When coaching distance runners and triathletes at our Running Technique Workshops or 1:1 Sessions I often find myself getting into conversations about ‘ideal’ running form for a given individual.
Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems like the tide is changing. I now see so many (often injury prone) runners who had previously invested time and effort into switching from their habitual technique, towards a perceived ideal of better form. They’re usually at a point where they are wanting to start-over with individual technique coaching to find a solution that is appropriate and sustainable for their body, injury history and specific goals.
These athletes have often experienced varying degrees of success and frustration in trying to switch to forefoot running, with ‘help’ (ahem!) from particular footwear choices. There’s research now that strengthens the concept that foot strike pattern isn’t as heavily influenced by minimalist / barefoot style footwear as the barefoot zealots will try to tell you…
Recent research by Peter Larson (2014) published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science and discussed here by Craig Payne, highlights that there are more heel striking runners within the barefoot / minimalist running population that you may be lead to believe. From my coaching experience, I would 100% agree. Shoes don’t make the runner!
This nicely backs-up what I see from day-to-day during video analysis sessions with athletes when we first start working together. As a surprisingly common example: I’m always intrigued when I meet athletes who present with a pronounced heel strike in their VFFs, Vivobarefoot, Brooks Pure, Inov-8, etc… even Newtons – which they had purchased to ‘help them stop heel striking’!
VIDEO: Heel Striking in Newtons
All this just goes to add weight to the concept that it’s not the shoe that dictates running form. I prefer to view technique as being intrinsically driven. Thus we can approach running as a skill.
The Highly Skilled Runner
To return to my initial point; during these initial conversations one of the most important observations I try to make is that there is so much more to running form than simply foot strike pattern.
Given the cyclical nature of running biomechanics, both foot strike pattern and position relative to the knee, hip and centre of mass are dictated by the movement of the limb through swing phase immediately preceding initial contact of the foot – this is effected by factors such as pelvic control, which is itself effected by many variables (an article for another day!).
When we consider foot strike pattern as more of an expression of how the body above is moving, and how it is natural for us all to alter foot strike for a given situation, it should be easy to see why a whole-body approach to running gait re-education is essential.
The foot and ankle is as complex in its movements as it is, so that it can adapt for our walking or running progression across almost any given terrain, providing mobility and stability in each plane of motion where appropriate. Our feet, like our hands, are two of the most versatile tools our bodies have. Most of us who have run marathons for example, will have felt first-hand how foot strike changes slightly with fatigue (usually when cadence drops). Trail runners amongst us will be familiar with the concept of subconsciously picking a slightly foot strike for the given terrain.
The latter is a great example of the kind of variation I usually like to encourage in all runners.
The highly skilled runner can maintain great posture, appropriate cadence, pelvic control, upper body action etc… while adapting foot strike pattern for the given situation, taking into account:
When it comes to fatigue, using myself as an n=1 example; I run with a habitual forefoot strike, mostly due to my shocking ankle dorsiflexion! Not built for speed at 199cm and 110kg, I’ll comfortably run 15-16miles forefoot striking before my calf muscles begin to fatigue. Thus my 5k, 10k and Half Marathon race pics always show a clear forefoot strike. However, if I’m setting off on a run longer than 12-13 miles, I’ll begin the run with what almost looks like the lightest of heel strikes, and maintain this throughout unless terrain dictates otherwise. This helps greatly in avoiding undue stress on the plantar flexors, my calf muscles. For me, in shifting such a big lump of ex rugby player from stride to stride, plantar flexor (calf muscle) strength-endurance is a major determining factor in maintaining good running technique. Anything I can do to help those calf muscles out has to be a bonus.
The take home message, and point in me sharing my own experience is that regardless of whether I’m running a fast (for me) 5k or steady Marathon, with the foot strike I choose for either, I’m conscious of maintaining posture, cadence, upper body and arm action, etc… that will lead to my being able to maintain appropriate form for the given situation, from head to toe.