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Run Fast And Injury Free - Secrets From The World's Top Runners

Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN


This article could on running fast and injury could have been about divulging some the secrets of the more well-known road runners or marathoners but I read a fascinating article some time ago about an incredible tribe in Mexico that would probably fly by the more "famous" runners. And they would probably do so without ever having to worry about getting injured!

Meet the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. One of the few tribes in the world that live well into their hundreds. Another amazing feature of this tribe is that they are well known to be incredible distance runners. In fact, they are able to run more than 100 miles at a time, even in the 60s! In the 1993 Leadville ultramarathon, the winner was a 55 year old man from the Tarahumara tribe.

What’s even more amazing is that they don’t even wear shoes. They simply run in sandals that are attached to the feet by a few simple pieces of leather. And the best part – the runners in this tribe are almost all injury free! So what’s their secret? How can they run so long, in such heat, while only wearing sandals and being?

To find out more, I'm going to share 6 secrets of the Tarahumara running legends. Here we go.

Get Rid of the Overprotective Shoes

According to Gerard Hartmann, Ph.D, an exercise physiologist who works with the world’s greatest marathoners and is a consultant to Nike, most running injuries are a result of too much foam-injected pampering in today’s shoes. Running shoes have become so elaborately over cushioned and motion controlling that they cause the foot muscles to atrophy while shortening and stiffening our foot’s tendons. This is similar to core muscle atrophying that occurs with weightlifters that consistently employ waist belts.

The key is to choose shoes that are neutral, low-heeled, and comfortable. They should ideally allow your foot to do what it’s supposed to do. In fact, the optimal running condition is barefoot on grass. When your foot is allowed to move through its natural mechanics its intrinsic muscles will become stronger which will help pull the foot’s arches up into their optimal position. Barefoot training (or free running shoes) also improves proprioceptive (balance and spatial awareness) outcomes.

Land on the Balls of Your Feet

Contrary to traditional heel-to-toe running, the Tarahumara are well known for their forefoot striking tendencies. Many elite running coaches are now supporting the view that poor running form and landing mechanics are significant causes of chronic running injuries.

When you land on the heel of your foot you are in essence applying the brakes - slowing down your running stride - and transmitting greater amounts of force through your body’s passive structures (ie. bones, cartilage). After running this way for hundreds or thousands of miles, it can become quite damaging to your body. Think about – if you were to jump from a high elevation and land on your heels your body’s bones would be crushed by the force. However, if you’re like most human beings, you would logically land on the balls of your feet to absorb the shock! The same thing occurs with running.

The forefoot strike of the Tarahumara allows the leg act like a piston-like shock absorber. When you land on the balls of your feet, your leg is never really fully stretched. Therefore, the ground reaction forces are allowed to be absorbed by the active muscles (especially those in the calves).

If you decide to give this running technique a go, there a few things to keep in mind. First, keep your hips dead under your shoulders and dead above your feet to ensure proper form. Second, relax your leg muscles and engage your core so that the momentum is coming not from your quads but rather from your core muscles and glutes. Third, anticipate soreness in your calves after your first few runs. Because you’ll be landing on the balls of your feet, your calves will be eccentrically loaded (contracting while lengthening) during each foot strike. This is what causes muscle soreness – similar to the “negative” when lifting weights. Be sure to stretch them out after each run and to incorporate this forefoot striking technique as much or as little as you see fit during your runs.

Build Into Your Runs

The Tarahumara are not known to explode out of the starting gates but they are most often looking behind them as they cross the finish line. Their strategy is to start running with short, easy strides, progressively adding intensity as their muscles warm up. Makes sense! Remember, it isn’t where you start but where you finish that matters so ease into your runs and your body will switch to autopilot when it’s ready.

Recruit Your Abs

The core and abdominal muscles are key in allowing maximum energy transfer between upper and lower body. Therefore, let your core muscles propel you. Relax your legs while running; let them feel as if they’re hanging loose and spinning from pivot points in your hips. You should sense tension in your glutes, rather than your quads or hamstrings.

Stay Level – Don’t Bounce

As with any movement that requires horizontal motion, the more time you spend in the air the slower you go. Nowhere is this more applicable than in running. The Tarahumara are notorious for virtually eliminating up and down vertical motion. They run smooth and therefore don’t waste as much energy as other inefficient runners. Try running while balancing something on your head – a great test to see how much vertical motion you actually create.

Kick Your Butt

Ever notice how sprinters, in full stride, whip their heels up towards the butt? They do that for a reason. It’s actually a very effective way for runners to cycle their legs around for the next stride. It uses centrifugal force about the hips to propel you forward instead of drawing down your energy.

So there you go. 6 strategies that the legendary Tarahumara runners have handed down to us. Use them, practice them, and eventually they will become easier to incorporate into your running stride. As with anything new, incorporate them into your running workouts, give it some time and then watch the differences they make.


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