Running is a popular aerobic exercise believed to improve one’s health and physical wellbeing. It is also often incorporated into lifestyle plans to help with weight loss. While there are definitely health benefits, running can also lead to non-favorable outcomes such as spinal or foot and ankle injuries.
According to Dr. Chong Keen Wai, a Consultant Orthopedic Surgeon who specializes in foot and ankle surgery, a lot of patients come to him with injuries connected to running. In fact, most of these injuries are due to biomechanical problems.
Our human skeleton is designed based on that of a four-legged animal. Since it evolved about five million years ago, many things has changed but there are also lots of traits that remain.
“Let’s take a look at the spine for example. For a four-legged animal, the spine is suspended horizontally and when they run, the spine continues to be suspended horizontally. For humans, our spine is upright and this creates a lot of axial loading stress,” Dr. Chong explained.
Photo Credit: IRCCS Instituo Oropedico Galeazzi
When running, the stress on the spine causes compression. This usually leads to degenerative problems on the human spine as compared to four-legged animals where their spinal vertebrae are not subjected to axial compression.
Besides the spine, the foot and ankle are common parts of the body that running often strain. When humans run, our knees are extended when our heels hit the ground. The ground reaction force would then run through our lower leg, which is bad for the joints.
On the other hand, four-legged animals follow the original musculoskeletal design where they land on their toes with their ankle joints and knee joints flexible.
“These allows the joints to absorb the impact of running,” Dr. Chong revealed.
When asked if avid runners should then avoid this taboo and adopt forefoot running like our animal friends, Dr. Chong said: “It is what our body is made to do but of course, this would present with its own set of health problems in the long run. It is definitely up to the runner’s discretion.”
Long distance running is usually thought of as a form of endurance test. However, this activity could be detrimental as there is repeated stress on our joints over a long period of time.
Swimming is a great alternative to running because it helps to build endurance, muscle strength and get our heart pumping healthily. Unlike running, there is little impact on our bones and joints. Various swimming styles can also be incorporated to help one to build and strengthen different muscle groups. Another activity to consider would be cycling, a low impact sport.
“There may be some runners who has never experienced any bone or joint pains. This is a good sign. However, I strongly encourage those who have experienced such pains to opt for other activities simply because our human body is not entirely designed for running,” Dr. Chong advised.
With that said, Dr. Chong also revealed that most orthopedic problems can be improved with weight loss. After all, the heavier the body, the more pressure and stress it will exert on the joints. Those who are thinking of getting to a healthier BMI are encouraged to engage in moderate exercises for optimal health.