Ultramarathons. What , why and how are the questions I'm most commonly asked. Hopefully you find some answers here from my own personal perspective. My other blog at www.mile27.com.au/blog is full of information on running and health and fitness in general.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Running heel to toe in supportive cushioned shoes. Have we got it all wrong?

Here’s a few controversial ideas to get you thinking. Some of these I have been pondering over for a while and some are derived from Christopher McDougalls fascinating new book “Born to Run”.

Why are we told to run heel toe when all the fast runners over any distance land on their toes?

Why do we constantly suffer from foot and knee injuries even though running shoe technology has improved exponentially over the last few decades?
Why has a large study shown that people with more expensive running shoes suffer from more injuries?

Why do we accept our feet for the way they are and give no thought to training them when any other part of the body we look at ways of strengthening and stretching to improve performance?

Running Heel toe

Every podiatrist and physio I have every seen has despaired at my habit of landing on my toes when I run. “You should land on your heel first and rock forward onto your toes..”. I was never really explained why I should do this except that the reason my calves were so tight is that I always land on my toes.

I have always ignored the advice as I felt running on my toes was a more efficient and faster way to run. When I moved into ultra-marathons I was told I couldn’t possibly run that far on my toes but once again I ignored them and kept landing on my toes and managed to do this for up to 100miles.

As a spectator at several half marathons and 20 mile races I took a keen interest in the running styles of the various athletes. What I noticed was all the faster runners ran by landing on their forefoot and all the slower runners landed on their heels.

So why are we being told to run heel toe if all the faster runners are landing on their toes? Are the faster runners simply blessed with good genetics and are therefore able to run on their toes and everybody else less fortunate has to be content with landing on their heels.

How were we designed to run in the first place? Back before running shoes even existed, how did we evolve to be able to run and what did our running style look like. For a fascinating insight into the evolution of early mankind and the ability to run, read “Born to Run” As far as how the human body is mechanically designed to run all it takes is a simple understanding of basic anatomy and it becomes obvious.
Let’s look at the two different running styles and see which one makes more sense in terms of anatomy. If we land on our forefoot, because we actually land on the outside of the forefoot our foot rolls in (or pronates) once we land. This movement allows us to absorb the shock of slamming our foot down into the ground. Once our foot has rolled in our body moves forward over our foot and our foot starts to roll back out or supinate. It eventually locks and gives a stable platform for the Achilles tendon to help propel us forward.

If we land on our heel, all the shock of landing is transmitted up through our shin bone to our knee and then up through our thigh bone up to our hips and lower back. To reduce this shock or trauma caused by landing on our heel cushioned running shoes become essential. The reason running shoes are designed the way they are is that in the early 70’s it was thought you could run faster if you increased your stride length so that you landed on your heel instead of landing on your forefoot. Because your heel doesn’t provide any shock absorption a shoe had to be designed had shock absorption built in. So basically the running shoe is designed to change the way humans have run for thousands of years.

Now it is obvious that the human body didn’t evolve with the thought that it could land on it’s heel since in 60,000 years time mankind would invent cushioned running shoes!

What about my problem of tight calves caused by landing on my toes? Well the interesting thing is if I didn’t wear running shoes I wouldn’t have that problem. When I land (or any person who lands on their forefoot) my heel does travel down towards the ground but it is stopped by my running shoe. This effectively limits the range my calf goes through therefore causing my calves muscles to tighten up. The same thing happens to women (or men for that matter) who wear high heels. Because the calf never gets fully stretched it tightens up. This was made extremely evident in my first Ultramarathon. I wore a pair of shoes that I hadn’t worn in properly and unbeknown to me the heel on them was slightly lower than my normal shoes. Because of this my heel travelled a few mm lower to the ground with every stride. After 40 miles my calves were screaming at me and after 90 miles I was barely able to walk. The extra stretch placed on them was more than they could handle. So if I had run all the thousands of miles over the last twenty years with shoes that had a lower heel my calves wouldn’t be as tight. Running on my toes hasn’t made me a less efficient, more injury prone runner, it’s made me a faster runner. It’s made my calves tighter only because I’ve run in highly supportive running shoes which if you keep reading will discover they may not be the best thing for your feet.

So dispense any notion of running heel toe as being a faster, more effective and less injury prone technique of running.

The easiest way of retraining yourself to run more effectively is run barefoot. Try running 100yards barefoot and see how long you manage running heel toe before you automatically start landing more on your toes.

Are running shoes any good?
A large study of over 4000 runners competing in the 9.6 mile race showed that those with more expensive running shoes were twice as likely to suffer from an injury in teh previuos year as those with cheap shoes. How on earth can this be possible? Running shoes have been around since the early 70’s, surely by now running shoes should be able to prevent running injures and the more expensive the shoe surely the better the protection against injuries. Sadly this is not the case.

