Run Pain-Free

Running is one of the most convenient and natural activities for those who want to move vigorously. It is a completely natural movement that was once essential for survival. Now, we live in a world where people run for pleasure or exercise. But for some people running is a painful and laborious activity.

As with any sport – especially one that can be taken to an extreme – runners suffer from myriad injuries and Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). The most common* running injuries are runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), which can lead to knee or hip pain. In most cases, these common injuries are nothing more than a bad case of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

Orthotics and “supportive” running shoes reduce the foot’s ability to move.

The shoe industry is exploding with new and improved running shoes that incorporate new materials, such as rubber, foam, and recycled material creating more cushion for the foot. Some footwear manufacturers claim that their shoes create efficiency while running, or can prevent injury, but the bottom line is that humans evolved to run efficiently even before shoes were invented. What we do know is that thicker shoes that are narrow in the toes don’t allow you to sense the ground under your feet and can actually contribute to injury and stress on the joints. Worth noting though: There was an explosion in minimalist footwear about 10 years ago and, while it’s still going strong, in the mainstream the prevailing product is that of overly cushioned shoes.

The feet, one of the most important sensory organs of the body, are hindered by thick, stiff, or heavily padded shoes, impairing the foot’s natural ability to sense the ground, and affecting proprioception and balance. This footwear restricts full foot flexibility and proper activation of the toes, resulting in a stiff and inefficient gait. While initially masking poor form and possibly encouraging heel striking, these shoes permit continued improper running, which can detrimentally affect the body over the years. Regular use of such footwear significantly impacts sensory awareness and motor control in the foot and lower leg muscles essential for stabilization.

On the other hand, if you heel strike while wearing minimalist sneakers, you’ll find it uncomfortable and experience its effects sooner. It will be more critical for you to refine your form, connecting to the center of your body more effectively, and strengthening your feet, ankles, and legs. Not only will this enable you to run more easily, efficiently, and comfortably, but you’re less likely to cause injury due to poor running form stemming from your footwear. 

Orthotics, often thought to fix foot problems, actually interfere with the foot’s ability to absorb impact properly and adjust to changes in terrain (as in trail running). Thankfully there is a continued trend toward more minimalistic running shoes, which encourages – and allows – both the foot and lower leg muscles to become stronger as they move naturally, adjusting to every step. Orthotics can be an expensive band-aid. While they may help in the short-term, they won’t fix the underlying issues: sensory motor amnesia (SMA) in the center of your body (more on that later in this article), lazy muscles of the feet, or compensation due to your choice of footwear.

    Runners often have limited hip movement

    Limited hip and pelvis movement due to SMA increases the likelihood of developing conditions such as iliotibial band syndrome, back pain, hip joint pain, and hamstring strains. The pelvis is supposed to move gently, allowing for mobility in the front, sides, and back, facilitating the swinging action of the legs during running or walking. When the center of the body is tense and the hip joints are restricted, walking or running will be inefficient. This inefficiency results in unnecessary energy expenditure and excessive strain on the joints, shifting the movement focus solely to the hips rather than allowing free, fluid motion from the entire body.

    While running is a natural movement pattern we’ve been doing since childhood, mastering proper technique is crucial if you intend to adopt it as a sport or hobby. A good indicator of your level of SMA is observing your form: Do you run with your shoulders hunched inward and head forward? Or perhaps with a tightly arched back and shoulders pulled back? Maybe you land more heavily on one foot and leg than the other. All of these scenarios are examples of SMA in which unconscious muscle tension accumulates, causing imbalance and stiffness in the muscle groups of the front, back, or sides.  Releasing this excess tension from the center of the body will allow your entire system to function more efficiently, leading to a smoother and more coordinated running form. You can eliminate your SMA by learning Somatic Movements on your own or with the help of a skilled Clinical Somatic Educator. Once you have done this, several different “somatic” running methods can improve your gait and make your running more efficient. Two of these methods are Pose Method® and ChiRunning®.

