Are you Fit to Run?

Can you run? Of course you can. It's a natural activity. But running well requires a blend of endurance, strength, coordination, flexibility and balance. And these are all attributes that a modern lifestyle does its best to compromise.

While our ancestors spent hours roaming the plains, we spend hours slumped in front of a computer or TV. It's little wonder our bodies aren't perfectly attuned. Nor that most of the time, we are unaware of the fact. Why does it matter? Because misuse - and disuse - of the musculoskeletal system won't enable you to perform to your full running potential and, worse still, may see you stepping ever closer to injury.

Check your competency


"It's all about physical competence," says running coach and movement specialist Kelvin Giles (movementdynamics.com), whose former guises include UK national athletics coach and director of track and field at the Australian Institute of Sport. "We need to think about function before force."

Jon Shelby from CrossFit (crossfit.com), a strength and conditioning system currently taking the UK by storm, agrees. "There's an issue with runners concentrating too much on running, rather than taking a more balanced approach to training," he says.

Run-proof your body

The first step in run-proofing your body is identifying your weaknesses. That's what led Giles to develop the Physical Competency Assessment, a wide-ranging battery of tests that identify possible weak links in the kinetic chain for people in all sports.

"The tests expose limitations in a variety of movements that are the underlying basics of good running mechanics," explains Giles, who has assessed a wide variety of sportspeople. In a study on rugby players, it was found that those who fared poorly in the assessment had a greater incidence of injury later on.

If you've been running for a while and have yet to succumb to injury, you may already have a high level of physical competency. But not necessarily, according to Giles. "The body is clever," he says.  "It will always find a way to compensate for poor movement patterns, which, in the long term, can cause degeneration and trauma in muscles and joints." In other words, you can run without good hip, knee and ankle alignment, but it's a risky game to play.

Chain reaction

Here's an example. For an efficient running stride, you need sufficient mobility in the ankle joint. Let's say your calves are as tight as guitar strings. Your body allows the knees to roll inwards to achieve the necessary range at the ankles. It's your body's way of cheating. Those inwardly rotating knees will create shearing forces within the joint, predisposing them to injury.

And they will also have an effect further up the body, because the hips, which are required to flex and extend the legs, are now trying to keep the pelvis stable to prevent it following the inward roll of the knees. But something has to facilitate that hip extension - and next in line comes the lumbar spine.

"A lumbar spine going into unnecessary extension under load is the last thing we want," says Giles. "The lumbar region is the foundation of the spinal column, providing stability, while the body parts above and below it provide the required mobility."

Everything is connected - from head to toe. "We should build physical competence from the ground up," says Giles. "That way, we can reduce injury risk and enhance our experience of running."

Test yourself

The following tests are taken from Kelvin Giles' Physical Competence Assessment Manual (£34.95, Movement Dynamics). A score of 4 or 5 in each test is desirable, while lower scores suggest the area needs work. The manual contains 55 tests and detailed instructions. It is available from movementdynamics.com.

Picture credit: Peter Griffith/ Getty Images

Why is it important?

This static hold tests your ability to control and stabilise the entire kinetic chain from the feet to the shoulders. "The lateral bridge is particularly relevant to runners because as we run, the forces are transferred from one side of the hips to the other in the frontal plane with each footstrike, creating a need to be able to stabilise in this plane," explains Giles.If these core stabilisers lack strength or endurance, they will not be able to help you maintain good posture and alignment during running, or dissipate the forces.

How to test it

Lie on your side with legs stacked one on top of the other and body in a straight line, with your lower arm at 90 degrees to the body, elbow under shoulder (left). Lift yourself up on to the forearm and foot, forming a straight line from head to toe. Keep the abdominals and glutes braced and don't let the lower hip sag down towards the ground. Keep the head in a neutral position and the top arm alongside your body. Test both sides. Stop if you feel pain or if excessive shuddering begins.

Keeping Static    Points
45 secs                  5
34-44 secs             4
23-33 secs             3
10-22 secs             2
<10 secs                1

Scored 3 or less?