The human body is very good at conserving energy. If something else is providing the support it normally provides then it may as well stop providing that support. If for example a muscle needs to exert 10 units of pressure to stabilise a joint, if you place a support in the form of a bandage or strap that supplies 8 units of pressure then the muscles will relax and decrease the pressure they supply to 2 units of pressure. If you continue to do this the muscle gets used to only providing 2 units of pressure and as a consequence become weaker.

This is what running shoes do to your feet, because they provide the foot with a lot of support the actual muscles and ligaments in the foot don’t need provide much support at all so they become progressively weaker. The more expensive the shoe the more support the shoe provides and the less work the foot has to do. You might think that it doesn’t matter as long as your shoes provide enough support. Unfortunately it is not as simple as that. What happens in the foot paves the way for what happens in the rest of the body. For example as the foot pronates it causes the lower leg to rotate in which causes the upper thigh to rotate in which switches on the gluteus(bum) muscles to control that movement. So without that foot pronation the gluteus muscles won’t activate properly which can overload the knee, ITB, lower back, hips or shins not to mention decrease the forward propulsive force the gluteal muscles can generate.

Surely I’m not suggesting we throw away our running shoes and run barefoot?
Not quite! Running barefoot is impractical in a lot of conditions, shoes protect our feet from the cold, the heat, glass, thorns and we didn’t evolve to run on concrete or bitumen. Having said that I think running barefoot or nearly barefoot can form an important part of your running routine. By nearly barefoot I mean wearing shoes that allow the foot almost as much freedom of movement that barefoot does. There are two types of shoes on the market that I know of that provide this. Nike make a shoe called the Nike Free which looks like a normal shoe but is designed to allow the foot as much movement as possible. The strangely named fivefinger shoes by Vibram are basically a rubber glove for your feet, they look a bit strange but are basically like having thick rubber skin on your feet. As a third more practical but not quite as good option is wearing old trainers.

Now don’t ditch your new running shoes just yet. If you go straight from highly supportive running shoes to barefoot straight away you are asking for trouble. You need to give your foot muscles a chance to strengthen up so my suggestion is to try is running twice a week for initially only 10-15 minutes barefoot or nearly barefoot and gradually build that time up until you can handle 45 minutes or so with no problems. Once you reach this level add some speed training to your barefoot running and then add some uphill and downhill running.

Will exercises for the foot make any difference at all?

I used to think they wouldn’t. As we spend so long on our feet I thought that 10 minutes of foot exercises per day is not going to be able to undo the hours of standing walking and running with poor foot biomechanics. However my thoughts have now changed for a number of reasons.

The exercises I have been shown for the feet always seemed a bit of a waste of time. They didn’t really seem to be relevant to what the foot actually does when you run. You had to concentrate on doing it correctly and when you run there is obviously no time to think about making the foot do something specific. We can’t consciously control what our feet do when we run.

Fortunately there is a new method of training the feet that works on training the feet subconsciously. It makes the foot do what it should do without you having to think about it. Combining these types of exercises with barefoot running I believe will be the next big breakthrough in reducing injuries in runners and improving running performance.

What are these exercises? Well unfortunately, every foot is different and the exercises that make one foot better could make another foot worse so if your currently living in London you can contact me and I can assess your feet and your running style and prescribe a series of exercises for you.

If not you need to find someone who specialises in Functional Movement Training preferably trained in the Gary Gray methodology. Gary is the world recognised leading expert in the field of Functional Training.

What running shoes should you wear?

No need to throw away your expensive pair and buy a really cheap pair just yet. Your feet will need time to strengthen so add some barefoot running to your program and start changing your shoes less frequently. Depending on how much barefoot running and exercises you do and how often you run you should eventually be able to start buying cheaper less supportive and lighter footwear.


Tim said...

Hi Andy, like you, I found Chris McDougall's book very thought provoking. In fact I've been doing most of my running barefoot these last three weeks.

Interestingly, apart from the first week, I've not noted a problem with my calves or achilles. It seems that by shortening my stride I'm not stressing these parts as much as you might expect.

Probably doing too much too soon but it's been interesting. All my BF running has been on roads or pavements which forces you to change to ball/heel instead of heel/ball very quickly, much more so that if you run BF on soft surfaces.

I'd be interested to hear more about your feet exercises but alas I live a long way from London.

Great post!



Vincent said...

Andy mate,

you gotta write a book.

Scarlet Clover said...

Andy, you have done a fantastic job here! Thanks for the info. Looking forward to getting out and working on improving my form.