Why You Need Your Ears When You Run

What do you listen to when you run? Are you singing along to your favorite '80s mix, rocking out to Metallica's greatest hits or catching up on your favorite podcast? All of these actually sound like pretty good options but do you ever take your earbuds out and just listen to yourself run?

There are a variety of ways to analyze running performance but using your auditory organs isn't commonly on that list. And unlike some of the others like video analysis or a biomechanics evaluation, you can perform an auditory analysis on your own and on any surface inside or out. Sound is a powerful tool and is something I use often with my clients and certainly for myself when I am running.

For the purposes of this discussion, the assumption is that there are no significant asymmetries (structural or functional) or previous injury, prosthesis or orthosis that prevents symmetry of the body in stance or with movement.

The first, and probably easiest thing, you can key in on is the sound of your cadence. You should sound like a metronome when your feet hit the ground. There should be equal time (or silence) between each foot strike as well as equal time (or sound) when each foot is in contact with the ground. The latter can be a little more difficult to discern because the transition over the foot is generally quite quick. If there is a difference between foot strikes, then that may suggest possible issues like inefficiencies in your running mechanics or imbalances in higher joints which could lead to nagging injuries or limit your mileage or pace. Without overhauling your technique see if you are able to tweak your cadence first so that it is more even the next time you run.

Assuming that your cadence is symmetrical, the next sound(s) to listen to may be a little more challenging: how your feet actually strike the ground. Are you a heavy hitter with a solid impact each time or are you light like a gazelle? Is one foot heavy and the other light? Depending on how light or heavy you land (and also which source you read), you are landing with 1.5 to 3 times your body weight on a flat surface. That is a lot of energy and it has to go somewhere. The Earth is certainly not going to budge which means all of that energy is translated into your body. If you land on the heavy side, injuries could pop up generally more structural in nature like stress syndromes and stress fractures. If you land exceptionally light or soft, this could actually mean that you're absorbing so much energy that you lose some efficiency in your technique and soft tissue injuries like tendonitis is more likely to show up. For instance you may bounce up and down more with each step rather than using that energy to move forward. There's a delicate balance between landing too hard or too light and listening to your foot strike can help you find that sweet spot. If you're lucky, you've got it already.

Another sound to listen for is the foot slap. For those unfamiliar it almost sounds like two impacts when you land: first with the heel followed quickly by a loud "slap" by the forefoot. This is not to be confused with regular heel striking with a smooth transition versus other styles of landing. (That is a completely different discussion which will be covered in future posts.) This pattern generally describes someone who is over striding. When the foot and leg are too far out in front of your body and center of mass, it is difficult to transition smoothly and it is a less stable position which results in the distinct foot slap sound. The "easy" fix for this is to shorten your stride which may feel a bit awkward at first but long term will feel more smooth and comfortable when you run.

Lastly, breathing. This encompasses all runners regardless of your cadence or foot strike patterns. Without getting into any specific technique (there are several out there but this is also a different discussion for another day), the one thing that they all have in common is rhythm. Make sure your breathing is consistent and has a rhythm to it so that you are constantly getting the oxygen you need to perform.

Should there be any noticeable differences that persist and you are unable to correct them yourself or you develop pain, consider consulting with a physical therapist knowledgeable in running injury and performance to review your technique and history.

See you out on the trails!

If you found this to be helpful, please share!

Contributed by Dr. Greg Cecere, DPT


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