Now before you crucify me based on the title of this article alone, please know that I am specifically referring to long-distance running, or jogging. I am actually a huge fan of sprinting and multi-directional agility drills……you know, purposeful running. Also, running is perfectly acceptable if you are a marathoner, triathlete, or simply just enjoy running! That being said, most people I know that run hate it, and only do so as part of their fitness regimen because it’s an easy go-to, and don’t necessarily know what else to do or how to get started.
Often times people who are trying to get back into fitness first think of cardio, and specifically running on the treadmill, as a go-to means of getting back in shape. It’s understandable. If you walk into any commercial gym, you’ll see endless rows of treadmills, ellipticals, and stationary bikes. I can’t tell you how many people join a gym, drive to the gym every night after work, hop on the treadmill for 45 minutes, watching TV or reading something on their phones, do a few stretches afterwards, and call it a day. I have a problem with this.That’s not training, and it’s not going to do much of anything beneficial for you, other than mildly increase your cardio-vascular endurance. Before you choose to make a running a regular part of your fitness regimen, consider the following reasons for NOT doing so.
Reason 1 — Our bodies simply haven’t evolved to run the way most people do on treadmills.
Running at a moderate pace for long periods of time (aka. jogging) is simply not something we as humans were meant to do, from an evolutionary standpoint. This can be argued either way, and my argument is not going to cite any anthropological studies or anything. This argument is more based on common sense.
Ask yourself this question: Under what circumstances would the ability to jog for long periods of time be necessary, from a survival standpoint? If you need to travel long distances, such as our nomadic ancestors did, you gather up your supplies, strap them to your horse, camel, donkey, etc., and then you walk with your fellow village mates to your new settlement. If you need to GTFO quickly because a bear or lion is about to eat you, you sprint as fast as your legs will carry you, climb a tree, and call it a day. You either walk long distances, or you sprint short distances. You don’t jog moderate distances. You just don’t, and because of this, our bodies have not evolved to be all that good at it.
Reason 2 — Running is usually not a mindful way of training.
One of the most important aspects of training is mindfulness. What does this mean? Mindful training means that you are mentally engaged, focused, and connected with what you are doing. When you train with intention and purpose, you get FAR better results than you would otherwise. Training is not only about applying physical stress to your body to create adaptive change, but it also involves a strong mental component as well. You have heard of the “mind-muscle connection,” no? There is absolute validity to it.
As I mentioned earlier, when most people run, they pop in their earbuds, listen to some music, watch TV, or read a magazine, completely disconnecting themselves from what they are doing. In doing so, they almost completely lose out on one of the biggest benefits of training in the first place: learning how to move well. If you are not focused on what your are doing, you are doing a half-assed job. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.
If you need a way to disconnect from the stress from everyday life, I recommend finding something a bit less damaging on the body, as running can be brutally unforgiving (which I will address later).
Reason 3 — Running is something that requires preparation, and most peoples’ bodies simply aren’t prepared for running.
Not only are peoples’ bodies usually not adequately prepared for long distance running, but most people who opt to run also don’t know how to get their bodies ready for the physical demands of long-distance running. As I mentioned earlier, running is often times the ONLY form of exercise people choose to do. This is a huge mistake. Long distance running is a very demanding form of exercise, and you need to make sure your body is well-equipped to handle it. This means that you need to also incorporate various exercises that build mobility, stability, and functional strength to help support the involved structures used in running.
Running also fails to utilize large ranges of motion, thereby not allowing you to build strength and stability in your joints’ end ranges. Using your joints’ full range of motion is very important (and in fact is the primary key) for maintaining your joints’ normal range of motion and staying mobile. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Using exercises like half kneeling stability drills, and various forms of squatting, hinging, and lunging can go a long way in creating a more well-equipped body that is ready for running. If you are able to strengthen the requisite movement patterns involved in running, you are far more likely to mitigate the probable damage running will have your joints and soft tissues.
Reason 4 — Running long distances will likely lead to long-term musculoskeletal issues like tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, capsular damage of joints, etc.
