This post was originally written for my osteopathy website. If you are interested in running/ squatting or exercise, you may want to read on anyway.
I have read and heard a lot over the last six months or so about running being bad for you (1). It supposedly wears out the joints, destroys your knees, causes muscle catabolism, physical armageddon etc. This is as opposed to squats, hinging patterns (i.e. deadlifts), pulling exercises and being able to resist rotation, which are all ‘primal/ fundamental/ essential’ movement patterns (or whatever the latest buzz word is) (2).
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against squatting, deadlifting etc. Competence in these movements is highly beneficial (3), and would help us all to some degree or another:
- Squatting an appropriate weight can be good for you. (See this)
- It is a basic ‘pattern’. (same study)
- It can increase strength, endurance, cardiovascular health and self-esteem.
- Squats don’t ‘wreck’ healthy knees or backs or whatever else is in vogue. (See this. However, for long term health this study favoured front squats over ‘back squats’, especially with meniscal tears. The authors’ statement that there is less joint compression is shared by strength coaches such as Ben Bruno. In Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe contests this. His reasoning is decreased hamstring involvement in front squats means there is therefore less of a restraining effect on the ACL. An effect illustrated here in landing from jumps.)
- It can help with overall mobility and lower body/ back strength. (See this again)
- It is something we do daily (if you’re sitting down while reading this post, how did you get into this position?).
Now, let’s look at:
- Running an appropriate distance/ speed can be good for you. (See this)
- It is a basic ‘pattern.’
- It can increase strength, endurance, cardiovascular health, bone density and self-esteem. (again)
- It doesn’t ‘wreck’ healthy knees or backs or whatever else is in vogue. (See the above study again. These older abstracts (here, here, here) on distance runners also don’t find a connection between between running and knee OA. This one in a different population had equivocal results but not negative results.)
- It requires minimum equipment and training (a sense of direction is desirable, though).
Stop using extreme examples to demonise normal behaviour
Weight, distance, speed etc. are all relative to the individual. Being able to squat the equivalent of a small family car (complete with wet dog in the boot) isn’t always good for you, unless you’ve trained for it. Similarly, running isn’t always the ‘best’ exercise for everyone all the time. It depends on the individual at that moment, their training history, physical status, wants, needs and all the other biopsychosocial factors at play (see an earlier post of mine for a brief intro on this).
We’ve all seen the obligatory train-crash videos on the internet of someone missing a squat and hurting themselves, or running and pulling up short with an injury. Does this, therefore, invalidate all types of squats and running for everyone?
Sometimes, it may be advisable not to run (or squat) for a while or at least balance it with something to complement it. Occasionally, running or squatting may be contraindicated. But generally, most people should be able to do some kind of exercise (4).
Exercise choices are not always ‘either/or’
Not every exercise is suitable for everyone at all times, but not many exercises are inherently ‘bad’. I sometimes wonder why people sit on opposite sides of the fence throwing hyperbole at each other to see what sticks. Are they doing it:
- in an attempt to make themselves feel good about the group they have chosen to identify with?
- because it validates their choices and/or limitations?
- to drum up business?
- or do they have a genuine physical reason not to run/ squat etc.?
Heard of the nocebo effect?
Such attitudes can do more harm than good. They help fuel the ‘don’t-do-this-or-else’ approach to treatment/ exercise/ life that seems common these days. This holds people back when we should be empowering them.
You’re crazy! You’re saying I should make my granny run a marathon.
It depends, I haven’t met your granny. But that kind of statement is typical of many discussions these days; hearing what you want to hear and distorting the facts to suit you. It is something best left in the playground but now seems the front line tactic of choice in many quarters, especially those in a position of (perceived) authority and with vested interests.
My son’s granny is almost 70 and planning a tough mudder next year to celebrate, having raced her first at the age of 68. One of my fathers-in-law (it’s complicated) is just past 70 and can’t walk any reasonable distance, but is fine on his bike. Which one of these am I going to encourage to run? Which one will I suggest to maybe just stick to cycling for now? Would I advise either of them to squat? Probably, yes. But only if they wanted to and then well within their physical capabilities (see this on exercise ‘dosing’ and this earlier post of mine on exercise and my unscientific take on ‘slow’ progress).
And then you could look at this 95 year old who only started exercising at around 60 and broke the 200m world record in early 2015. Maybe he is a ‘genetic
outlier’ who can tolerate this naturally. Maybe we should not look for excuses for our behaviour, and congratulate him on his.
The choice, execution and grading of any exercise needs to be taken on an individual basis. High diving with a grade 3 spondylolisthesis would probably take a lot of positive thought to deal with. Sprinting shortly after a recent hamstring tear and maximal squats on an acute disc would also not be my first choice of intervention.
Instead of jumping on the latest bash-the-exercise bandwagon and prescribing everyone several sets of ‘brace and tuck, pull back and down and NEVER-FLEX-YOUR-SPINE!’ (5), why don’t we celebrate the fact that someone wants to exercise? Why don’t we work with them to achieve it where possible, even if it is running. Besides, if our ancestors hadn’t been able to run, I suspect many of you wouldn’t be here today reading this post.
“Hey look, a lion/ enemy soldier/ live volcano!”
“Just squat, bro’, that’s all you need.'”
Thanks for reading.
(1) Which type of running do they mean? Jogging? Trail running? Marathons? Sprinting? Middle distance? Treadmill? Hills? Barefoot? Extreme? Or are they lumping all ‘running’ into one heap just as some endurance athletes appear to do with anything involving any kind of dumbbell or barbell?
(2) I feel I should mention how much I love deadlifts at this point just to get my ‘man card’ validated. That seems to be how this kind of post usually runs. I do. I love deadlifts and squats, I’m just not particularly good at them. Yet.
(3) Exactly how we do these is material for another post. Briefly, I think that unloaded movements have a lot more biomechanical give and take than loaded movements.
(4) Even if it’s Crossfit or prancercise. I admit to struggling with one of these, but that’s my issue.
(5) If we should never flex our spines, why do we have joints in the spine? Yes, flexing the spine (or any joint) and loading it beyond what it can tolerate is a problem. However, flexion or any other vectors are not problems (neither is sitting, but let’s not go there today…).
(6) There are various people you can look at for all things squat/ lifting related. Try these for a varied approach: Bret Contreras, Tony Gentilcore, Ben Bruno, Eric Cressey, Mark Rippetoe, Jim Wendler and Mike Robertson (Some are more old-school, others more evidence based, all have something to offer). As regards running, check out Mr Tom Goom aka The Running Physio (Mr Goom, if you’re reading this, apologies for spelling your name wrong in my previous post).