Run Your Best
Have you met Dr. Jane Weber? A chiropractor and 12 time marathoner we are lucky to have here at ONE80 Health!
So, its race season... where do you start? We've got you covered. We've outlined the basics to get you running at your best.
Part 1: The Basics
Minimalist running is based on a very simple philosophy: Let your feet do the work. Ultimately, it comes down to the idea that natural running, which is running as close to barefoot as possible is the ideal way to run. After all, humans were running way before shoes were invented so why mess with a good thing? If you distill this down to its very basic level, the minimalist running argument comes down to two main topics: feet and shoes.
In fact, up until the early 70’s, most running could probably be labeled as minimalist running, only back then it was simply called running. Up to that point, running shoes had simple fabric or leather uppers and relatively flat rubber soles for some cushioning and protection. It was at some point in the 1970’s where the running “sneaker” started evolving in design to what we see today. This will be covered in depth in Part 4: Shoes.
For about 30 years, the norm for purchasing running shoes depended on your foot type; according to the manufacturers at least. In the last two years however, with the release of Born to Run where the author talks about the Tarahumara as well as the proliferation of blogs, interest in minimalist running have attracted increasing numbers among the general public.
With the promise (or is it premise) of reduced foot, ankle, knee, leg and hip pain among other efficiencies gained, Joe Public and the shoe companies have taken notice. Brooks has "PureProject", Nike has the "Free" line, and other manufacturers such as Merrell, Altra, and Vibram have risen out of the pile to deliver shoes that have minimalist runners smacking their lips in joy and anticipation.
Part 2: Our Feet
Our feet are wonderfully complex in structure yet simple in their role. Their main function is to keep us upright and mobile when we want and need it to. In order to do so, all of its parts (26 bones, 33 joints, and a whole lot of muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels) need to work in concert with each other to ensure that we’re able to walk, run, sprint, jump, dance, dodge, etc. without falling over.
The central focus for minimalist vs maximalist running is foot movement, landing, and shock absorption/dispersal.
Anatomy and Biomechanics
Anatomically, the hind foot (or rear foot) is composed of the talus (ankle) and calcaneus (heel). The mid-foot is made up of the cuboid, navicular, and three cuneiform bones, which make up the arches. Lastly, the forefoot has the phalanges (toes) and the corresponding long bones (metatarsals).
Biomechanically, the foot can either pronate (rolling inward) or supinate (rolling outward). This is a bit different from the four basic ankle movements of dorsiflexion (pointing foot up), plantar flexion (foot down), eversion (rolling ankle outward), and inversion (rolling ankle inward)--typically most ankle sprains are inversion injuries).
Pronation is normal and necessary for our feet to be able to keep us upright. On heel strike, some stretching happens on the muscles, ligaments, and tendons as well as flattening of the arches as your feet roll inwards. This is a good thing because pronation disperses impact and spreads it across our feet and up along the rest of the lower extremities.
However, over-pronation can be a bad thing, maybe. Just like everything else that goes on in our bodies, anything that stretches or taxes our various systems to their limits can potentially lead to sickness or injuries. For people with flat feet, over-pronation may cause bunions, foot, joint, and knee pain of all kinds, and general instability.
And it’s this argument that footwear manufacturers use to justify the need for corrective or supportive shoes and inserts. Their main point is that we need to wear a specific type of shoe to control these “abnormalities” of movement so as to prevent injuries that are associated with them. Minimalists, on the other hand, contend that our feet are amazingly adaptable and we don’t need a ton of technology to control what they are trying to do naturally.
Before we proceed and argue about who is right or wrong, let’s first move on to Running Form, which I feel also plays an important role in the minimalist vs maximalist argument.
Part 3a - Running Form
Just when you thought running was simply putting one foot in front of the other and going as fast or as long as you can, here comes a whole set of "guidelines" on what constitutes proper running form. When it comes down to it, we think the discussion on running form takes place in two parts: foot strike and the rest of the body.
Let's tackle the easier one first. They say that to run efficiently, one must:
- Be upright but leaning ever so slightly forward from the ankle. Align the neck, back, hips and knees forming a straight line to the heel
- Arms swinging comfortably by your side with elbows at a 90-degree angle (or close to it). To great or too little of an angle will cause you to slow down and fatigue quicker
- Let your gaze guide your neck and head - looking straight ahead will naturally put your head in the correct position. Avoid looking down especially during the later stages of your run when form typically breaks down
- Relax your shoulders. Too much tension (like pulling them up towards the ears) stresses the entire body thereby decreasing your running efficiency
- Hips sit straight and pointing forward. If your back is aligned properly, your hips will follow
- Try to land your feet slightly in front of you. Over-striding will often lead to injury
- Shorten your stride when going up or downhill. This reduces impact to your joints and also prevents a number of injuries especially around the hamstrings
- Elite runners have a typical turnover rate of 90 cycles or 180 steps per minute (it's the stride length that varies and not the stride rate between runners)
Having said all of that, the above doesn't apply to everybody as we can see in the videos below. Ryan Hall, for example, is known for his excellent running form. If you watch him run, you can pretty much put check marks on each of the above bullet points as you observe his every stride.
On the other hand, Paula Radcliffe who is one of the very best female runners of all time has less than ideal form as seen below. Her arms swing across her body and her head bobs every which way.
