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Are Humans Designed to Run?

In the year 2017 the exercise and sports science medical fraternity continue to assess and treat a disproportionate amount of running injuries. Current research suggests there has been no significant decline in running related injuries in the last 30 years. This is despite the mounting knowledge, information and continued research in the field of sports and running related injuries.

Like many diseased states, tissue pathology experienced by the body equating to run-related injuries are multifactorial. An increase in loads, a change in biomechanics, a change in running shoes, inadequate strength and conditioning are obvious factors.  Individual predisposition (genetic factors) such as architecture (which, according to current research has less to do with running injury than biomechanics) as well as genetic components such as the efficiency of one’s physiological systems in remodelling and adapting can all play a role.

However, as an exercise physiologist who has spent a significant amount of the last 10 years studying and learning about all things running as well as working with runners of all ilk’s, I must pose the question, if running injuries continue to remain substantially high despite our current knowledge, are we missing something?

The simple answer is; our mammalian brain, like all mammalian brains, are innately wired to move us effectively through space. Early on, it was essential for survival. Our neuromuscular kinetic chain is very specifically designed to (firstly) hold us upright relative to gravity and (secondly) to move us in all directions at varying speeds through various environments, relative to gravity. In doing so we became very effective movers because the human body is a fantastically adaptive creature.

The body’s capacity to change (termed plasticity) is impressive.  It’s what a physiological, biodynamic being does. Every process that occurs within the body is either degrading, proliferating, communicating or remodelling/repairing.  Therefore every stress the human body endures, however significant or insignificant promotes some level of biological adaptation. Ironically it is our biologically adaptive nature that may very well be working against us in our modern, sedentary era.

Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) is a timely example. Simply put the combination of a drastic change in food quality combined with (excessively) reduced activity levels (relative to what our body is designed to incur) over an extended period of time has led to a negative adaptation to hormonal regulation (dubbed hormonal dysregulation) of blood glucose. This adaptation has then effectively been passed on from one generation to the next, thus predisposing the subsequent generation to a greater potential for T2D.

So what does the adaptation towards the potential for T2D have to do with running injuries?  The model of (negative) adaptation. The fact is humans sit more than ever before, and from a young age. Research into the impact of sitting and therefore a lowered metabolic effect over many years is vast and necessary. However, research into the impact of a sedentary lifestyle (from a young age) on our movement quality and tissue integrity has yet to be investigated. Perhaps it is impossible to do. This does not mean it isn’t factor. It means it hasn’t been investigated. Therefore it is worth considering what we do know and linking it to the current problem of running injuries:

1. We sit a lot more than ever from a very young age. Most kids start school around 5-6 years old and within a year the learning they are required to undergo puts children in the obligatory seated position, at a desk. To put it into perspective, the average school student, in a 168hour week is engaging in:

  • SLEEP = 62.2hrs (37%)
  • SCHOOL (seated learning) = 35.3hrs (21%)
  • OTHER / SOCIAL (social time, screen time etc) = 35.8hrs (21%)
  • PHYSICAL ACTIVITY (recess, PE) = 21.8hrs (13%)
  • EATING = 13.4hr (8%)
  • Therefore at LEAST 111hours per week is spent engaging in very low-level activity requiring equally low-level metabolic demand. This increases to 129 hours per week if 50% of the “OTHER / SOCIAL” time is non-active. Unfortunately, in this technological age, this is highly likely.

2. The human body is a very biodynamic system continually adapting to the stressors it encounters the most frequently. Therefore, from a young age the body is continually adapting to LOW ACTIVITY / LOW METABOLIC DEMAND (in terms of energy expenditure) for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, as we gravitate into adulthood our sleep time decreases while our sitting / sedentary time increases.

3. Movement or lack there-of impacts the very bio-feedback system that dictates how the body moves; the brain-body connection. Simply put the body does not move through space without the messages from central command (brain). During the formative years the body (and in particular structures within the peripheral nervous system) continually sends message to the brain about the loads the body is / isn’t under and the brain dictates the adaptation process.

Of course, not every person is sedentary during their growing years (and beyond). Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how much activity one needs to encourage robust tissue adaptation. Of equal importance is the consideration of; how does sitting for extended periods of time impact how we move through space on a daily basis. Again extensive research exists on the impact of sitting on our postural control. It stands to reason that extended sitting in-turn will affect our standing, walking and most likely our running “posture”. This is a conversation for another time.

To finish, it is now more necessary than ever to ensure your individual factors are considered to design an appropriate strength and conditioning program as well as loading program for your running goals. In doing so your running biomechanics must be evaluated!

To learn more about Rebecca Bryce visit http://opsmc.com.au/person/rebecca-bryce/ 

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