Running Form Advice for New Runners: Think about it, but not too much

"The secret of style is to run naturally" –– James Fixx, The Complete Book of Running (1977)

"You know instinctively how to run and how to breathe, so stop trying to tinker with the details." –– Alex Hutchinson, Outside Magazine (2018)

"Put simply, when it comes to running style: If it ain't broke, don't fix it." –– Dr. Barton, Science News (2019)

Several weeks ago, I gave advice to runners taking up the sport for the first time or returning after an absence. Almost overnight, running (and walking) has become the way to exercise outdoors. Now that you have combined the run–walk method with the new “swerve” approach to training (Hey, there are some people up there, I think I’ll just turn down this side street…) you’re probably feeling better about your endurance and running is somewhat easier. I urged you not to worry too much about your form aside from trying to keep your steps light and quick, like you were running on eggshells or hot coals. Ultimately, it was simply more important to get out there and do it.

Now it’s time to talk about running form. Actually, this subject has become more straight forward during the last several years. After a decade of debating “proper” foot strike –– heel versus forefoot –– recent research has concluded what early commentators seemed to instinctively understand, that form is unique to the individual runner and that one’s natural and most efficient running style is the one that feels the most comfortable. In fact, recent research indicates that thinking too much about running form can make you less efficient.

How did “how to run” become such a contentious issue? Form or running style becoming so divisive can be attributed to the publishing success just over a decade ago of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, which launched the barefoot running movement. Although there was some selective reading taking place, what many got out of McDougall’s wildly popular book was the idea that we had all been running incorrectly. Traditional cushioned running shoes allowed us to strike the ground with our heels, which actually contributed to running injuries, particularly to the knee. McDougall’s story revealed that running shoes did little to prevent injuries and runners were better off dispensing with shoes altogether like the Tarahumara people, who wore minimal sandals as they covered long distances and made running their way of life. The Tarahumara seldom experienced running injuries. McDougall’s engaging writing style and the way that his book was marketed revealed that he had discovered a big secret that would explain why people found running difficult and why people got injured: Thickly cushioned running shoes that allowed runners to heel strike were the culprit and the solution was, therefore, easy: get rid of your shoes, or, at least wear a minimal shoe.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people failed to consider the additional reasons why McDougall’s Tarahumara people seldom got injured: They had run since childhood, ate a diet completely free of processed foods, and had probably never been forced to sit at a desk. Instead, looking for a singular reason for their running success, everyone seized on the Tarahumara’s minimal footwear. McDougall’s masterful storytelling ability, combined with his desire to present an easily understood, singular cause explaining running injuries, made his readers believe that he had discovered the truth with a capital “T.” It was the shoes! Something easily understood and easily addressed by buying (or not buying) something else.

Why are shoes critical to running form? Not wearing running shoes –– or wearing minimal shoes –– should change the way you run. Heel striking is painful when you are barefoot, so someone would naturally try to run on their forefoot, on the balls of their feet, or even their toes. To do this, you would have to make initial ground contact on the front of the foot, so your stride would necessarily shorten. To maintain your speed while running on your forefoot, you would probably have to increase your cadence or steps per minute. This would, in turn, have the effect of making you stand a bit straighter, keeping your legs under you rather than reaching out. A change in gear –– getting rid of overly cushioned shoes –– would make someone a more efficient and comfortable runner by completely changing their form.

McDougall’s book promised to revolutionize running by causing runners to increase their cadence and reduce excess forces by spending less time in the air. Running injuries would become a thing of the past. Well, it’s time to take a look at what runners are wearing on their feet in 2020. Why are so many people running in what can only be described as maximally-cushioned running shoes? If McDougall’s book encouraged everyone to ditch their running shoes, why has the pendulum swung back? What’s going on?

 

                   HOKA Bondi 6                                                 Altra Escalante 2.0

                    Cushioned                                 or                         Minimal

It doesn’t matter. Choose what you find most comfortable, keep your cadence high, and step lightly.

People may have switched shoes, but they didn’t make corresponding adjustments to their form. Runners who were heel-strikers often continued to land on their heels. Everyone assumed that running in less shoe would naturally, and even automatically, change a runner’s form because they would find heel-striking painful. They would, therefore, naturally transition to a forefoot strike, which would, in turn, shorten their stride length and increase their cadence. For some people, this happened. Others, however, continued to heel strike and became injured. Does this mean that there isn’t an universal running form for everyone? Perhaps there is, but it turns out that it is probably very specific to the individual.

