Use Your Ears To Improve Your Running

In this world of burgeoning technology, never before have runners had so many high-tech consumer products available to provide feedback on their running. The advent of affordability paired with GPS, accelerators, smart phones, Blue Tooth, and even apps that can perform simplified gait analysis, have all lead to a generation of runners that are able to keep track of their performance and training like never before. 

As a PT, I not only spend tons of time retraining gait for clients, but try to find which ways are going to be the most successful. There is a great degree of individual variability here, but I find if often works best to take it back to basics. There's plenty of research to support the fact that even something as simple as video feedback, can be strong enough to help runners make meaningful gait changes. 

My name is Dr. Allan Buccola. I'm a physical therapist and Owner of Impetus Physical Therapy in Greensboro, NC, a clinic that specializes in improving access to and quality of care for runners and other athletes. This post explores some simple ways to make meaningful changes to your running, using old technology: your ears. 

Engaging Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a buzzword for sure, bringing on a green light for some and likely a red light for others. Fear not this word. In this context, it only means paying attention to whats going on around you. For many of us, putting in high mileage weeks and tough workouts means zoning out, focusing on our playlist or the TV at the gym. The typical training paradigm is reliant often on quantity over quality. 

Mindfulness in running means paying attention to your body as it performs. This takes time, patience, and acceptance, but for my clients who do this, there is a huge payoff in the amount of information they are able to give me when an injury creeps up. For your next run, trying paying attention to how much data you can get from your ears. Consider the following questions. 

cadence

Listen to how quickly your feet hit the ground. Count your steps over 30 seconds and multiply x2. This is your running cadence or 'steps per minute.' There is a ton of research showing that changing ones running cadence is one of the most simple ways to make meaningful changes to ones running. The current body of evidence tells us that the ideal running cadence falls likely between 170-190 steps per minute. Where do you fall?

symmetry 

Listen to step symmetry. Do your steps hit the ground evenly in time like the ticking of a clock, or does one step seem to take more time than the other. Step asymmetry can be caused by several things, from leg length discrepancies, asymmetrical mobility restriction in the ankle or hip, or even a significant power differential between legs. How does your's sound when you run? Does it change over the course of your run? Do you lose symmetry due to fatigue after an hour of running?

In a world of constantly changing terrain, how critical is absolute symmetry? 

In a world of constantly changing terrain, how critical is absolute symmetry? 

amplitude of sound

Listen to how your feet hit the ground. Does one side sound louder than the other? A significant weakness on one side, can lead to hitting the ground with a more rigid joint position, resultant in a louder landing. This is bad news for the those joints over time and likely an indicator that some strengthening is needed. This is also something that is likely to worsen over the course of a longer workout, and could determine whether or not your body is ready to take on that distance. 

rhythmic quality of sound

Listen to the rhythmic characteristics of your steps. Can you hear different sounds for initial contact and toe off? Can you hear the sound of your midfoot foot rotating on the ground as you pronate from your outer heel to big toe? Years ago, I  had noted for weeks excessive rotational motion on my left side, which I eventually was able to connect with some forefoot valgus. This was easily resolved with some outer modification, and helped resolve some foot and knee pain. 

Valuable Clinical Skills

When I'm assessing a runner in the clinic, these are all part of the first line of analysis of an athlete's gait (running pattern). I mentioned above that this practice takes time, patience, and acceptance. It takes time, because there is a huge learning curve in developing ones ability to assess their body in space. There is a lot happening and all very fast.

It takes patience because being able to connect a meaningful understanding of your findings doesn't come overnight. Consider having a familiar notion of what your gait sounds like, and then pay attention to what changes occur after a tough week of training, conditioning, or a new pair of shoes. 

The acceptance piece is likely the toughest. I ask that you listen for symmetry, but that doesn't mean that you will be symmetrical. More confounding, you may have been mildly asymmetrical for 20 years of running, and that's totally fine: most humans ARE asymmetrical. One of the most challenging parts of my job as a PT is to determine when an asymmetry is meaningful. Check out this video of Haile Gebrselassie running the 10,000 meters. One of the most impressive distance runners to date, with substantial asymmetries, few of which warrant remedy. 

Having an awareness of your personal baseline parameters will be of value when something about your gait changes suddenly. Being mindful means paying attention without imposing judgment, which is critical, because the judgment piece is a distraction and cause you to observe with bias.

So go forth! Use your new gadgets, but also take some time to go low tech. Use your ears, a technology that has been proven successful for a long time. Get to know yourself a little bit better and become a stronger runner.

Thanks for reading! Until next time: keep moving!

-Allan