Improving your stride: Run like a ninja, not a t-rex

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- If dinosaurs were better runners, they might not be extinct today.

Evidence suggests some dinosaurs ran by planting their heel first and springing off their toes; something many people do today. Those who run like this couldn't possibly get out of the way of a meteor fast enough.

But you know who might? A ninja.

Growing up I learned a lot from my dad -- like how to drive, throw a football and run. As a Soldier, my dad ran a lot and shared with me his passion for the sport. As many children do, they take what their parents teach them and make it better. Dad ran like a t-rex. I run like a ninja. You don't hear me making my way around the track and my body appreciates it. This form is called "natural running."

Here's an example of what I mean when I say natural running, or more commonly, the mid-strike. When walking around the house barefoot, do you walk heel-toe, or do you try to be stealthy and walk around on just the front part of your feet? The silent option is actually the healthiest with the least amount of impact on your joints. Now equate this same technique to running and you'll be stealthily running around like a ninja!

Something I learned from a friend (he is not a ninja, but is knowledgeable nonetheless) who has been mid-strike running for years, is that every time you land on your heel while running, four times your body weight is slamming onto your knees and ankles. So imagine you are 150 pounds -- that's 600 pounds of body weight dispersed downwards into your leg joints with every heel strike.

Another issue many runners face is deciding what to do with their arms. Have you ever noticed people cruising along with their arms like a t-rex? You know, arms clasped to their chests, wrists limp with a slight hunchback in their posture. People who fall into this category tend to over work their legs and don't use their arms nearly as effectively as they could.

According to the Air Force's former chief of health promotion, retired Lt. Col. (Dr.) Dan Kuland, your arms equate to nearly half of a total run. Kuland, now an orthopedic surgeon and professor of sports science at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., suggests you should swing your arms quickly from relaxed shoulders, elbows bent at 90 degrees, and thumbs and index fingers touching only slightly. As you run, ensure your arms do not cross your body and remain at your sides. With your hands, you can also grasp at the air as if you were swimming, pulling yourself forward, to gain momentum.

Kuland offered additional tips:

− Fall forward from your ankles in order to enlist gravity.
− Run softly by imagining a helium balloon attached to your head.
− Look where you are going, not at your feet.
− Imagine being reeled in on a big fishing line attached at your belly button.
− Expand your lower abdomen like a balloon, then squeeze the air out.
− Keep your knees slightly bent, never completely straightening your legs.
− Land on the middle of your foot to reduce braking that would occur from crash landing early on your heel.
− Imagine running on hot coals with a quick cadence.
− Picture helium balloons lifting your heels.
− Move your ankles in little circle as if they are wheels.
− Wear minimalist footwear.

"When we run, our legs swing forward and back like a pendulum, landing on the backswing," Kuland said. "Without shoes, we would land on our mid-foot or toward the front of our foot. But the thick heels of common running shoes catch the ground early with our knee extended and foot out front, inviting knee pain and anterior shin splints. 'Minimalist' shoes with thinner heels allow more natural landings. Once you're on the ground, just lift your heel and gravity will pull you forward. Pushing off wastes energy and promotes posteromedial shin splints and Achilles problems."

According to flight medicine, arthritis induced by poor running form can lead to increased medical profiles and decreased mission readiness--namely deployment health. This decreased unit effectiveness increases the burden other team members must carry for their wingmen all thanks to nothing more than poor running form.

Even after switching my running form to that of a ninja's, I was still experiencing pain in my left knee and ankle. I went and spoke with my Air Force physical therapist who explained to me the importance of lower abdomen muscles as well. He showed me how critical these muscles are to a body's stability while running or performing other strenuous activities and how, by strengthening these muscles, my leg pain would diminish.

If you're looking for more running-specific techniques and advice, check out the Natural Running Center's website: www.naturalrunningcenter.com/. There are videos, blogs, articles, photos, emails, book suggestions -- you name it. Lt. Col. Mark Cucuzzella, an Air Force Reserve Command doctor and two-time Air Force Marathon winner, Efficient Running Program subject matter expert and director of the website, also put together a video on YouTube providing visual cues for extra help: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSIDRHUWlVo.

Running naturally has improved my run fitness assessment score, increased my endurance and strengthened my leg muscles by leaps and bounds. But if my testimony isn't enough, consider this: no ninja has ever been eaten by a dinosaur.

(Editor's note: This commentary does not reflect Air Force or Air Force Surgeon General official viewpoints.)