6/21/11

Proper Running Form - It's Not About The Shoes!


This is Part 2 of a two-part Blog on the relationship between running form and footwear.  Click HERE for Part 1.  I have since added another blog related to how I teach folks to land midfoot.  Check it out HERE and share!

Proper running form as the main factor in preventing running injuries is related to more than your footwear.  If I stated last time that running like your 8-year-old cousin would go a long way in preventing most injuries, what does that imply?  It means running like a sprinter, running fast (relatively), or running like a kid again, all of which fall under the umbrella of running naturally.  It also means that not everyone will be able to run with proper form if they have limitations in their hip flexibility and hamstring strength.  Regardless if you are running barefoot or in the latest high-tech shoe, you legs first and foremost must have the physical capability to move through the proper motion.  This is easier to do as kids because we haven't picked up any bad habits at that stage, nor have we adapted a lifestyle of sitting in chairs for hours on end that gives us tight/weak hamstrings and hips.  On top of this, knowing how to move your legs through the proper motion is vital. 

It's in that last step (knowing how to move the legs) where running shoes are only a secondary factor.  Keep in mind that runners who have good mechanics would have proper, midfoot strike in construction boots or the older, traditional running sneakers, mainly because they have the proper strength and flexibility required, and they've been running correctly for years.  So, to follow-up on the take home message of Part 1, barefoot running isn't necessarily bad, it's just overrated, because it doesn't factor in other important elements of good run mechanics. 

Take a look at the fastest runners on the start line of the bigger road races and you'll notice that regardless of how "skinny" they may look, they've all got well-developed hamstrings, and the hamstring is known as the "running muscle".  When your foot leaves the ground to begin a new stride this is often referred to as the "push-off" phase.  However, this in itself gets many runners in trouble.  Most runners can relate to this phase and say, "yes, I know what it feels like to push off the ground each stride," but this is essentially the problem.  As Danny Abshire points out concisely in his book Natural Running, heel striking is the cause of this unnecessary push off (over-using the calves and hamstrings) because it then resembles walking.  Walking is heel striking, but that is okay, we won't get injured or fatigued in the muscles in the back of the leg ("propulsive muscles") when walking, but we are in fact pushing off the ground at that point.  On the other hand, when we rely on these muscles to continually propel us forward in running, these muscles get over-worked, fatigued, or worse, injured.

Danny Dreyer, in his popular book, Chi Running, makes much of the same sense in getting runners away from a "push" to get them going.  Instead, use a simple "heel flick" to start the new stride.  If you've gone to a track and seen runners doing the "butt kick drill" as part of their warm-up, they are essentially doing heel-flicking drills.  I use the same drill in different ways to teach proper sprint mechanics because sprinting and jogging are essentially the same movement.  When your foot hits the ground with a midfoot strike, you can easily start the new stride by simply flicking your heel up off the ground and then pulling it forward with your hamstring strength (depending on how fast you are running this also requires additional "knee drive").  So, the way we use our hamstring after heel striking (propulsion) is different than how we use our hamstring after a midfoot strike (lifting).  When you compare how much more energy is required for the former, you can see why some runners get fatigued more easily during track workouts and longer runs, as evidenced by slower cadence and shorter strides.  A midfoot strike not only saves us from all the adverse rotational forces associated with heel striking, but it also saves our hamstrings (the running muscles) by using them in a different, more economical way.  Additionally, with a midfoot strike the foot spends less time on the ground so the cadence is usually higher in this regard, and your pace quickens naturally whether you like it or not. 

In the end, runners with tight or weak hamstrings don't have the strength required to pull the leg up and under the body to allow the foot to come down onto the midfoot.  What ends up happening is that the foot stays very low to the ground, which is a problem with runners having strides that are too short, and their running stride ends up resembling walking, where they kick the foot forward at the last second, hitting with a heel strike.  I see this dozens of time per day down on the National Mall in DC (a running haven) with runners in Newton's, Kinvara's, Vibram's, or barefoot.  I hypothesize that these runners are, a) misinterpreting what it means to run with a "shorter, quicker stride," b) lacking hamstring strength and/or working an office job, c) unaware of how to move their legs, or d) running too slowly.  Whatever the case may be, it's not entirely about the shoes.  It's about the body and knowing how to run.  If I have weak hamstrings and tight hips and then I take off my shoes, how has my strength and flexibility changed?

Jesse Kropelnicki, owner of QT2 Systems, LLC and run coach to some of the fastest Ironman runners in the world, produced a great video explaining why hip flexibility is important for good mechanics.  As stated above, when your foot leaves the ground with a heel-flicking motion, you would then pull it up toward your butt and then forward with your hamstring.  How much you pull it upward is what is known as stride length.  Stride length is what takes place behind the body, not in front.  Many runners think lengthening their stride means reaching farther out in front of the body with their foot.  You can see how this would lead to landing with a straight leg and heel striking, instead of having a slight bend in the leg upon impact.  Stride length is how much ground you cover from left-foot contact to the next left-foot contact.  Flexible hips help in this way because they would allow your upper leg (thigh) to have a greater (more open) angle during this "recovery phase" of the stride.  A flexible hip would allow your thigh and the rest of your leg to move farther back during the recovery phase of running, thereby creating longer "flight time" for your body (stride length) before the elasticity of your tendons whips your leg back through (quickly) with the aid of good hamstring strength.  The fastest runners in the world have both greater stride length and a faster stride rate.  Usain Bolt of Jamiaca (100-meter gold medalist) is a prime example of both.  But do we really want to bring the mechanics of a sprinter into our distance running?  Yes!

