2 Tricks for Great Knees and Shins for Running

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This September I had to take a significant amount of time off from my fledgling days as a runner due to a nasty case of tibialis anterior tendinitis. It was so bad I could not bend my foot up without serious pain and a crunching sensation and sound. To get a sense of it, pinch that soft spot in your hand at your thumb joint. Imagine that pain along your lower shin for about 4 weeks. It was awful. What I learned in my rehab is that my ankle wasn’t the problem, the mechanics of my running were. This problem went from my how and when my feet hit the ground all the way up to my neck. Two things solved my problems with my ankles and with the occasional shin splint. These go beyond what everyone should be doing anyway which is stretching, ice, and warm baths.

But I have had another recurring problem that was fixed in the process. I was talking with my mom a week ago and we reminisced about my genetically disadvantaged knees. As early as 8th grade I could tell you if it was going to rain because my knees would start hurting. That alone kept me from running. Now my knees are healthier, looser, and stronger than in my life because of running. This is what I have done.

Increased my cadence. In the past, when I wanted to go faster, my stride would get longer, but the steps I took every minute would stay the same. This put a ton of pressure on my knees and ankles and I hurt after every run. This is all physics. A longer stride means my body was hitting the ground harder and at a more extreme angle and I was not maximizing my gluteus maximus. As I’ve told my kids, most sports are about how well you use the largest muscle group in your body, your ass. Swinging a bat or golf club, throwing a football or pitching a baseball, shooting a basketball or a hockey puck all require a focused use of your hips and butt. Running is no different. I needed to use my ass more and my knees less. Elite runners will run a cadence of about 90 strides or 180 steps per minute. So I tried it. As a drummer I am pretty good at counting time accurately, but I still use a metronome. I downloaded one for the phone, set it to 180 bpm, and started on the treadmill just to practice. The difference was immediate. I felt the burn in my hips within a minute. That told me my hips were underdeveloped from the start. 90 is now my magic number.

The other change was how I tackled downhill slopes. I used to put on the brakes a bit to slow down just for control because I didn’t trust my body. That was before I focused on stride. Think about cadence like a car transmission. When you go uphill or downhill your car will downshift to a smaller gear and the rpms will increase. Cyclists do this as well. Despite Lance Armstrong’s doping problem, his technique on hills is now standard stuff to learn. Lower gears and faster cadence is a more efficient way to carve hills. But it takes practice to develop different muscles to do it well. Cadence is my transmission or gear cartridge for running. Going up or down hills, I need to downshift and increase my cadence which puts most of the pressure on my hips, butt, and core. That way I maximize my maximus and save my knees.

I remembered these two things after my first run following knee issues and a flu bug. My left knee hurt for a day afterwards. I checked my cadence which my Polar m400 now calculates. It was 84. Today I ran with one thing in my mind – increase that cadence. Today it was 88. That doesn’t seem like a major difference, but my legs feel great. I consciously focused on my hips and everything felt better in my knees and feet. Small changes add up and become more significant as the miles increase.

So if you want to boost your cadence, focus on the muscles that should be doing the most work. If you can, squeeze your butt and tighten your abs a bit as you run. Your stride will have no choice but to shorten and all that stress your ankles, knees, and shins once absorbed will move to your butt and hips where it should be. Want to get a boost on developing these muscles? Add pushups, planks, and squats to your training. Everything will improve in your mechanics and you will feel great!

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