To strengthen your core stabilisers, you can modify the lateral bridge by keeping the bottom knee on the floor. A prone (face down) bridge can also be practised with the knees on the floor to begin with. But get vertical as soon as you can, Giles advises.

More exercises

Attach one end of a resistance tube to a door handle or similar and kneel side-on to it (hips above knees). Holding the other end, move away until there is tension in the band when you are holding it out in front at the centre of your ribcage.

Now, maintaining stability, rotate your body away from the resistance tube, keeping your hips centred. Do 12-20 repetitions and then repeat on the other side. "Once you can maintain stability kneeling down, progress to a low split stance and then standing," says Giles. "Sitting, kneeling and standing medicine ball work is also good."

Why is it important?

This exercise assesses your ability to transfer weight from one foot to the other, while maintaining correct posture, balance and control. "It's a prime illustrator of the fundamentals of running mechanics and efficiency, in particular the 'tall hips' component of the running action," says Giles. It also tests the strength and range of movement in hip flexion (of the lunging leg) and hip extension (of the standing leg). "In running, you need to be able to extend the hip to drive yourself forwards," adds Giles.

How to test it

Stand barefoot with your hands on hips. Lift one leg out in front, bending the knee until the foot is level with the opposite knee (keep the foot flexed). Keep your torso upright (not tipping sideways or leaning forward or back) and your support leg straight. Step forward with the lifted leg, land and bend both knees so that the front knee is aligned over the ankle and the back knee brushes the floor. Drive back through the front heel to return to standing position. Repeat on other side.

Score 1 point for each of the following:

  • You can lift your foot level with the opposite knee while keeping your waistband level 
  • You can lift your foot level with the opposite knee without your support leg flexing 
  • You can lift your foot level with the opposite knee without the shin of your trail leg turning in or out during the movement
  • You can maintain ankle, knee and hip alignment upon landing (no collapse of the knee)
  • You can land and return smoothly without losing your balance

Scored 3 or less?

The A-stance (the first part of the lunge, in which the lunging leg is lifted until the foot is level with the opposite knee) is in itself is a great exercise for strengthening the hips and improving your balance and stability. Mix static holds with shifting continually from one foot to the other, always maintaining good alignment. Also practise your double leg squat and single leg stance in the later slides.

Why is it important?

The single leg stance is a strength, balance and coordination challenge. "Ground reaction forces go through one leg at a time in running," says Giles. "This test highlights any discrepancies between right and left leg and hip function, as well as the stability of the entire kinetic chain [trunk, hip, knee and ankle alignment]."

How to test it

With bare feet and your arms outstretched in front of you, lift one foot off the floor in front of the support leg (it needn't be lifted very high), and flex at the hip and knee to lower the body, as if you were going to sit back on a stool. "You'll know if you've done it right if your butt moves before your knee," says Giles.

Score 1 point for each of the following:

  • The shin is at 90 degrees to the thigh
  • The ankle, knee and hip are in alignment (the knee doesn't collapse in)
  • Your heel stays down 
  • The waistband stays level (the hip doesn't 'hitch')
  • Your trunk is in proper alignment, parallel to the angle of your shin

Scored 3 or less?

If you also score 3 or less for the double leg squat test, focus on improving your score there before worrying about the single leg stance. But if you did OK in the double leg squat, then practise a modified single leg stance with the heel of the lifted foot just touching the floor for additional balance, gradually taking more weight on the support leg as you improve. Alternatively, hold on to a support to help you develop the appropriate balance and strength. Adding step-ups and lunges to your repertoire will also help you improve your single leg stance prowess.

Why is it important?

The Thomas Test is a flexibility test that assesses the range of movement through the anterior chain (the muscles at the front of your body). "The hip flexors attach to the lumbar spine. If they are tight, they can trigger the lumbar spine into extension, putting stress on the back," says Giles. "They need to be long and strong."

How to test it

You'll need someone to assess your position. Sit on the edge of a sturdy table, bringing one knee into your chest. Lie back, allowing the other leg to hang off the surface with the foot dangling. Don't arch your back, keep your head on the bench, your torso in line with your legs and wrap your arms round your knee. There are two aspects of the position to check. First, check the angle of the thigh of the hanging leg from the side (above). Is it parallel with or lower than the table top? The most desirable thigh position in this test is five degrees below horizontal with back flat, head down and knee pulled into the chest.

