Thursday, January 21, 2010

Running Technique Thoughts

There has been an enormous amount of press recently on running techniques. Specifically, through the recent best-selling running book, Born To Run (McDougall) there is a growing list of runners that have focused on running technique and forefoot/mid-foot striking and using “minimalist shoes”. It seems every day, I read another report related to the “significant” benefits of minimalist shoes, lack of injuries, running barefoot, running with Five Finger shoes, running mid-foot/forefoot, landing on the heel, Chi Running, Pose Running, stride length, etc.

Many individuals have suggested that running injuries (knees and ankles) may be reduced through the use of lighter weight shoes and running while “tilting” forward from the ankles to use the effect of gravity pulling you down the road. One item that we all have noticed is the prevalence of the new lighter weight running shoes being promoted by the shoe manufacturers. It’s amazing how they have created this market overnight. Newton shoes, New Balance, Nike just to name a few have specific marketing focused on this trend toward lighter and feeling more natural running. It is interesting over my 25 years of running how the trends keep changing related to running shoes. We all remember, a big focus for the running shoe manufacturers in the 1980’s was to focus on shoes to assist with over-pronation. I remember buying several models of these shoes even though I was not much of a pronator but they were being promoted to prevent injuries. It was all the “hype” at the time, so I decided to run with these “heavy and lack of motion” shoes. They were definitely not for me as I found out immediately after several weeks of running.

There some good arguments against heel-striking with the goal of reducing injuries. Many runners who land on the heel strike the ground in front of their centre of mass actually create a braking effect until the foot is under their centre of mass. If you examine the running styles of the top marathoner’s and triathletes their running styles are all different. One common theme that they all incorporate and makes sense is to increase the turnover through a higher cadence. This will reduce the time the foot is on the ground which is where the running injuries occur. However, a big change that you will encounter with higher cadence is a higher heart rate. It’s important to practice to ensure your heart-rate states in the correct range for longer races. An additional benefit with forefoot/mid-foot striking is that the core will be engaged and you can use those muscles to drive the legs. It does allow the body to be more relaxed, especially when climbing hills.

Personally, I was concerned about moving to another running technique (have always been mainly a mid-foot strike but some heel striking as well when I become fatigued). My concern was the potential effect of increased fatigue with the higher turnover in the latter stages of a very long triathlon or ultra running race (50+ miles). After reading Chi and Pose Running techniques, I made some changes last year. Also, I did move to lighter weight running shoes, higher turnover (used a metronome to track turnover) and realized significant benefits with regards to late-stage running fatigue. It took many months, but my new running style allowed me to maintain roughly the same pace (not faster – which was the original goal) as my normal higher knees and a mix of forefoot and heel landing. The biggest benefit for my specific racing (ultra tri’s and ultra running) was that I had significantly less lower leg fatigue which allowed more running late into the races. Overall, with less walking and fatigue I experienced faster overall times.

Each runner has their own technique to generate the greatest amount of speed for racing. I do think there is some value in experimenting with the light shoes, different striking positions, etc. However, take each change gradually and progress over time to reduce the chances of injuries. It will be interesting to see what new trend will come out from the running community in another 10 years!! Happy Running.