When I review running form with my runners I want them to think of themselves as sprinters, all the time.  The benefits are good forward lean, longer strides, and a midfoot strike.  If I can get them doing more strength training for the hamstrings, hips, and glutes, then their endurance will increase independently of their actual run training.  Too many runners see sprinting and distance running as two separate entities instead of viewing them as one in the same.  The only difference is that endurance runners take relatively shorter strides.  Watch the 2011 Cherry Blossom 10-Miler pro race.  What is "short" about their strides?  Nothing.  It's only relatively short if you compare it to the type of stride they could bust out during a 100m sprint.  If you watch Carl Lewis and Ryan Hall run side by side, you'll see the same exact mechanics, it's just that Lewis is maxing out his stride as a sprinter, as he should, but Hall would still be running with good sprint mechanics during his marathon.  It's not uncommon for top college distance runners to workout with the sprint coach during the week.  So in teaching folks how to run, I attempt to employ sprint drills on the track, getting them away from jogging and more into running (like the old Pearl Izumi ads).

When you want to focus on improving your run form, aim to land with your leg bent and under the hips, or slightly in front of the hips, because a straight leg implies you are reaching in front of you, similar to walking.  A straight leg, therefore, typically goes hand-in-hand with heel striking.  But it's more than just focusing on a bent leg; you also need to train your hamstrings and hips to move through a greater range of motion, like a sprinter, so that the foot can come up after the heel flick and then fall downward to the ground to strike flat-footed (midfoot), instead of kicking the foot forward like kicking a soccer ball.  The other benefit to using the hamstrings to pull the foot higher under the body is that your leg now becomes a shorter lever, and we know from our high school physics class that a shorter lever is a faster lever.  This is the same rationale applied to using a compact arm swing at all times.  Your cadence can therefore remain high when you lengthen your stride, there is no need to sacrifice stride rate when increasing stride length.  Again, look at Usain Bolt as the prime example.

Running correctly almost feels like you're doing one-legged cycling drills.  Train your hips to be more flexible and train your hamstrings to have greater concentric and eccentric strength and you'll be more likely to have better mechanics.  By running faster in training, you'll be moving closer to natural running.  Kids have great form because they sprint!  Kids play games, like tag, baseball, basketball, that involve sprinting.  I can't recall ever seeing kids play a game that involved pacing themselves or jogging. 

The type of shoe you wear is more related to tipping you toward heel striking or midfoot striking, it's not the only factor.  Heel strikers will continue to heel strike even in minimalist shoes unless they change their mental approach to running.  Midfoot strikers will continue to land midfoot even in thicker, traditional run shoes because they've got good mechanics engrained in their brains and nervous systems.  To reiterate, minimalist shoes are a good first step (pun intended) toward good running mechanics, but without knowing how to run like a sprinter, your endurance running would continue to be labored and the nagging injuries would persist.

The final advice in this department is something that is not always politically correct in the running world: Perhaps by being more competitive with your running you'll become more likely to engage in natural running due to faster paces.  If you are now thinking, "yes, but I'll get tired more easily and won't be able to run as far."  Then I agree 100%, thus my reasoning that not everyone is cut out for longer distance events…at least not yet.  There is such a thing as running too slowly.  Many runners don't want to put themselves in a competitive environment and/or don't want to push themselves to run hard, so they jog at a very relaxed pace and say, "I just want to enjoy the run."  I do agree with this mantra and coach many runners who I don't push to be competitive.  However, for many runners, it's the mentality of running slowly that puts them into unnatural running form.  I employ lots of patience with my runners.  I often encourage them not to sign up for marathons and Ironman races because they don't quite have the full-body strength needed to maintain a solid pace (a.k.a. good run mechanics) at the longer distances. This is where I jokingly dub myself as the crusher of hopes and dreams, but I know it's worth it in the long run (pardon the pun).  My runners will be more successful at the longer distances when they're patient because they'll have better mechanics and therefore fewer injuries.  Hey, they'll even be faster!  It's fun to be fast!  So if you are experiencing shortness of breath when correctly changing your stride, and the cadence is faster, the pace is faster, and you suddenly feel out of shape again, don't sweat it.  You're now running correctly, you're running naturally, and you can now safely build toward the longer distances again.

DC Running Coach, LLC offers Running 101 sessions for anyone wanting a personal review of his or her running form. Best of luck with your new stride!

Mike

*There are certainly more details about running form that could have been covered, like arm swing, cadence, posture, etc, but that is beyond the scope of this blog as it pertains to run shoes and the mental approach to running.  Check out Part 3 HERE.

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