    Running when injured elevates the risk of further injury.

    Many runners continue to run, even when nursing an old injury. Some runners think they can just “run it out” and thereby fix or “work through” the problem. Unfortunately, this perspective causes more harm than good.

    • Compensation results in inefficient movement and increased muscle tension. When you are injured, your trunk rotators and waist muscles reflexively contract and adapt, altering movement to mitigate pain and compensate until the injury heals. This involuntary contraction involves recruiting alternative muscle groups to help with movement.This can occur due to an accident, sprained ankle, or running on an uneven surface.
    • Long-term compensation develops into sensory motor amnesia (SMA). This means that muscles necessary for running lose efficiency despite their ability to be recruited when needed. SMA causes the brain to work twice as hard; excess muscle tension prevents the brain from allowing full contracting and lengthening of the muscles. This results in feeling as though you’re running with your emergency brake on, affecting your performance and comfort.
    • Running while compensating for an injury does not change, “fix” the injury, or relax the muscles. It only creates more compensation and deepens your pattern of SMA. In short, you are strengthening your pain.
    • Breaking the vicious cycle of SMA requires restoring full muscle function through pandiculation and conscious muscle repatterning. Only then can you regain your original running form and help to prevent further injury.

    Sensory Motor Amnesia affects your entire body and your gait

    SMA, whether caused by injury, surgery, emotional stress, or one-sided movement patterns, creates a full-body imbalance and affects all aspects of your movement: coordination, breathing, gait, and joint mobility. In response to stress, humans tighten the large muscles of the center—whether in the back, front, or sides—leading to a gradual buildup of tension that has a ripple effect throughout the entire body that becomes habitual. This tension cascades outward to peripheral muscles (legs, knees, shoulders, neck, feet), puts excess pressure on the joints, heightens injury risk, perpetuates discomfort, and makes the body work harder than it needs to. If left unaddressed, SMA will compound these issues. Strengthening, stretching, or pushing through pain won’t alleviate tight hip flexors or correct slouched posture. The most sensible and scientifically supported approach to restoring optimum muscle function, form, and mobility is through pandiculation, thus systematically releasing muscle tension at the level of the brain and nervous system

    Try this: Stand up and take a walk around. Now, imagine you’ve just stepped on something sharp. You’re limping around with an uneven gait, maybe hiking up your hip and tightening your waist on the injured side. Now, try jogging and work your way up to a run. It’s not exactly a breeze, nor is it comfortable! Yet those who have suffered an injury do this in some small way every time they run.

    If you are a runner who wants to keep going because you already feel great, or you used to run and want to get back into it, there’s hope: With Essential Somatics, you can learn the basic Somatic Movements, principles, practices, and tips for releasing SMA on our digital course, Move With Ease, or attend one of our many in-person weekend workshops. Get in touch with us at info@essentialsomatics.com

    Five Somatic Exercises for an easy “warm up” before your run:

    1. Back Lift – for control of the back muscles (from Pain Relief Through Movement)
    2. Diagonal Arch and Curl – for control of the abdominal muscles
    3. Side Bend – for long, relaxed waist muscles and smooth hip movement
    4. Arch and Curl with Psoas Release
    5. Walking Movements part 1 & 2– for proper mechanics of walking and gentle pelvic rotation

    Three Somatic Exercises for a relaxing “cool down” after you run:

    1. Reach to the Top Shelf – for full body lengthening
    2. Hamstring Pandiculations – for relaxed and coordinated hamstrings (from Pain-Free Athletes)
    3. Arch and Curl with Psoas Release
    4. Standing Calf Release – for improved control of lower legs and feet (from Pain-Free Athletes)

    If you’d like to learn these movements to improve your running, purchase our digital course Move With Ease, our six-week online course designed to take you from exhausted to empowered and experiencing joy in everyday movements (without paying thousands in medical bills).

    *According to the May 2024 Runner’s World article “How to Treat 15 Common Running Injuries”