Running Form 

It is common place for runners and triathletes to expect that their running form will be observed and then critiqued while purchasing their running shoes.  In general this “gait analysis” is performed by someone who is presumably qualified because they run.  In fact it is true that the vast majority of shoe store employees that perform “gait analysis” have little to no training in the field of biomechanics and rarely have even a cursory knowledge of running mechanics, anatomy or physiology.  There is much debate amongst trainers, coaches, biomechanists, physical therapists and shoe designers as to what the proper way to run is.  Why the lack of agreement? After reading this article the reader will gain insight into running gait, its history and evolution as well as commonly held beliefs and “running myths” concerning the different running styles.

Not a day goes by that I do not here a runner claim they overpronate. This is significant to them because the assumption is that overpronation is a negative to running and predisposes them to injury.  Running shoe companies have made billions of dollars selling “motion control shoes” and “stability shoes” convincing the running public that they overpronate and therefore require more stability or face certain injury.  To put it mildly the public has been deceived.  There is no evidence that overpronation directly causes running injury.  In fact, ask most medical professionals to define overpronation and they would be unable to do so.  Newer marketing efforts from the running shoe companies now focus on “less is more” concept. The Vibram Five Fingers shoe allows a runner to run with minimal protection between their feet and the ground thus mimicking barefoot running.

The Nike Free intimates the runner’s foot is now “free” of shoes and this is for some reason preferred.  The popular media is now catching on to the fact that the running public has been mislead for years (http://www.examiner.com/x-560-Running-Examiner~y2009m8d31-Is-running-barefoot-better?cid=email-this-article)! How does this concern running form?  Since you run on your feet it is relevant if your feet underpronate or overpronate, if you are a “toe runner”, heel striker or mid-foot striker and how fast you run.

Some newer shoe companies make such false claims as their shoes will make you faster and that their shoes will prevent injury by making you a mid-foot striker.

Try this simple running form test.  While you are running bring your head out in front of you by just a couple of inches.  This will change your center of gravity and cause you to “fall forward”.  If you do not want to fall you will make sure your feet land in front of you, more on your mid-foot thus propelling you forward more quickly.  Now put on the brakes. Bring you head behind your shoulders by a few inches.  This will quickly result in you slowing down and becoming more of a heel striker.  The point is, simply changing your center of gravity changes how your foot hits the ground.  This in turn will affect the amount you pronate which in turn will affect your knees and hips.  You have just learned the easiest way to change your form.

So why is there so much debate on running form?  There are three possible reasons.  Firstly most research is based on WALKING GAIT and most students who are taught biomechanics are taught WALKING GAIT.  Because of this multitudes of students are educated on walking gait and presume running to be the same as walking only faster.  This could not be further from the truth.

Second is ignorance.  Many runners, coaches and therapists feel that because a certain style worked for them it will work for everyone.  This is also a misconception.  
Thirdly, because a certain form has been noted in some highly skilled runner it becomes accepted that is what made them successful.  Also untrue.  In fact, Hellebrandt, a leading authority in biomechanics, in summarizing the literature dealing with motor learning states “There are many ways in which the same goal can be reached, and man unconsciously picks and chooses among the gamut of those available, easing the burden of fatigue….and thus extending the range and sensitivity of his movement vocabulary.  The physical therapist, shop foreman, physical educator or coach may wish to impose upon the human subject some precise and specific technique of movement, BUT AN INFINTELY WISE HUMAN MACHINE…MAKES ITS OWN AUTONOMOUS ADJUSTMENTS.  INSTEAD OF SUPPRESSING THESE, WE WOULD DO WELL TO STUDY THEM”.

Simply put, the author is suggesting that instead of trying to change our own running form we should examine why we run the way we do.  As will be seen in the upcoming paragraph form is directly related to a runners speed.

In a very unique study investigators documented the actual foot strike patterns during a half marathon in which elite international runners, including Olympians competed.  283 runners were filmed at the 15 km point with the results being;

  • Rearfoot strike: 74.9%
  • Midfoot strike: 23.7%
  • Forefoot strike: 1.4%

Clearly the vast majority of elite runners in this race were heel strikers (74.9%).  However, an interesting observation was noted.  A higher percentage of rearfoot strikers finished with slower running times. Conversely, the percentage of midfoot strikers had faster finishing times. While this is only one study it is unique in that the examiners did exactly what Hellebrandt suggested, “ AN INFINTELY WISE HUMAN MACHINE…MAKES ITS OWN AUTONOMOUS ADJUSTMENTS.  INSTEAD OF SUPPRESSING THESE, WE WOULD DO WELL TO STUDY THEM”.

Running should be fun.  It should not be work.  You should not have to concentrate to run.  Nature tells us that humans will typically pick the path of least resistance in an effort to conserve energy.  This translates to using as little energy as possible to accomplish a given task, in this case running. It is not that you can’t change your form but rather why would you want to.  What is your goal?  Are you trying to become faster?  Prevent injury?  As we can see from the study above the majority of runners are heel strikers but it is not uncommon to be a midfoot striker.  ALL of the runners were elite with some being Olympians.  The tendency towards the midfoot strikers being faster is easy to explain.  As you lean forward and move your center of gravity in front of you your feet and body must follow causing you to increase your speed.  So if you really want to change your running form do it from above down (stick your head forward a couple of inches) and monitor your heart rate.  If your average heart rate is higher when employing your new form but your running time is not decreasing then you are not accomplishing what you set out to do. If your heart rate has increased then you are less efficient and are using more energy.

Research shows that there is a direct relationship between using more energy, fatigue and injury.  Current research DOES NOT SHOW that changing your form will decrease your chance of injury despite the claims made by some running form experts.  So before changing your form ask yourself these questions;

  1. Why am I changing my form?
  2. By changing my form am I trying to prevent injury?
  3. By changing my form am I trying to recover from an injury?
  4. By changing my form am I trying to increase my performance?
Remember, running form is not related to injury risk but running form does have a relationship to speed.  However, if you just run faster your form will change naturally but if you change your form in order to run faster you may now be INCREASING your risk for injury.