Is Pain-Free Running Possible?

Up to 70 per cent of runners are injured every year. Is this really necessary?

Pain inspires us: the victor hobbling across the finish line, face grimaced, shoulders slouched forward, legs limping along, lungs pleading. The human will, that majestic example of sheer force and determination, celebrated in folklore and marathon gossip every year. You know it’s going to hurt, maybe even really hurt, so grin and bear it, get it done.

Yet the question is begged: is all that pain really necessary?

Running is natural to humans despite it being mostly unnecessary today. We run for exercise instead of survival, fulfilling our genetic quota for movement in varying scales. In spite of a history of running, up to 70 per cent of runners injure themselves every year, even with all those unfulfilled promises of shoe technology. Considering 541,000 marathoners finished in 2013, that’s a lot of damaged bodies. How is something essential to our evolutionary heritage so destructive to our ligaments, joints, and tendons?

Reasons would take a book: sedentary lifestyles, toxic sitting habits, cushioned heels, flat running surfaces, inflexible bodies, improper alignment. This list is predominantly modern, if we account for the millions of years it took for bidpedalism to become the norm. Other animals are faster off the line, but no other perseveres for extravagant distances like us. And we can do it pain-free, if we train properly.

In his book, Ready to Run, physiotherapist Kelly Starrett writes that one problem is many runners never actually train to run—they just start running when they’re young and never take form into consideration. No serious runner would dream of this, but the majority of us are not professionals.

We run to stay in shape, to achieve a state of flow, to work through emotions, to focus, to keep our hearts healthy or waistlines trim, to have fun: all valid reasons dependent on each individual. Sadly many opt for ibuprofen and ice to deal with trouble spots instead of addressing the issue at the root. Both of these, Starrett writes, are counterproductive.

Using ice or ibuprofen with the intention of preventing inflammation is a mistake … Why would you want to try to take over the regulation of the inflammatory response when the inflammatory response is a necessary stage in healing? … Without inflammation, healing cannot occur.

Ice, Starrett notes, enhances our body’s lymphatic permeability, spilling into the injured area, not away from it. This means local swelling and pressure increase. Temporary relief is often countered with more pain, not less.

Active regeneration and recovery is an emerging practice in fitness, yet habits are hard to break—I’ll still spot an occasional guy pulling the lat bar behind his neck, for example. I witness it all the time with my students and clients: an unwavering dedication to their chosen exercise formats coupled with a complete disregard for other movements that would enhance their main passion. Yet Starrett writes, it is movement, not ice and rest, necessary for healing and, most importantly, prevention.

Humans are more reactive than proactive. We wait for injury to strike before addressing the problem. Instead of treating the cause, we sidestep it with grit and drugs. We can trick our minds, perhaps, but we cannot fool our bodies.

Starrett offers twelve standards for proper running technique and maintenance:

1. Neutral feet
2. Flat Shoes
3. A supple thoracic spine 
4. An efficient squatting technique
5. Hip flexion
6. Hip extension
7. Ankle range of motion
8. Warming up and cooling down
9. Compress
10. No hotspots
11. Hydration
12. Jumping and landing 

I recently wrote about being barefoot as much as possible and the damage created by the shoe industry. Many problems originate there, but like anything else, a host of issues cascades in all directions. For example, a lack of hip flexion limits your ability to squat, which affects thoracic spine mobility. Turned out feet result in a range of hotspots. Hydration influences power and flexibility. And so on.

Starrett recommends ten minutes a day of targeted, disciplined movement. Assessing personal trouble spots is the first step, as we’ll spend those ten (or fifteen, or twenty, depending on what you can afford) minutes differently.  Moving your fascia, working through an entire range of motion, and focusing on tough spots are keys to pain-free running.

Ninety year olds run ultra-marathons; people over a hundred complete 26.2 miles. Force of will? Sure, that’s part of it. The will most of us need does not involve hitting the trails or the road, however. It’s during those other hours, before bed, upon waking, or midafternoon, that really matters to our performance.

After a knee surgery (from basketball) last year I was told to stop running and jumping. And I listened, for a while. Then I researched more. If all goes well I have another sixty years in front of me. No more running? That would be an affront to what we are as a species. 


Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch @derekberes.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.