Many running injury studies look at differences between injured and healthy runners using gait analysis, but relatively few also examine how running form changes during a prolonged bout of running due to the effects of fatigue. Runners who continue running past the point of fatigue may be susceptible to injury due to alterations in their form caused by exhaustion.
Running Form and Fatigue
Changes in running form are suspected as likely contributors to many common running injuries including patellofemoral pain syndrome, iliotibial band syndrome, and plantar fasciitis. A decrease in muscle activity and recruitment due to fatigue reduces the body’s ability to control joint motion, putting additional strain on muscles, tendons, and ligaments that may ultimately lead to injury. A recent study published in the Journal of Biomechanics suggests that as runners become fatigued during a long run, their form changes, with an increase in motion at the knees and hips.
Altered Joint Mechanics
Increased knee and hip movement are two likely contributors to the development of painful problems for runners. It’s been suggested that general weakness in the muscles of the hip and thigh can lead to excessive joint motion, but the effects of fatigue on muscle endurance (the ability of a muscle to repeatedly contract) can also be a contributing factor.
Alteration of gait mechanics as the result of fatigue might help explain why some injuries are not painful at the start of a run, and only surface after a certain distance or time. Measuring a runner’s strength or evaluating their form prior to a run does not provide insight into what happens once the runner becomes tired. Assessing running form at the onset of fatigue may be needed to properly determine which runners are more at risk for injury.
Evaluating Risk Factors
A runner might display great hip abduction strength and good control during a single-leg squat test, but 7 miles into a run their form starts to break down and they start displaying more hip adduction or ankle pronation. Stride rate is another variable that might change or become less consistent as a runner grows tired. A slower cadence (taking less steps per minute) can lead to overstriding and a resultant increase in forces traveling through the leg.
Understanding and Measuring Fatigue
Fatigue was once believed to be directly caused by a depletion of the energy stores or the build up of chemical by-products in muscles which then in turn causes the muscles to shut down to protect the body from further injury. Professor Tim Noakes, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town, proposed an alternate theory stating that fatigue actually occurs in the brain, not the muscles. According to Noakes’ theory, the brain will subconsciously decrease muscle activation based on the perceived level of exertion in order to protect the body from damage caused by excessively hard work. The idea that the brain acts as a thermostat, responding to various signals coming from the muscles, is called the Central Governor Theory.
Central Governor Theory
In the central governor model of fatigue, the brain adjust muscle recruitment and regulates exercise performance in order to prevent the body’s systems from failing. Several scientists have pointed out that the central governor theory does not completely explain all the observations associated with fatigue, and there is some evidence that factors in the muscles themselves or elsewhere in the body other than the nervous system may still play a part in the sensation of fatigue.
Regardless of the exact nature of fatigue, a more practical matter for runners and athletes is how to account for fatigue during their training sessions to minimize the risk of injury. Many runners may adhere to training schedules that do not account for their level or feeling of exertion, meaning during long runs they could likely be running with a form that increases their chance of injury.
Endurance Athletes and Fatigue
Running by itself is a good way to increase muscular endurance. When you account for the changes in form that come with fatigue though, there needs to be a balance between the amount of work being performed and the ability of the runner to maintain good form and efficiency during their training. Above all else, most running injuries are a result of training error. Knowing how to adjust your training in relation to your muscle endurance helps ward off injuries.
Rating of Perceived Exertion
A simple tool to determine how hard you are working out is the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. The RPE scale, also known as the Borg scale, allows you to match how hard you feel you are exerting yourself with numbers 6 through 20. A RPE of 15 is usually associated with the onset of fatigue for runners.
Tips to Adjust Training in Response to Fatigue
1. Stop running at or just past the rating of perceived exertion of 15. A RPE of 15-17 is likely when a runner’s form will begin to change so continuing to train beyond this point might bring a higher risk of injury. Stopping at the onset of fatigue can still yield many of the benefits of training with less downside. Using the RPE scale will allow an athlete to increase their training time or distance in relation to improvements in muscular endurance.
2. Pay extra attention to form at the end of a run. Focusing on good form at the onset of fatigue will help build muscular endurance in the muscle groups that act as a buffer against injuries. Everyone has a different opinion for what is considered optimal running form, but simple cues like maintaining a set cadence or watching out for crossover strides can go a long way toward maintaining consistent mechanics throughout the duration of a run.
3. Mix strength training exercises aimed at increasing muscular endurance in with your runs. There is some evidence that performing high repetition strengthening exercises or long duration isometric holds will result in improved muscular endurance with running. An increase in muscle strength may not directly improve running form, but the way muscles perform when fatigued can help safeguard against a breakdown in form at the end of a run.
Photo Credit: Rennet Stowe