It has been five years since the book Born to Run was released and sent a tidal wave through the running industry. While it is a great book with fascinating characters and engaging stories, it’s probably best know as the barefoot running book. Or the book that launched the minimalist movement into the limelight.
While minimalism has slowed down as of late, it is still a greatly discussed topic. The idea is that modern running shoes caused runners to be injured because there was too much too them. Minimalism is the backlash. It is being used as a method to assist runners to correct their form by fixing their stride.
This fix can really be seen as a couple of concepts rolled into one. The idea is that the majority of runners contact the ground first with their heel when they plant their foot. This is commonly known as heel-striking and is often seen with runners who over-stride.
Over striding is when the foot lands in front of the knee when contacting the ground. This causes a braking motion and increases impact that reverberates through the leg and higher.
This impact causes a slowing in pace and may lead to injuries like shin splints and Patellofemoral Syndrome aka. Runner’s Knee. The theory is that if runners land on the mid to fore front of their feet, they will not suffer as much as the foot and ankle is designed to dissipate the impact naturally. This is anecdotally born out when watching children run, especially barefoot.
The second part of the equation is cadence. Jack Daniels, the famous coach, noted in the eighties that elite runners were averaging a cadence of 180 steps per minute or higher. The higher the cadence, the more likely a runner is not over-striding.
So, the answer is to increase your cadence and land on your mid to forefoot, right? Well, maybe not. The first issue is “heel-striking.” Heel-striking has been demonized more than any part of running I can think of, but perhaps it’s not always bad. Pete Larson of runblogger.com covers this in multiple articles including Is Heel Striking Evil?: More Evidence that All Heel Strikes Are Not Equal and Effects of Running Speed on Foot Strike Patterns and Identification of Multiple Heel Strike Types. In these pieces, he demonstrates that there are multiple types of heel strikers, and it is not always a good thing. He has shot a great deal of high-speed video during races to capture different foot plants and their effects.
How about cadence? We must be at 180 steps per minute, right? Well, again, maybe not. There is research exploring the fact that it may depend on the actual speed that individuals are running. Since most elite runners are running an extremely fast pace in the upper 4 to lower 5 minute range in a marathon, it stands to reason that they would be likely at or above a cadence of 180. But what about the rest of us mortals? Is it possible that we are running a slower cadence because we are at a slower pace? Maybe. Alex Hutchinson of the blog Sweat Science in Runner’s World writes about the subject in The problem with 180 strides per minute: some personal data. And for another source, how about Pete Larson again with the article Running Speed: Human Variability and The Importance of Both Cadence and Stride Length. Pete and Alex are both incredible sources of information for the science of running. Definitely visit their sites and check out their books.
So the goal is to work on getting your form corrected enough to have your feet land as close to under your center mass as possible. Jeff Gaudette at Runner’s Connect has a good article that explains this – 4 Simple Steps to Improve Your Cadence to Prevent Overstriding : Runners Connect.
The problem comes in when you change too much too quickly. It is likely that you didn’t work up to your current fitness level overnight. You have been conditioning your body over a long period of time to withstand the stress you are placing on it. Imagine if you told someone to get off of the couch and run 20+ miles next week and they have never run before? That would be irresponsible. They need to build up gradually. If you go full out and change your form radically, you are asking to get some new injuries. First, it is very likely that you will suffer calf pain if you are shifting to the front of your foot. You are also at high risk for Plantar Fasciitis and Peronial tendonitis.
The first of these, Plantar Fasciitis is an absolute nightmare. You will know you have it if you have a pain under your foot anywhere from the heel forward along the arch. This will likely be worse when you wake up. This is because your fascia starts to contract and heal overnight only to be re-injured in the morning when it is stretched out again. The condition can persist for months because the fascia on the bottom of the foot has very poor circulation and thus doesn’t get the blood flow needed to heal. Often, the best approach is to strengthen the affected area as it is out of balance with other parts of your feet and weaker.
For those who are experiencing Plantar Fasciitis, this Elgin Archxerciser device has been very helpful for both my wife and myself.
She actually made fun of me for purchasing it saying that it was a ridiculous contraption (I’ve been known to fall for “As Seen On TV”), but found herself using it. It really does a good job of strengthening the underside of our feet. and we saw results within days.
One remedy that should be practiced when the Plantar Fasciitis flares up is the water bottle roll. Get a standard 16 oz bottle of water and freeze it. Roll it under the affected foot for about 10-15 minutes daily.
Another great exercise for foot strengthening can also be done without buying anything. That is foot towel crunches as shown in the YouTube video on the right. This involves laying a towel on a non-carpeted floor and scrunching your toes in to pull the towel ends to your foot. A version of this can be done just by scrunching your feet in your shoes throughout the day.
Another beneficial treatment for Plantar Fasciitis is believe it or not, working your calves with a foam roller. It may seem odd that that would help an injury under your foot, but remember it is all connected as part of your kinetic chain.
The bottom line to running and changing your stride is to consider first if you need to at all. And if you do determine that it can be beneficial, do so gradually and don’t change too many things at once. The simple act of just increasing your cadence will have the result of decreasing your stride length and can give you many of the results you may seek.