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Born to Run

By Officer Fran Sur, Los Angeles Airport Police Wellness Coordinator

Runners

Is running really healthy? Absolutely — but it can be the exact opposite if we aren't doing it right. Theoretically, our bodies are built for running; however, because we now live in an era where everyone spends most of their days sitting down and constantly looking at computers and cell phones, human posture is at its worst. Shoe manufacturers are also destroying our feet, one of the most important stabilizers for our body when we're not sitting. So running may not come as naturally to us as it would seem, and we do need to be educated before we take on such a high-weight-bearing movement. Following a few simple guidelines can make this activity incredibly beneficial and enjoyable.

I love running, but that wasn't always the case. When I entered the police academy 11 years ago, they said we would run. They weren't kidding — we ran a ton. I have always been physically active and grew up playing sports, but the police academy was my first experience where I wasn't running to chase a ball or an opponent. The thought of having to run just to get from point A to point B was torture for me. Throw on top of that being constantly punished with even more running every time one of us cadets would do something "unsatisfactory," and you can see why so many academy cadets despise running by the time they graduate. I honestly would have been OK if I didn't see another pair of running shoes ever again.

But then, about four years later, something happened: A friend convinced me to participate in a triathlon race, which entailed a short swim and then a 12-mile bicycle ride, finishing off with a three-mile run. Although it was the only endurance event I had ever been in, I was hooked! The swim and bike portions were "comfortably uncomfortable" for me; however, the run was exactly how I remembered it being in the police academy — utterly painful. But the experience of being in a running event where everyone actually wanted to be out there, for the first time in my life, meant that I had fun running. That was the day I decided to become a runner and learn everything I could about becoming better.

Believe it or not, running puts up to three times the force of a person's body weight onto each leg every time the foot hits the ground. Do that incorrectly up to 1,800 times per mile and you can see why running is perceived as painful for many, and why over 70% of runners get injured each year. So what is healthy running? To keep it simple, let's break it down into four key components.

Run for more energy, not less. As I discussed in my article on overstressing the body with exercise, unless you're trying to be a competitive runner, there is no reason why your efforts should be at grueling levels. You know that sensation when you're huffing and puffing hard and you feel your entire body getting numb? That's your body going into anaerobic mode (absence of oxygen). Try to keep your running easy, where breathing is light and rhythmic. You should be able to carry on a conversation while running — or during any aerobic (cardio) exercise, for that matter. When you're running aerobically, you're running with oxygen, meaning there's more oxygen being delivered throughout the body, promoting healing and recovery. Running shouldn't leave you feeling fatigued and drained for the day. It should make you feel more energetic when you're done than before you started, so please keep your runs easy. (Dr. Hiro Tanaka explains it well in his book Slow Jogging.)

Find your feet again. In running (and walking and standing), everything starts with the feet. Having strong and stable feet should be the foundation of healthy running. Healthy feet are widest at the toes, like they are when we are born. Try jumping rope barefoot with your toes scrunched up together...it doesn't work! Now imagine the potential damage that running 180 steps per minute like that would cause. Many modern running shoes are designed with a narrow fit, which causes our toes to bend inward, losing the stability they give us. And because most running shoes out there have some degree of elevated heel lift (not just women's dress shoes), we also end up losing the natural elasticity and spring we once had in our ankles and arches. Potential problems such as Achilles tendinitis, heel spurs and plantar fasciitis could be imminent. What's the remedy? Healthy foot expert Dr. Ray McClanahan says, "The most important part of caring for your feet is choosing the right shoes for your feet." So whenever possible (not just when running), wear flatter shoes that have a wide toe box, so that your toes can spread out the way they naturally should. Advanced toe-separator products like "Correct Toes" are also good to wear in your wider running shoes or when walking around barefoot. They will help to retrain the feet and get them strong and stable again.

Run with efficient form. Notice I didn't say good form, because what constitutes good form for everybody? We are all anatomically different. In every sport, although there are certain key fundamentals that all athletes follow in their technique, there will always be subtle differences in the way each individual throws, shoots, swings or hits. The same is true with running. There are endless resources on running form out there, but my top three cues to remember are:

  1. Run relaxed, especially in your upper body. The less energy you waste, the easier (and faster) running gets.
  2. Run with your hips in a strong position under your center mass, not sticking back like when sitting. Your hips and butt muscles are the strongest players in running. You will run more efficiently when your posture is well aligned.
  3. Land softer. Let the elasticity in your legs be your springs. Run softly and easily in place and feel those springs. Then start moving forward with that same form. That's your sweet spot!

You can learn more about running form from Dr. Mark Cucuzzella at www.naturalrunningcenter.com.

Lose weight to run more easily. Easier said than done, huh? Part of the reason why running hurt so much for me when I began the police academy was because I was about 20 pounds heavier than when I finished seven months later. Those extra 20 pounds made the act of running more difficult. I wasn't necessarily out of shape at the time; I was just carrying more weight. But what I noticed was that, as the weeks and months passed and I became lighter and lighter as most academy cadets do, the running became easier. Research shows that for every pound of body weight a runner loses, approximately two to three seconds per mile is gained without any change in fitness. So, with about a 20-pound loss, I became about a minute per mile faster by the end of the academy. That's what you call "free speed." Run consistently, eat a healthy diet and, as you lose the extra weight, your running efforts will become easier without trying.

In my opinion, running is the greatest physical activity in the world. We can pretty much do it anywhere, at any time. The key is to make it enjoyable, because if it's causing more harm to your body than good, you're missing out on something that's so therapeutic and healthy. Learn to run correctly and progress your training slowly, and you can find the euphoria that so many runners boast about. We truly are born to run.

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