Thigh Angle               Points
5° below horizontal      5
Horizontal                    4
Horizontal + 5°             3
Horizontal + 10°           2
Horizontal + >10°         1

Scored 3 or less?

If you fared poorly in Test 1, stretch the hip flexors daily, holding for 60 seconds. For a superior stretch, attach a resistance band around your ankle and lie face down with a foam roller or rolled-up towel just above your knee. Use the other end of the resistance band to draw your foot towards your bottom, pressing the hip downwards. "Follow each stretch with a movement that utilises the increased range, such as lunges with a straight back leg," says Giles. Dynamic stretches such as leg swings can also be useful, but be vigilant that you are flexing and extending the hip and not the lumbar spine.

Thomas Test 2

Next, check the angle of the shin from the side (above). Is it vertical or is the lower leg slightly ahead of the knee? The most desirable shin position is 90 degrees in relation to the horizontal.

Shin Angle   Points
90-80°           5
79-70°           4
69-60°           3
59-50°           2
40-49°           1

Scored 3 or less?

If Test 2 was your problem area, this indicates tight quadriceps. A classic quad stretch won't target the rectus femoris, one of the quad muscles that attaches both below the knee and above the hip, so use the stretch above in addition to your usual quad stretch.

Why is it important?

"Being able to flex and extend the hip, knee and ankle joints in a controlled sequence of strength and stability, and at the same time control the trunk, is fundamental to running," says Giles. Your ability to perform a perfectly executed squat will give a clear indication of your coordination and alignment during this 'triple flexion-extension' movement.

How to test it

Stand barefoot with your feet hip distance apart and your arms outstretched at chest height. Slowly lower yourself back and down into a squat. Your heels must stay in contact with the ground and your ankles, knees and hips must stay aligned with each other, with weight distributed evenly on both legs. Keep your head and chest up - the angle of your torso should match the angle of your shins. Do three repetitions slowly, assessing each part of the movement.

Score 1 point for each of the following:

  • Your thighs are parallel to the floor
  • Your ankles, knees and hips are aligned (the knees don't collapse in) 
  • You have an equal stance on both legs (the hips don't swing to one side) 
  • Your heels stay down
  • Your trunk is properly aligned - at the same  angle as your shins

Scored 3 or less?

The test is the exercise, so make squats a regular part of your workout. It can be useful to tie a resistance band just above the knee to 'push out' against if your knees start to roll in. Assess your hip and ankle flexibility if your trunk pitches forward during the squat.

Why is it important?

Restricted ankle range will increase the likelihood of overpronation and possibly up the risk of conditions such as plantar fasciitis and achilles tendinitis. What's more, it could force you to lift the heel up early, causing you to lose power through the push-off phase.

How to test it

Stand barefoot facing a wall (ideally without a skirting board). Put one foot forward and bring the knee of the front leg to touch the wall while keeping the foot pointing directly forward and the heel in contact with the floor. Don't let the foot roll inwards. Now shuffle your foot back and see if you can still maintain the position (knee in contact with the wall, heel in contact with the floor). Continue to move your foot back until you reach the furthest point at which you can achieve this. Now measure the distance between the end of your big toe and the wall. Swap sides. Compare your measurement with the scores shown below.

Distance from wall    Points
>12cm                         5
10-12cm                      4
7-9cm                          3
4-6cm                          2
1-3cm                          1

Scored 3 or less?


Your first port of call is regular calf stretching - stretch with your knee bent and straight to target the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. One way of doing this is to hang the back half of your foot off a step. Hold for 60 seconds. "As soon as you've stretched, go straight into a movement that puts the new range of motion into practice," advises Giles.

For example, you could do some 'heel-toe' walking, in which you land with the foot flexed up and then roll through to push up from the ball of the foot. If a couple of weeks of regular stretching doesn't improve your score, it's worth getting an experienced physiotherapist to investigate other possible causes of your limited ankle range