When Frank Shorter won the Gold Medal at the 1972 Olympic Marathon, he set off a chain reaction. Running became a national obsession for millions of Americans, attracting a segment of the population that had previously been underrepresented: women. Today, women are a driving force in the sport, drawn in part by the modest amount of time and instruction it takes to see benefits.
Fitness enthusiasts and researchers continue to debate whether running is appropriate for female bodies. But how different can running be from one gender to the other? In some ways, not much; in others, quite a lot.
That’s according to a growing body of research that examines the effects of running on the female form. Hormonal differences, for example, can cause women to peak differently during an event. And although the biomechanics of running are basically the same, women may be more prone to knee and foot injuries because of their wider hips.
As a devoted runner and a sports physical therapist at Indiana University Health Rehabilitation Services, Jan George, PT, DPT, OCS, helps athletes of both genders improve their running form. She offers these training tips to help female runners stay healthy.
Make time to stretch. George says female runners between the age of 20 and 50 are big multi-taskers, prone to shortchanging themselves when it comes to stretching. “They have a million other things to do and they don’t want to take the time to stretch before running,” she says. Stretching puts the body in a neutral position before running, reducing tension throughout the body. Target areas: dynamic stretching of the hip flexors, quads, gastroc/soleus and hamstrings.
Supplement your running regimen with a good strengthening program. Focus especially on the hip abductors and the gluteus medius. “Because of the way our pelvis is situated with wider hips, those tend to be our weakest area,” she says. Females also tend to run with their knees too close together, putting greater stress on the body from the knee down. Most women need to concentrate on running with the knees apart. “That’s a cue I must give women more often than men,” George says.
Maintain an even pace in your running. “In running, you want everything to be very symmetrical,” George says. When a runner’s stride is uneven from one side to the other, it can lead to injury. If it takes longer for one side to strike the ground, it will strike harder and with more force. You can often detect the results of an uneven stride through wear patterns on your shoes, where one shoe is more worn than the other. One simple way to balance your cadence is to listen to the beat, adapting your pace to a timer, a certain song or a metronome. Try to get your feet to match that beat, ideally 80 to 90 revolutions per minute per side. Evening your pace reduces the impact on your body and makes wear and tear more even from side to side.
Vary your course. Running the same course all the time subjects your body to the same surface conditions. Eventually, your body may adjust to that asymmetrical surface. “Most surfaces aren’t truly flat, so you’re becoming asymmetrical in how you make contact with the pavement when you run the same course over and over again,” George says.
Wear appropriate running shoes for your feet and your stride. “Your foot is your foundation and you want to have the best possible foundation,” George says. Serious runners put a lot of miles on their feet. Shoes should be changed every 300 miles to make sure they still provide support. Having the correct running shoe is like putting appropriate tires on your car. Shoes should fit properly to optimize the way your foot hits the ground. Optimal ground contact results in fewer injuries. George suggests that people who run half marathons and marathons see a physical therapist to identify the type of shoe best suited to their anatomy.
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