I wrote this recent post on running form for a good friend and Physical Therapist, Joel Novak. We did somewhat of a question-and-answer discussion, so this post is slightly different. You can follow Joel on Twitter @JoelNovakPT or check out his blog here. Joel’s a great resource for both dealing with and preventing injuries.
Before I begin, let me say I am by no means an expert. The following is simply based on my experience and is therefore my opinion. If you like what I have to say, great. If you disagree or think I’m a fool, I’ll have to live with that! Trust people like Joel and other professionals who day-in and day-out work with clients from all populations and also have an extensive educational background in these fields.
I’ve been exploring the idea of “improving my running form” for slightly over a year now. To give you a little history on my “story,” I began running five years ago when I entered the 2006 Indianapolis Mini Marathon, or simply the “Indy Mini,” the country’s largest half marathon. Prior to this, I was an active individual, played soccer for many years, enjoyed exercising and weight training, but wasn’t a consistent runner. Since that first half marathon, I have completed seven “official” half marathons and two full marathons. My PRs (personal records) occurred this past Spring. I completed the Indy Mini in 1:24:56, finishing 287th overall. I completed the Carmel Marathon in 3:01:26, finishing 9th overall, and also qualifying for the Boston Marathon. I’ve always had a hard time considering myself a “runner” since I never ran competitively. I’ve come to the realization, though, that it’s not about speed, time, competing with others, etc. It’s about taking those first (and not always enjoyable) steps, making the effort, improving your physical fitness and overall quality of life.
After posting a time of 1:27:15 in the 2010 Indy Mini, I began to take myself more seriously as a “runner.” I began to think about form and mechanics much more than I ever had. My old mantra was basically, “Go out and run for as long and as fast as you can!” While this may not be all bad, making adjustments to improve your efficiency as a runner can be helpful as well. I was asking myself questions like, “Is my stride too long? Am I wasting energy in my arm swing? Am I in the right shoes?” This also coincided with the time I began reading Christopher McDougall’s controversial book Born To Run. This book isn’t controversial in the sense that it’s sparked religious or political debates, but it has sparked a lot of conversations and disputes over running form, and whether or not “minimalist running” is the best for all populations. Regardless of your views or opinions on running form, or just running in general, it’s a great book and I highly recommend it. If you’ve read Joel’s previous posts, or any of the countless articles about minimalist running, you have an idea of what it’s all about. Whether you choose to run barefoot, with a pair of Vibram’s Five Fingers, a pair of Nike Free or any other minimalist shoes, it’s a trend sweeping across the running community.
The first attempt at improving my form included incorporating barefoot running into my workouts. I got a lot of odd looks for running while holding a pair of shoes in my hands, but I would do this for no more than 1/4 – 1/2 miles at the end of runs. I also did this on grass, not pavement. I did experience muscle soreness in the lower part of my calves and ankles at first, but nothing severe. I think the smaller, lesser-used muscle fibers in those areas had been caused to work harder than normal, hence the soreness. I also purchased a pair of Nike Free shoes for shorter runs and also to wear when weight training. Just as running barefoot or with minimalist shoes causes you to recruit new or lesser-used muscle fibers, the same can be said for weight training exercises when you’re on your feet. Try it for yourself: do a squat, with just your bodyweight, wearing the shoes you normally wear and then do it barefoot. I think you’ll notice a difference. I will admit that I tried-on a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, but my toes just didn’t jive with the “fingers.” One size was too small, and the other too big, resulting in a very uncomfortable feel. I couldn’t imagine even walking in them, let alone running. The blisters would have been outrageous. A lot of runners and walkers are wearing them, and even some ultra-runners, so I can’t say they’re “bad” shoes. They simply weren’t for me.
The second attempt, which I think had a much better ROI, was attending a “Good Form Running Clinic” at the Runner’s Forum in Carmel, IN. In a nutshell, these clinics focus on four components of running: Posture, Midfoot, Lean, and Cadence. In my opinion, these components are very similar to minimalist or Chi running, if not the same. I can’t say that I walked away from this clinic as the “perfect runner,” but I do feel that my efficiency as a runner improved and I’ve also experienced less injury. One specific area that has improved is the tightness and soreness in my right hamstring. I’m not sure if it stemmed from my soccer-playing days, but my right leg always seemed to dominate my stride, like it was working much harder than my left. Focusing on my steps-per-minute, and trying to stay in the 170-180 range, has helped me bring balance to my stride, focusing on smaller, quicker strides. I do experience soreness from time-to-time, but not near as severe as it used to be. I also switched to Newton Running Shoes. I was skeptical of these at first as I thought they were a part of the “minimalist fad.” After hearing positive, first-hand accounts from my brother-in-law, Jeremy, a personal trainer and excellent du-athlete, as well as his good friend, Mat, who’s a tri-athlete and coach, I thought I’d give them a try. I compared these with other brands of shoes and was fitted for the right pair; I didn’t order them online but purchased them from a specialty running store. One of the most noticeable distinctions about Newtons is the four “lugs” that run under the midfoot. Theses are in place to help you land on your midfoot, and not your heel, and also to help propel you forward with each step. There’s a science and technology behind the design; read-up if you have a few minutes. Just as my brief barefoot runs and workouts in my Nike Free shoes caused soreness in my lower legs, the calves specifically, the Newtons were no different. I took the advice from the runners (employees) at the Runner’s Forum as well as the Newton website and eased my way into the shoe.
As Joel mentioned in his previous post, focusing on and/or changing your running form could be good, or it could be bad. For me, I experienced a positive change. Granted, I did not experience drastic change with a coach watching each of my workouts. I did implement smaller changes, though, in hopes that it would improve my efficiency as well as prevent or decrease the risk of injury. Based on my two previous race times, I think the changes I’ve made as well as the mileage I’ve put-in have improved me as a runner. I could argue that the changes I made in my form allowed me to endure the heavier mileage, and therefore better race times. That’s a hypothesis, though, and I can’t necessarily prove that. If you’re looking to make improvements, I would first encourage you to go to a specialty running store, have them watch or film you run, and then get fitted for proper shoes. Minimalist shoes with next-to-nothing soles may not be great for everyone, and conversely, neither are the latest pair of shoes with 2-inch heel cushioning. Find the right fit for you, recommended by someone who has experience with running, not an uneducated employee (in terms of running) at a general sports outfitting store.
Whatever kind of changes you do (or don’t) implement, I applaud you for getting out there and exercising! Whether it be a slow jog or a tempo run, I’m a big proponent of exercising and living a healthy lifestyle! Good luck as you strive to figure-out what works best for you. Thanks for your time. Happy running!