Recent studies appear to confirm the latest research indicating that form is unique to the specific runner. A December 2019 article in Science News examined research done at La Trobe University that looked at 53 studies about how changing the impact of forefoot, rearfoot, and flatfoot strike affected injury patterns among runners. The senior author of the study, Dr. Barton, concluded that telling a runner to change from a heel strike to a forefoot strike could actually make them less efficient, thus supporting the idea that the body naturally slots into the most efficient running form. This was further confirmed in Alex Hutchinson’s recent article in Outside Magazine, “Don’t Think Too Hard About Your Running Form,” which explained that being on “autopilot” might be the key since one study had indicated that focusing on form actually used 2.6 percent more oxygen. Barton’s work recognized the specificity of form to the individual when he correctly pointed out that changing foot strike merely shifted the body’s loads, it didn’t make them disappear. There was not, in fact, an ideal way to run as McDougall would have us believe.

According to Barton, “Running toe-heel might help injuries at the knee, where loads are reduced. However, it may cause injuries to the feet and ankle, were loads are increased.” Furthermore, runners who forefoot or toe strike generally put more stress on their Achilles tendons. This was my experience. When I decided to give minimal shoes a try –– yes, I read Born to Run–– and started running on my forefeet, my stride length got shorter and my cadence increased. The transition, however, was not without problems. My calf muscles rebelled and my Achilles tendons became very sore. The lesson here: any adjustment to your form needs to be done gradually, otherwise the potential for injury increases. After the pain and soreness dissipated, however, I did notice that my running felt more natural –– heel striking now feels very awkward –– and the knee pain that I commonly experienced went completely away. There were costs: If I ramp up mileage too quickly or do some other ill-advised training faux pas, I will feel it in a lower leg or foot issue. I have had brief bouts dealing with posterior tibial tendonitis and insertional Achilles tendonitis –– both afflictions I had never experienced as a heel-striker. The question remains, what do all of these form considerations ultimately amount to?

Evidently, there is no singular “best” form for every runner. Each runner’s body is unique and moves in its own specific way. Therefore, it makes sense to run how you feel comfortable. If that means striking heel first or on the balls of your feet, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what makes you feel comfortable while running. There are, however, some general guidelines that you can use to avoid excessive force and inefficiencies. A higher cadence or turnover appears to be a central attribute of efficient running. This was confirmed by legendary coach Jack Daniels when he counted the stride rates of elite athletes at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It turns out that almost to an athlete, cadence (steps per minute) was 180, regardless of the speed that the runner was going. This is one piece of information that every runner needs to hear: cadence is key.

What does a quick cadence do and why is it crucial to running form? For most runners, a quick cadence means less time airborne, which means less impact. Impact is bad. Comfortable, efficient running form will minimize impact and reduce shock. The underlying assumption, which actually plays out and is confirmed in some of the latest research, maintains that the body will naturally move towards a running style or running form that limits impact. Your body inherently knows that it must limit force or it will hurt too much and break. Does this mean that we can just run and let form concerns take care of themselves? Again, this is a “yes and no” situation. For some runners, taking short, quick steps can feel kind of weird. If you are bounding along, however, you might be exerting too much force and will be more liable to injury. Therefore, you do have to think a bit about reducing your stride length and increasing cadence. You will have to think about those eggshells. Short, quick, and light: this should be your mantra.

Most GPS watches now have accelerometers that will calculate cadence for you –– no reason to count your steps. You’ll probably notice that quicker turnover will require shorter steps; which, in turn, prevents you from spending too much time in the air, thus reducing impact forces. Finally, think light, you’re running on eggshells. There is also the idea that your body will find its natural running form with the more miles that you cover. If you have just started running at the beginning of the pandemic and your running feels awkward, reassure yourself that as you run more, your body will adapt to the form that is ideal for you.

Interestingly, the advice of two legends associated with the original running boom of the 1970s still holds sway despite the intervening years of research. Jim Fixx, in his bestseller, The Complete Book of Running, which became the bible of the original running boom, urged beginners to adopt a light, natural step, while Bill Rodgers, perhaps the most popular distance runner of the first running boom, urged new runners to keep it simple. This is good advice to keep in mind. Although there has been a lot written about ideal running form, it is important not to think about it too much: Keep it simple, keep it light, and make sure to keep it fun.

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