What to do if you’re in a running rut

Our bodies often get knocked out of whack by our lifestyles and there are many ways that we can improve our mobility, correct imbalances and benefit our running. More important, however, and more effective than any form cue or drill, is using our body’s innate abilities to choose and optimise our preferred movement paths. Many runners don't harness those innate abilities, but read on to learn how you can unlock their power to transform your running.

Imagine a stream flowing down a mountain, finding the path of least resistance. This is roughly the process our bodies use in forming our preferred movement path, only it’s more complex, as the variables are greater, the body is clever and it has memory.

The body can recruit muscles in an endless variety of subtly changing patterns to achieve a similar end. So not only are the dimensions and properties of each person's limbs, joints and muscles unique, but our preferred methods of locomotion are unique as well. They are developed over time by a process known as ‘plasticity’.

‘We first learn to move in ways shaped around our individually unique neurological and anatomical architectures,’ says performance scientist John Kiely. ‘The more we move, the more we converge on favoured solutions to individually specific problems.’ In other words, we find what works for us and, over time, our brains and bodies ignore other options. Our movement patterns become embedded, creating our unique running style. This conformity lets us become very efficient, using only the muscles required and letting others rest.

‘Plasticity allows us to learn from our past experiences and to continually conform to previously successful movement solutions,’ says Kiely. ‘But it also encases 
us in a tomb of constraints – we become stuck in ruts.’

Repetitive ruts

Those ruts create two problems. The first stems from the fact that variability serves as one of the key ways the body protects itself against injury. Even when running on a track or treadmill, the body subtly varies each stride in complex patterns, spreading the work between different resources.

‘The mechanical stress of running is distributed in ever-varying, yet non-randomly organised patterns,’ says Kiely. It’s similar to how, each time you run on a trail, you step somewhere different while still following the trail and staying within boundaries, creating a wide path instead of a deep, narrow rut.

Studies, including a robust recent project from the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory in Luxembourg, have shown that lack of variability – constantly running with exactly the same stride – is highly correlated with injury. ‘Without variability,
 you have the same tissues being hit the same way over time with no respite – that’s the recipe for an overuse injury,’ says Kiely.

Variability goes down when the body becomes excessively fatigued. It’s also reduced when we fail to vary the parameters of our runs. When we run the same way every day, we can do so mindlessly, shutting down not only the conscious mind but also the subconscious controller that adapts to changes. If we don’t challenge 
the mind, it focuses its energies elsewhere, letting our running
 stride get increasingly static.

‘Most of my injured patients either run on a treadmill all the time or run the same course over and over,’ says podiatrist Rob Conenello. ‘It’s important to stress variability. Different shoes, different terrain, so you’re not building up patterns.’

The neurological ruts we fall into due to lack of variability also cause problems when we try to correct for imbalances or improve our stride efficiency. If we’ve been running with restricted hip flexors and sleeping glutes, our body’s plasticity has 
found ways to keep us upright 
and to propel us forward, and 
these ways have become normal
 for us. We’ve learned to move in inefficient, well-travelled ruts. ‘We need to break out of those ruts,’ says Kiely. ‘And to do that we need to do something different.’

On its first time moving down the mountain, the stream flows into each valley and ravine, some of them dead ends, as it explores the easiest route down. Over time, however, the channel becomes deeper and narrower, eroded and entrenched into one option. Even if we create a new, more efficient route, the stream can’t find it until the mountain gets shaken up – by an earthquake or a flood – and the exploration process starts again.

Similarly, when we change the parameters of our bodies’ capacity, we need to shake up the system and loosen the ruts so new patterns can emerge. ‘You change resources,’ says Kiely. ‘But then you have to point out those enhanced resources to the central nervous system and convince it that, actually, this is, in fact, a better way to do things. Change
 your proprioception, change your strength, change your tissue capacity – then it’s got to be shaken up.’

The spice of life

Variability is the missing link in many runners’ routines, and it’s the first step to running better. Even without doing any corrective stretches or exercises, without cueing and form changes, variation will allow your body and brain to find better ways of moving.

‘The most important thing for a runner is to mix up their training,’ says podiatrist and biomechanist Simon Bartold. ‘Elites know this. But your average runners run in the same track in the same direction the same way every time they run and wonder why they get injured. You have to mix up the signal.’

Variety is always important, but it becomes essential when you’re working to change and improve your running movements. After improving your range of motion and key strengths, you have to do something different to get your body to start using new patterns, or you’ll simply keep running the same way. The magic is that when you shake things up and get the brain to pay attention again, it will find new patterns that are best for your improved mechanics. While there are some form cues that can help you consciously focus this process, substantial, effective change will occur subconsciously through the process of plasticity.

Related: 3 double-intensity training sessions

The most basic variation is pace. Simply running faster some days and slower on others will improve your form. Different paces use different ranges of motion, different cadences and different muscular stresses. Train using a variety of different workouts: long runs, tempo runs, intervals at 5K pace, recovery runs, pure-speed workouts. If that’s too ambitious, start with just adding strides to your routine two or three times per week (see below).