The repetitive stress of running can over stimulate various mechanoreceptors in the soft tissues and ligaments of your feet, knees, hips, and almost every other joint in your body, but particularly the transverse and longitudinal ligaments of the foot., With enough stress to these ligaments, many of your prime movers will inhibit reflexively. This is normal for proper gait mechanics. In order to achieve proper movement, our body is constantly fluctuating between activation and inhibition of specific muscle groups. This is a pretty well-understood mechanism; reciprocal inhibition is a good example. As a simple example, it’s pretty damn hard (impossible, actually) to do a bicep curl without the triceps inhibiting to allow flexion at the elbow. If antagonistic muscle groups co-contract with equal force, the end result is zero movement.
When it comes to walking, perhaps the most widely-utilized basic human movement, these mechanisms dictate which parts of our body move and when. In dealing with joint mechanoreceptors, golgi tendon organs are responsible for modulating muscle function (activation or inhibition) based on the stress they are receiving. Too little or too much stress will hinder your muscles’ ability to fire properly.
That being said, what happens when you accumulate thousands and thousands of repetitions of the foot and other joints taking forceful impact with each foot strike? For about 95% of your run, you are moving along without the full function of your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and other major muscle groups that give your joints the proper support they need. Without the proper function and support from your large muscle groups, your joints and soft tissues take the brunt of the impact with each step, creating long-term negative effects on musculoskeletal health.
Most people I’ve worked with who run on a regular basis as part of their fitness regimen typically have many muscular imbalances, stability issues, and chronically sore joints. In a therapy setting, we are often able to trace large-scale muscular dysfunctional patterns back to the the ligaments and joint capsules in the foot, knee, hip, and pelvis. If you want to avoid chronic joint pain, it behooves you to opt for a different form of cardio.
Reason 5 — Running, like any other form of movement, requires good technique, and most peoples’ running technique has a lot left to be desired.
Now I will preface this by saying that I am by no means an expert on running technique. Running is something I choose not to do, and because I don’t spend a lot of time doing it, I’m not that good at it. I also don’t coach movements that I am not good at myself. That would just be silly. That being said, should you choose to incorporate running into your fitness program, make sure your technique is sound.
One common problem that I do know is an a very common issue is that most people don’t rotate very well, particularly in the thoracic spine. Rotation is perhaps the most important movement of the human body. Technically, from a biomechanics perspective, all movements come from some form of rotation. Our bodies’ ability to move well depends on being able to simultaneously stabilize and be mobile in the correct places at the correct times. In my experience, the plane in which most people struggle to move well is the transverse plane. In order to run properly, you need to own the transverse plane. To help you understand how the body rotates during gait, simply pay attention to how you walk. When you take a step forward with your left foot, your right arm moves forward with it, and vice versa. Our limbs move in a cross-pattern. This is why the human body was designed to move.
Piggybacking on “Reason 4,” if you can’t rotate through your trunk, this means that certain mechanoreceptors do not get stimulated (or get overstimulated) and thusly affect which muscles are working and when. To ensure you have as much muscular support as possible (which is the goal for ANY exercise), your technique needs to be spot on. If you still want to run, I highly suggest having a gait analysis done from a movement specialist so they can help identify your weak points and clean up your technique.
So if I shouldn’t run, what SHOULD I do?
My advice to anyone new to working out, or trying to get back into shape after a lengthy time off, is to first and foremost work on building a strong and functional core, mobility of your joints, and progress slowly with the basics. This means learning how to use your core, squat, deadlift, push, pull, rotate, and carry things properly and with good technique. It is better to establish a good foundation of function early, before you start to push yourself using complex exercises.
If you are already “fit,” and need a form of cardio to still incorporate into your program, some of my favorite substitutes for running are:
- walking on steep inclines
- kettlebell swings
- high-rep lunges, squats, and deadlifts
- sled pushes and dragging
There are many more, but these are just a few I use regularly.
You can absolutely feel free to disagree with me, but these are several reasons why I seldom recommend running to anyone seeking my health and fitness advice. I don’t believe most exercises are inherantly “bad,” just inappropriate for certain individuals. If you have any opinions or commentary, please feel free to share!