You know how to run, don’t you Steve? Just put one foot in front of the other and . . . go. Not from “To Have and Have Not

It’s dawned on me why I had such a visceral reaction to the recent RunnersRoundTable infomercial (which is what it turned into) on barefoot running. I was being told that I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve been at this for a goodly number of years and have encountered my share of injuries, some lasting for extended periods (and about which I’ve written). I’ve had some moderate success at what I do and relish the perhaps too frequent – too frequent because I am sometimes led to go faster than I should – sense of being an efficient machine, lightly touching the ground with each stride.

So I resent some slow guy telling me that I don’t know what I’m doing.

RunnersRoundTable Infomercial: Barefoot Running

Last Friday, there was a discussion on the RunnersRoundTable about barefoot running, although it turned into an infomercial for the subject. The guests were Chris McDougall, author of “Born to Run,” and John Woodward, a Brit who believes we all need to be taught how to run.

Coincidentally I bought a copy of “The Runner’s Body” by Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas of one of my favorite sites, Science of Sport, and Matt Fitzgerald. Much of what I posted on footstrike comes from Science of Sport, and it turns out that there is a fair amount of discussion in the book about the “barefoot movement.”

A Variety of Styles; 2005 WC 10000

A Variety of Styles; 2005 WC 10000

As noted in my review of “Born to Run,” there is good evidence that ancient humans hunted by running after their prey. Although they were not faster, they could run far longer because the prey would succumb to heat exhaustion. It follows that evolution favored barefoot running and barefoot running favors running on the forefoot. This bit of evidence has been pointed to as proof that running on the forefoot is the optimal way to run. The presence of shoes allowed people to get away from the natural way of running, and this has led to the plethora of injuries to which runners are heir.

So in the RRT episode, McDougall says everyone should fly over to the UK and take a lesson with (from) Woodward on the correct way to run. I have difficulty with this. Perhaps it’s because I don’t run on my forefoot, as I’ve chronicled, and know of very few faster runners who do. (The first one I noticed was the woman who won the NYRR Club Championship five-miler.)

Why do we need to be taught the correct way to run? In the episode, Woodward asserts that one doesn’t simply play tennis without lessons so why would running be any different.

“The Runner’s Body” takes up the discussion. We don’t need instructions on how to walk or on how to ride a bike. We take to them naturally. Hitting a topspin or a driver are inherently sport-specific/unnatural. And yet there is such a variety in running forms. I mentioned this as well in the heelstriking post, and that was just considering elites.

The question was posted on the RRT (it was from me) about why elites do not run barefoot, and the answer after some statements that Kenyans don’t wear shoes until they’re 17 or so (that was from Woodward) was that if you have good form you can wear whatever you want to wear (that was from McDougall). I thought this question important because presumably those aspiring to join the top ranks of runners will do whatever is optimal. If running barefoot were optimal, they would do it. (OK, you won’t get a lucrative Nike contract that way, but presumably the second-tier East Africans would be showing up and putting the shod runners to shame.) And, of course, lots of elites – Radcliffe, Hall, Goucher – probably did not go shoeless until they were 17.

“The Runner’s Body” notes the Japanese study and qualifies it somewhat by saying that in the end there are blurry lines among the three categories of heel-, midfoot-, and forefoot-striking and that many of the “heelstrikers” are closer to the mid-foot. So it is clear to me that barefoot-running is not the way to be fast. And being fast is not what our ancestors who chased down their dinners had to be. They had to be able to run for long distances. Like ultra-runners. But given the whole foot-strike analysis, it seems that to run fast forefoot landing is not the way to go.

But to the more general point about converting, like Paul on the way to Damascus, to the forefoot method, as I put it in a comment on the RunnersRoundTable site, I would be wary about simply jumping onto the barefoot bandwagon. McDougall says that there can be no middle-ground. One must ditch the shoes and not attempt to transition by moving to shoes with less and less support/cushioning. (Ironically, both McDougall and Woodward consider Newtons a bit of a scam because they don’t see why someone should pay lots of money to do what can be done for free. I say this is ironic because Newton’s pitch is that forefoot running is best and that it’s the shoe to do it for you and I’ve seen Newton advocates extol “Born to Run” as holy writ.)

“The Runner’s Body” analyzes some of these issues, noting that there is a deep difference between old-schoolers (such as me) and new-schoolers. I recommend the book and the discussion – it’s chapter 12 – and not surprisingly agree with its observation that

There cannot be a “one size fits all” technique. Rather, each individual has an optimal technique that is as unique to him or her as a fingerprint. This unique quality is clear when you watch any world-class marathon race. You can compare the smooth natural style of Martin Lel to the compact elasticity of Haile Gebreselassie and contrast this with the stocky, punchy style of Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru and the seemingly tense and wasteful head movements and high arm carry of Paula Radcliffe. It’s difficult to suggest that any of these world-class runners should change his or her technique to run faster – there is a good chance it would do more harm than good.

(at 199) And I agree with their conclusion that “running is an activity that is:”

  • First, learned naturally, then . . .
  • Refined through practice, and then . . .
  • Can be subtly changed through instruction on a case-by-case basis.

Finally,

There almost certainly is a better way to run, but there certainly is not only one correct way to run. So don’t place yourself in the same box that the most dogmatic technique advocates do. Work with what you have, make intelligent choices, be patient, and seek to constantly improve but never radically redefine your running. And remember to relax!

(at 215)

For his part, McDougall says that he was told not to run again but then went minimalist and ultimately barefoot and has not had injury issues since. I know of others who have made that switch after having major injury issues, such as SteveRunner in the RunnersRoundTable episode. These are big and not particularly fast guys. Steve admits that he beat the hell out of the heels of his shoes. I think the braking phenomenon and resulting knee strain from landing on the heel with a straight-leg – an landing that Woodward cites as the reason heel-striking is bad. That type of strike is jarring and asking for trouble and I think one should do one’s best to move the strike more in line with the center of movement, and elite heel-strikers surely do that. But that type of technique problem can be remedied short of throwing-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater and going to the other extreme, i.e., forefoot-striking. (In “The Runner’s Body,” Tucker and Dugas are against making such a change – “heel striking is probably best for most runners who land this way naturally” – but acknowledge that co-author Matt Fitzgerald “favors the new-school view that most heel-strikers can and should train themselves to at least become less-pronounced hell-strikers, if not midfoot-strikers.” (at 209.) It would seem to me that if one is not suffering injury, the stride should be left alone, but the cases I mention involve what appear to be chronic problems and thus modification seems justified.

And here’s a photo of a former Warren Street runner:

Khalid Khannouchi in London

Khalid Khannouchi in London

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