: There's a common belief that people shouldn't continue running into middle age and beyond because of knee and joint injuries. What are your thoughts on this?
JD: You hear this every day, don't you? And guess what? There just isn't any real proof. This highest incidence of osteoarthritis is in athletes and factory workers who do a lot of heavy lifting and pivoting under load - the stress of a heavy laborer in a factory are quite similar to those of an NFL player. Taking a critical look at all the research shows that no running is actually bad for joint health.
Some running is good for our joints, and more than that is better still. Somewhere after that, more running is worse for us. We just don't know exactly what amount this is, and if it evenly applies to all runners. Like general health, this all comes back to "everything is good in moderation." Running ten 50-100 mile ultramarathons a year likely isn't best for most folks. But sitting on the couch isn't best for most folks either. Go outside, and go for a run!