How Somatics Can Help Runners

Running is one of the most convenient activities available for those who want to move vigorously.  University of Utah biologist David Carrier hypothesized that our ability to run long distances evolved in humans for the simple reason that the ability to pursue predators for long distances (endurance hunting) meant a steady food supply. We were born to run, but for some people, running is a painful and laborious activity.

As with any sport – and especially one that can be taken to an extreme – runners suffer from injuries and Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The most frequent running injuries are knee pain, iliotibial band syndrome,  plantar fasciitis and hip pain.

Running when injured creates more injury.

Many runners will often continue to run, even when they are nursing an old injury. Some of the runners I've worked with say that they figured they could just "run it out" thereby fixing the problem. Unfortunately this causes more harm than good. Here's why:

  • When you're injured, your muscles reflexively adapt and learn to move differently. This is called compensation.
  • Long-term compensation develops into Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).
  • Running while compensating for an injury doesn't doesn't change what your muscles are doing; it only creates more compensation.
  • You must first eliminate the compensatory pattern (the SMA) before you can regain your original running form.

Runners often run on uneven, paved roads.

A majority of runners in cities and suburbs run on uneven asphalt roads. The road is slightly graded to allow for water runoff, so rather than using the legs and hips equally, they run with a slight tilt in the hips, with  more weight on one leg than the other. This causes the waist muscles on the higher side of the graded road to contract tighter than the other side. It's slight, but when this kind of sensory motor amnesia develops it alters the gait and contributes to iliotibial band pain and knee pain. The angle of the road also put the foot an an awkward angle to the ankle.

Runners often have limited hip movement.

When hip and pelvis movement is limited, you will be more likely to have iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain, and hamstring strains. A pelvis that doesn't rotate gently doesn't allow the body to move gracefully and efficiently. If the body is stiff and the hips and pelvis are rigid, the swinging action of the legs while running (or walking) will come solely from the hip joint - what I like to call "running with your legs instead of your whole body." This can create overuse injuries of the hips and hamstrings. Here's a ChiRunning article that goes more into depth about pelvic rotation.

Orthotics and "supportive" running shoes reduces the foot's ability to move.

The feet are one of the most important sensory organs of the body. When we encase our feet in  shoes we risk losing sensory awareness and motor control of the muscles of the foot and lower leg that help us stabilize ourselves for upright movement. There is more of a tendency to "heel strike" when wearing thicker running shoes. This is both jarring for the spine and inefficient for forward motion.

Orthotics, thought to fix foot problems, interfere in the ability of the feet to absorb impact properly and adjust to changes in terrain (as in trail running). Thankfully there's a trend toward more minimalistic and "barefoot" running shoes, which allows both the foot and lower leg muscles to move naturally.

Here are 5 somatic exercises for an easy "warm up" before running:

  1. Back lift - for control of the back muscles
  2. Cross lateral arch and curl - for control of the abdominal muscles
  3. Side bend - to equalize waist muscle function
  4. Steeple twist - for gentle twisting of the shoulders, spine and hips
  5. Walking exercises - for proper mechanics of walking and pelvis rotation

After your run, try these:

  1. Reach to the Top Shelf - for full body lengthening
  2. Hamstring pandiculations - if you need it (from Pain-Free Athletes)
  3. Standing calf release - if you need it (from Pain-Free Athletes)

Visit the Essential Somatics® store to purchase the Pain-Free Athletes DVD and more!

Many thanks to Jim Hansen, a runner and Somatics enthusiast whose shared running experience helped me write this post. Check out his blog, Recover Your Stride.