Changing your cadence can also alter stride mechanics and require sufficient focus to create efficient new pathways and patterns. Make gradual changes so that the changes come naturally and gradually, not major modifications that might be unprofitable or injurious, such as trying to match an unrealistically high cadence.

You should also vary the terrain you run on. Even just getting off the pavement and onto the grass beside it greatly enhances the variability of each foot plant and requires your body and mind to adapt to and explore new ways of moving. ‘Jump on an off-road path,’ says professor
 of kinesiology Ryan Green. ‘You 
have to be aware of the ground,
 your proprioception. You’re doing core strength and drills and don’t even know it.’

Runners used to the road often balk at this, because it requires more focus and effort to run on trails than on a smooth, paved path. But that is the point. The more challenging the terrain, the more the body and brain will focus, and that focus is required to rewire the system.

‘It’s doing something different physically, but also doing challenges that are sufficiently engaging that you have to zero in on them,’ says Kiely. ‘That’s the catalyst for the slow change in brain chemistry that enables the plasticity channels in the brain.’

The brain won’t commit resources to this process if it doesn’t sense adequate challenge. ‘It has to be engaging,’ says Kiely. ‘The brain has to focus: “This is the relevant stuff – if I don’t get it right, there will be a consequence.” Our brain will respond to what it feels is important.’

When Kiely describes this, it sounds rather like what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’. Flow is the state where challenge equals skill, so that the task requires full physical and mental focus, but doesn’t exceed what you’re able to accomplish. Often in running, the physical effort brings us to that focus. And in this instance, we are looking for a coordination challenge at the precise level that we need in order to give it our full focus while not feeling overwhelmed so that we withdraw and make excuses. To this end, fast-paced running down a technical trail may be one of the best ways to shake up your stride. Fast enough that you can’t break your focus for a second, but not so fast that you’re out of control.

Lacking access to steep, technical terrain several times a week, some, like Olympic sprint coach Dan Pfaff, introduce random variables to provoke rapid change and require intense focus. Pfaff draws irregularly spaced lines using chalk or tape on a pavement or track and gets runners to go through them at a rapid pace. Coach Andrew Kastor has his runners do repeats in spikes in a grassy park that is not perfectly groomed, intentionally ensuring that they encounter holes, rough patches, uneven turns and other obstacles that require reaction and adjustments in their strides.

‘At a reasonable pace, the runner has to change cadence and stride length based on visual information, while maintaining speed,’ says Kiely. ‘Too slow is too easy: you don’t have to focus. Too quick and you’re bordering on risky.’

More informally, notice kids splashing each other with the puddles along the roads during runs. It’s a game to them, but it creates many of the elements desired: quick steps outside of the normal stride path for both the splasher and splashee, who has the added benefit of having to react without prior planning in which direction of speed. At other times they’ll jump over benches, bushes and playground equipment, push off the sides of rocks or walls. There are important lessons you can learn from this ‘play’ – the key is to be creative, have fun, and challenge the body to move in new ways.

Another source of variety missed by many runners is footwear. We tend to find a running shoe that fits and feels right, and we wear it every day until it wears out, then we buy a new pair of the same model. But different shoes change how your foot interacts with the ground and allow your nervous system to play with your stride, allowing for adaptation. ‘The easiest way to change your movement pattern is simply to change your shoe,’ says Paul Langer, a podiatrist and an adviser to the American Running Association.

‘The best thing to tell people is to change your shoes every day,’ says Conenello. That sounds like a lot of shoes, but even a two-shoe rotation will help. You can have one lighter, more minimal shoe and one that’s somewhat heavier and more cushioned. Or one with a slightly different heel-toe drop. Or a trail shoe and a road shoe, if you get on the trails a couple times per week.

And the biggest, most effective variation you can produce in your footwear is to go without it. Very few people advocate going barefoot all the time anymore, but there are a lot of things you can do while barefoot that will create variety in your stride, strengthen your feet, cue balance and encourage a light, quick footstrike.

Do these drills to break out of your running rut

In addition to variety in your running, adding ’form drills’ engages muscles, increases your range of motion and creates movement patterns outside of your normal running stride. More effective than consciously cueing stride changes, drills work at the muscular and nervous system level to convince the body to try new movement paths. ‘You address the range of motion, you address the strength deficits, you get drills to provide the balance and the rhythm and the skill, and then they organically move into the kind of running form that they were capable of when they didn’t have environmental restrictions,’ says coach Bobby McGee.

There are a huge number of effective integrative exercises and drills to help you mix things up, but we’ve distilled them to a simple, accessible starting point:

Strides

One of the simplest ways of improving your neuromuscular connections, strides improve your running economy – teaching your body to move faster with less effort – as well as your maximum speed.

