Learn Midfoot Strike in 20 minutes!

I've written 2 other blogs on the topics of running form and shoes, so this blog is dedicated to giving runners confidence that they can learn how to run with proper midfoot strike in as little as 20 minutes.  Whether or not it sticks on successive runs has mixed results.  However, I've been coaching running form for many years and have found that I can usually get heel strikers into a midfoot strike (that sticks) in ~20 minutes, with the average time taking about 35 minutes (yes, I have started checking my watch to note the time it takes for them to get my stamp of approval).

Not every runner gets it down pat in the first Running 101 session, but typically by the end of 60 minutes, 9 out of 10 runners are "cured" of their heel striking.  I say that the success of future runs is mixed because it depends on the runner's willingness to temporarily reduce his/her run volume in order to have higher quality run sessions and accelerate the learning curve.  You cannot, in my opinion, carry the new running form into a high-volume running routine without regressing into old habits or increasing the likelihood for new injuries.

I admit that the more athletic runners in the crowd will have quicker success and are more apt to get the midfoot strike to stick.  And by "athletic" I mean having good hand-eye coordination and/or some background in another team/ball sport.  This finding is true because in remedying someone's mechanics, there has to be a degree of "treatment acceptability," for which athletes typically have past experience learning new skills (mechanics) and/or picking up on cue words more quickly.

The key to teaching someone how to run (or new mechanics) does not exist in the type of shoes themselves; rather, it exists in what has already been stated, the actual mechanics of the movement.  Shoes, as inanimate objects, don't teach mechanics.  Flexible hips, strong glutes, strong hamstrings, and having the right cue words in your ears (instead of your music playlist) will be the key variables in getting you off your heels and onto your midfoot.   

Without going into great detail, here are the 7 key points I make in teaching someone how to run:

1) Notice that similarly to my other blogs, I don't use the terms "forefoot" or "balls of your feet."  These two phrases are getting many runners into trouble and keeping physical therapists in business.  In terms of injuries, running forefoot can be just as bad as running on your heels.  Unless you are a true sprinter (100m - 400m dash), like Usain Bolt, I don't recommend running on the balls of the feet (or the toes), which is a different beast/sport altogether and a whole separate conversation.

2) I have remained hesitant to fully embrace the minimalist shoe movement, especially as I've refined the way I teach run mechanics.  Minimalist shoes are not evil; they're just not for everyone, especially beginners, heel strikers, or those over age 40.  As the book Tread Lightly points out, I agree that minimalist shoes aren't necessary; however, these shoes should also not be viewed as the silver bullet for causing injuries.  My advice is to pick a shoe that fits your foot, yet is not at either end of the spectrum (i.e., minimalist on one end and motion control shoes on the other end)

3) Related to #2, a smart approach to run volume/intensity goes much further in preventing injuries than does the style of shoe, assuming the runner has a decent midfoot strike.  Some runners contacting me for Running101 sessions are doing so after injuries resulting from running in minimalist shoes and/or attempting to run "forefoot."

4) There is such a thing as running too slowly.  Most of the heel strikers I meet are beginning runners and/or running way too sloooooooow.  We typically have better run mechanics the faster we run, so I encourage people to run slightly faster and cut down on the duration of the run.  I teach people how to sprint first (for the purposes of that 101 session), then I teach them how to jog.  On a related note, I convince some people not to run a marathon or half-marathon until they learn to run properly.  Throw rotten tomatoes at me if you like, but it's a short-term loss (not getting that finisher's medal) for a long-term gain (running injury-free and faster for years to come).  The popularity of marathons and half-marathons are indirectly responsible for the growing number of injuries among runners, as the number of runners has increased in general.

5) Related to #4, if I can get a runner to view sprinting and jogging as similar general mechanics (i.e., hip and hamstring function), albeit with a relatively shorter stride on the easy distance jogs, then I'm close to getting them to a midfoot strike because I've likely successfully broken their old, bad habit(s).

6) Heel striking is the same as walking, which is why running too slowly is not good for anyone (no matter how slow you think you are).  In other words, it's (largely, not exclusively) the mechanics of the lower leg in the final moments of the stride that will cause runners to end up on their heels.  Heel striking is permissible if it's a subtle (key word) heel strike, and there are other factors that go into the executive decision as to whether it needs to be changed (e.g., body weight, age, volume, injury history).  But again, either way, it's about the mechanics, not the shoes.

7) Finally, faster cadence is not the answer!  Cadence and foot strike may be correlated, but we all know from our science and statistics classes that correlations are not cause-effect.  Go down to the National Mall and watch hundreds of heel strikers with a cadence at 90+ RPMs (or 180 if you're counting both feet).  I would even argue that the faster cadence often promotes heel striking, and I make this point explicit in my 101 sessions.  If I can get someone into a midfoot strike, but with a relatively (key word) slower turnover, then that's okay because correcting cadence takes much less work than correcting foot strike.

As I stated before, it may take more than one run for the new midfoot strike to stick, but the initial goal/change can be accomplished in just 20 minutes (in ideal cases), without having to change someone's current run shoes.  I have several different ways of explaining the mechanics.  It's just like teaching in a classroom, you have to offer more than one way to explain the same idea, because different students will grasp ideas in different ways.  In deciding whether or not your foot strike needs to be changed, that's where I, as a coach, can enter the picture, in that I coach individuals, and I know when to allow for individual differences as to what should or should not be changed. 

If you're interested in learning how to change your run form (foot strike, posture, arm swing, etc), then simply drop me a line.

Train hard!