Over recent years, it has become more common to hear runners talking about developing their running technique in an effort to improve performance and avoid the common running injuries.
Common running wisdom (often perpetuated by those who sell us footwear), had previously seen runners spending their money on the most scientifically advanced footwear, believing that:
“Greater Expense = Advanced Science = Better Shoes”. Funny logic indeed.
Now we see many of the same runners buying minimalist or “barefoot” shoes in an effort to develop running as a skill, improving efficiency… which is great (for those who don’t get injured making such a dramatic change).
The big players in the running shoe industry aren’t stupid! Therefore we now see quite a choice of “minimalist footwear”, branded ironically as being essential pieces of kit for the new “minimalist” runner.
After all, running technique is all about the shoes – right? Well… I don’t buy that AT ALL.
Improve Your Running Form The Correct Way
Chris McDougall (author of Born to Run) is quoted on his website with a phrase which pretty much sums up how I approach an individual’s approach to improving running form and efficiency:
“…ultimately, the debate isn’t about Bare Soles vs. Shoes. It’s about learning to run gently.
Master that, and you can wear — or not wear — anything you please.”
To an extent, I feel that we have been somewhat brain-washed by the running footwear industry to think about the foot as the source of all bad things, or good, when it comes to running injuries in particular.
Of course, proper foot function and foot biomechanics have a massive role to play in running gait. An issue at foot and ankle level can result in significant compensatory issues higher up the body. This is amplified as we increase our running milage. It is definitely part of the puzzle when it comes to getting your technique right, and selecting appropriate footwear etc… BUT by no means the whole picture.
All too frequently I meet runners and triathletes who have tried to make the change in technique from over-striding heel striker to midfoot runner, by simply focusing on what happens at the foot. Ignoring what happens at the knees, hips, pelvis, trunk, arms and head – their overall, whole-body technique.
This is perpetuated in the running media by endless, repurposed, “foot focussed” articles about barefoot running, forefoot running etc… by sports journalists offering questionable advice through limited understanding of the human body and it’s movements.
Also, I feel that many conclusions are jumped to when new research is published suggesting a way in which we “should” run as humans.
Research is very important. And, so is the appropriate application of this research, in a coaching environment. It’s my personal view that the great research that is being produced is there to empower coaches and develop thought processes, not to act as a basis for “one size-fits all” solutions.
I may read a research paper which suggests compelling evidence for us to all work on becoming midfoot runners… But, I’m not going to change every runner or triathlete I meet to run with this style.
Changes to technique need to reflect what is appropriate for the individual, given their injury history, goals, strengths, weaknesses, etc…
The overwhelming feedback I get from runners and triathletes alike is, that most of us are left somewhat confused about the whole technique issue!
What to Change First
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go out and buy some minimalist or “barefoot”running shoes.
But think about this first…
By far the most frequent issues I see when working with runners to improve their form, are the postural dysfunctions and muscular imbalances going on around the hips and pelvic region that result in issues at the foot, knee and ankle. Thus limiting the runner’s ability to maintain good form.
The simple reality is that many runners aren’t ready to make that transition to a midfoot / forefoot strike. In fact, many are better off remaining as heel strikers initially, until they have learned to become more efficient (lighter) within their heel strike.
N.B. I’m not against forefoot / midfoot / minimalist / barefoot / natural running. In fact I personally run midfoot in the 4mm drop Asics Hyperspeed and love it! I simply see far too many runners who throw themselves at a new style without being physically ready to do so or aware of how to make the changes correctly… The result is often injury.
Some of the best ways you can benefit as a runner involve improving your posture and muscle balance, especially around your pelvic region and hips. Mobilising restrictions and areas of tightness, while improving activation of previously inhibited muscle groups.
Most regularly, I find that in real (general) terms, for most runners, this equates to: stretching the Quads and Hip Flexors more, activating then strengthening the Glutes, then working on a feeling of running tall – holding the hips “high”, and increasing running cadence.
Once a runner has learned to improve their heel striking form, becoming lighter and more efficient, with a better posture and all round muscle balance… Then they will then find the transition to a midfoot / forefoot strike relatively simple and easy.
The fact is: that making those initial changes from “over striding heel striker” to “heel striker with good posture and high cadence” may be enough for many runners in terms of change – and result in fewer injuries and improved efficiency – without having to go the whole way to a midfoot / forefoot strike.
Last updated on March 2nd, 2021.
Not sure if you’ve seen this study, but it seems to back up what you’re saying here:
Wearing minimalist shoes certainly doesn’t guarantee running with either a fore/midfoot strike or lower impact, even if you believe you are!
Thanks for the link Simon. Interesting info.
Good advice. It helps to work with a coach that focuses on form who can observe what you need to work on.
Excellent posting James I agree with a lot of what you are trying to get across here. I have worked in running retail and gait assessments both in the UK and Oz and am tired of hearing how incorrect shoes have caused injuries. While we aim to get people into the most appropriate footwear we also give feedback on muscular tightness and strengthening exercises as well as running technique tips to reduce the risk of injury. Footwear is certainly important but not the most important factor in my opinion.
I was an often-injured runner who thought Nike Frees then Vibram 5-Fingers wouId magically cure me. Didn’t happen! Just like you say, I had to totally reprogram the way I ran. I’m still working on all those thing. I think that like you say, addressing hip issues (mobilizing and learning to use all the muscles that attach to the hips) and quickening the cadence (thus resulting in a foot strike nearer the center of mass) are the most important factors. At least they were for me.
I always get good information from your blog. Thanks for posting thoughtful, useful and succinct content.