In his book, Running Science, Owen Anderson explains that the pace you are able to sustain at any distance is a percentage of your maximal running speed. If you can improve your max speed over short distances, you will be able to sustain a faster pace when you run longer. ‘Maximal speed improves as the nervous system learns to coordinate the muscles in ways that promote faster stride rates, shorter contact times per step and quicker generation of substantial propulsive forces,’ Anderson explains.

‘Going all out is like turning a fire hose on full,’ says elite coach Brad Hudson. ‘It recruits every nerve and muscle group, including ones that don’t often get used.’

1/ After warming up, or at the end of your run, go ‘as quick as you can while staying relaxed’, says Hudson. Try to stay tall, aim for a quick turnover and push your stride out behind you, not reach forward.

2/ Ease off as soon as you start to feel it takes any effort to maintain. Pushing too long (more than 10-12 seconds) will kick in your anaerobic energy system and increase acidity in your cells. Plus, you’ll start pacing yourself or your stride will fall apart. The point is to shock the system with an all-out, coordinated effort. It should happen so quickly that your heart rate and breathing don’t have time to react.

3/ Slow to an easy walk and rest for a few minutes. Don’t start another fast segment until your heart rate has dropped to close to a resting pulse, so you’re ready for another maximum burst of nerves and muscle. Your last burst should feel of equal effort to and be just as fast as the first.

4/ If you’re just starting, try one to three fast efforts per session. As you feel more comfortable, add more, building up to eight to 10 bursts, two or three times per week.

Barefoot strides

Taking off your shoes to do strides on grass is a highly effective way
 of cueing new stride mechanics, long predating the last decades’ minimalist and barefoot movements. Studies, such as a 2014 investigation at Trinity College in Dublin, show that many people run differently shod and unshod. Full-time unshod running is practical only for a few, but if the goal is to shake up how you run, there are few better ways than to take off your shoes. Coach Mark Cucuzzella recommends a steady progression, starting with soft, gentle, two-leg hops and gradually working up to all-out sprints.

1/ Do 10 easy jumps forward, then 10 back. Advance to a short one-leg hop. Then, with a very light, low stride, gently jog for 30-50 metres, noting how your foot lands and how your knees bend and hips move. Increase your turnover to hit an easy, long-run pace. Try a 100m at 5K pace. If you’re comfortable, run a few strides, going as fast as you can turn over without straining.

2/ Even after you’ve worked up to doing eight to 10 strides all out, continue to do some barefoot work at other paces to encourage the neuromuscular recruitment in a barefoot-running pattern at those paces. As noted above, sprinting is great for shaking things up and activating the full array of nerves and muscles, but most runners use a different stride when sprinting than they do when running long on the road – runners can go from a tall, light barefoot sprint to a hunched, compromised distance-running stride without translating any of the movement pattern.

3/ When you return to your shoes and socks, put them on while standing up, which adds a sneaky element of single-leg balancing (the next drill) in a natural way.

Lunge-balance sequence

Single-leg balance, high knees, A-skips, bum kicks, cariocas, backward running, forward lunges, backward lunges – the list of drills that will improve your running form can get overwhelming, leaving you prone to giving up and doing nothing. Which is why – working with physiotherapist Trent Nessler, natural-running expert Cucuzzella, and kinesiologist and coach Green – we devised a sequence (below) that flows naturally from pose to pose, making it easy to remember and quick to perform. ‘This is especially effective for those under time constraints for their workout,’ says Green. It takes just five minutes to complete 10 sets.

In those five minutes, the sequence reinforces several key elements of
an efficient stride, specifically hip and glute strength, hip and shoulder flexibility, and dynamic balance. Move through the exercises smoothly and slowly before and/or after every run, or at other times during the day that suit you. Hold each position for just one to two seconds.

1/ Start by standing tall, weight balanced on the balls and heels of both feet.

2/ Step into a lunge with your left foot forward and your knee not extending forward past your foot. Raise both arms, rotating your pelvis back and stretching your right hip flexor as you focus on being straight and tall.

3/ Sink down and place your right hand on the ground to the right of your front foot. Bring your left arm over your left knee and lower it to touch the inside of your left ankle with your left elbow. Straighten your right knee, contract your right glute and drive your right hip forward.

4/ Now place both hands on the ground in a sprint-start position. Rock your weight to your back leg, getting the heel down toward the ground and stretching your right calf and left hamstring.

5/ As you stand, drive your right leg back, then swing your right leg forward and up. Pause briefly in balanced running pose with your right thigh parallel to the ground.

6/ Grab your right knee with your right hand and your shin with your left hand and pull upward towards your right shoulder to stretch your glute.

7/ Rotate your right leg down and back, then straighten and lift it behind you while you drop your upper body to a horizontal position and reach down with your right hand to touch the ground to the right of your left foot. Finish by stepping into a lunge, right foot forward, swinging your arms over your head. Do the sequence eight to 10 times on each side.