Part 3b - Foot Strike
Ah the foot strike, perhaps the next most debatable issue in running after shoes. In the running world, there are three very general categories of foot strikers: Heel or rear foot strikers (RFS), mid-foot strikers (MFS), and forefoot strikers (FFS). These can be subdivided further but really, if you are a runner, you belong under one of these categories. In comparison walkers are almost always heel-strikers.
I don't have the first clue on what the accurate stats are for each of these because I've seen publications and authors claim numbers as high as 70% to as low as 30% of the population as heel-strikers.
As the names suggest, RFS is when you land on your heel, transition to mid-support, and then to toe-off. MFS is landing on your mid-foot then transitioning to toe-off. Lastly, FFS runners land on the balls of their feet then quickly transition to toe-off.
A large amount of Daniel Lieberman's excellent research on Biomechanics of the Foot Strike centres around the foot-strike patterns of shod and barefoot runners. It was observed, for example, that Kenyan adolescents who ran barefoot all throughout their lives are typically MFS or FFS while runners who have been wearing shoes all their lives are more likely RFS.
Another aspect of his study is around the impact that each type of foot strike generates on the body. From the images below (also taken from http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/index.html), we can see where and how the impact is felt for each step that we take when running.
It's this type of measured results that has created controversy and debate among minimalists and maximalists.
Most large shoe companies and maximalists like Sally Edwards (triathlon hall of fame, winner of several 100-mile ultra races) believe that putting a thick pad under your heel will help cushion your feet from that initial impact transient. This paved the way for most of the shoes sold in stores. From there, the modern shoe evolved and later became equipped with technology to prevent over-pronation, aid in transition, or even help push off. Claims were made that the modern shoe can help prevent injury to runners despite a general lack of concrete evidence since the first modern shoe was manufactured in the 70's.
Minimalists, on the other hand, feel that the modern shoe actually encourages bad form and running by encouraging heel-striking. If runners simply learn to run with an efficient mid or forefoot strike then there is no need for thick cushioning due to an absence of the impact transient and the foot's natural ability to disperse impact forces efficiently.
Here's a breakdown on how the various foot strike types affect the following conditions:
In general, the faster you run, the more you favour FFS. Watch Usain Bolt or Tyson Gay run and you will see that they exclusively use their toes. Or take a middle distance racer like Zola Budd (who incidentally set the 2000m world record running barefoot) and watch her as she runs mid-foot all through her race.
The principle here is simple: the less time that your feet stay in contact with the ground, the faster you will run. Of course this depends on a lot of other factors such as stride rate and running form. Also, in longer distances, the physics change slightly so the effects of foot-strike patterns on speed and efficiency are further blurred.
This is a tough one although it has been measured that RFS runners spend more time in contact with the ground than MDS or FFS runners assuming all things equal (such as stride rate). From a purely Ground Contact Time standpoint, it would seem that MDS or FFS runners are more efficiently than RFS runners.
There has been NO clear-cut evidence that injuries occur more commonly among any of the foot-strike patterns. There 's also a lack of evidence that heavily-cushioned shoes have decreased the incidence of injuries in runners.
What does this all mean?
Does this mean that switching to a MDS will make you a better runner? Not necessarily. If you have been running injury-free and are satisfied with your stride and performance then there really is no reason to switch. If you're looking to try something new for whatever reason then it's worthwhile to try out MFS. Just make sure you transition very slowly. Changing something your body is used to will always introduce stress. Your body is very capable of handling stress but too much stress in too short a period of time will almost always cause damage.
Part 4 - The Shoes
Between Zoom Air, torsion, rock plates, traction, and all that wonderful technology built into shoes, how can one resist? We started reading Pete Larson's blog (www.runblogger.com) and the rest, as they, is history. Minimal shoes are just that; clean, simple, light, and more importantly, promotes a more natural running form.
From the various blogs we've been reading, there really aren't specific definitions or criteria used to classify shoes as minimal or otherwise.
Generally agreed conditions are:
- Must be fairly light (under 10 oz but most fall under 8 oz)
- Must have a low heel drop (less than 7mm; less than 9mm can be classified as transition shoes)
- Must have minimal cushioning
- Roomy toe box to let toes flare on pronation
- Simplistic upper
- Absence of motion-control technologies like dense midposts, arch bridges, crash pads, etc
What we need to keep in mind is that up to this day, there is NO evidence that injury rates have increased or decreased since the modern running shoe was introduced. There is also insufficient data as to the injury rates of minimalists or barefoot runners.
There is only speculation and anecdotal evidence on injury rates for any type of shoes. A large reason for this really comes down to a genuine lack of proper research and/or valid data (this is a whole other discussion for another day but let's just say that almost any research study no matter how well designed can be picked apart by opposing parties to justify their own viewpoints).
So which shoes to wear? We encourage you to try it out. If you've never tried on minimal shoes, maybe go with some not as drastic as the Vibrams. There are a few out there that are excellent transitional shoes (like the Musha) or a beefier minimal shoe like the Saucony Kinvara.
Do be careful when transitioning to minimal shoes. Too much too soon can lead to all sorts of problems. Try running in them for less than a half-mile to start especially if you're used to running in clunky shoes. Give your lower extremities some time to adjust and then progress to longer runs if you're pain-free.